“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.” -Nietzsche
1: Thomas Edison was at home one night after another busy day in his laboratory. Suddenly, a man appeared at the door. A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus.
“Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene, but they could not contain the blaze,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
“Fueled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the entire empire Edison had spent his life building,” Ryan writes.
Thomas hurried to the campus. By the time he arrived, a large crowd had gathered.
“Go get your mother and all her friends,” Thomas told his son. “They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
Hold on. What?!
“It’s all right,” Thomas told him. “We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
“What should Edison have done?” Ryan asks. “Wept? Gotten angry? Quit and gone home?
“What, exactly, would that have accomplished?”
“To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks,” Ryan observes. “We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens.”
The next day, talking to a reporter, Thomas said he wasn’t too old to make a fresh start. “I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”
His campus has been destroyed. So Thomas and his team went to work rebuilding it. Within a month of the fire, his team was back “working two shifts a day churning out new products the world had never seen,” Ryan notes. “Despite a loss of almost $1 million (more than $23 million in today’s dollars), Edison would marshal enough energy to make nearly $10 million in revenue that year ($200-plus million today).
“He not only suffered a spectacular disaster, but he recovered and replied to it spectacularly.”
Sometimes bad things happen. Things outside of our control.
We can choose to love it all. The good and the bad.
“It is the act of turning what we must do into what we get to do,” Ryan writes. “This is what I’ve got to do or put up with? Well, I might as well be happy about it.”
2: Once, the great boxer Jack Johnson was fighting Jim Jeffries, “the Great White Hope, called out of retirement like some deranged Cincinnatus to defeat the ascendant black champion,” Ryan writes. “And Johnson, genuinely hated by his opponent and the crowd, still enjoying every minute of it. Smiling, joking, playing the whole fight.
“Why not?” Ryan asks. “There’s no value in any other reaction. Should he hate them for hating him? Bitterness was their burden and Johnson refused to pick it up.”
Jack didn’t just accept their abuse; he based his entire fight strategy around it. After “every nasty remark from Jeffries’s corner, he’d give his opponent another lacing,” Ryan writes. “At every low trick or rush from Jeffries, Johnson would quip and beat it back—but never lose his cool.
“And when one well-placed blow opened a cut on Johnson’s lip, he kept smiling—a gory, bloody, but nevertheless cheerful smile. Every round, he got happier, friendlier, as his opponent grew enraged and tired, eventually losing the will to fight.”
3: In our most difficult moments, we can think back on Jack Johnson. “Always calm, always in control, genuinely loving the opportunity to prove himself,” Ryan notes. “Until the fight ended with Jeffries on the floor and every doubt about Johnson silenced.”
That can be us.
“For we’re in our own fight with our own obstacles, and we can wear them down with our relentless smile (frustrating the people or impediments attempting to frustrate us),” Ryan suggests. “We can be Edison, our factory on fire, not bemoaning our fate but enjoying the spectacular scene. And then starting the recovery effort the very next day—roaring back soon enough.”
We can learn from the Stoic philosophers who believed in “cheerfulness in all situations, especially the bad ones,” Ryan writes.
We begin by learning not to complain. Acceptance is step one. But we don’t stop there. The next level is to love ALL that happens to us.
Our goal is not: “I’m okay with this,” Ryan writes. “But: I feel great about it. Because if it happened, then it was meant to happen, and I am glad that it did. I am meant to make the best of it.”
The seeds of tomorrow’s success are often found in today’s setbacks. We all know this is true. Instead of fighting it, we can choose not only to accept it, but to love it.
Of course, it feels strange to feel gratitude for what we never wanted to happen. But we know that “opportunities and benefits lie within adversities,” Ryan observes. “We know that in overcoming them, we emerge stronger, sharper, empowered.”
“We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good?” Ryan asks.
Reflection: Consider a challenge in my life. How do I feel about it currently? How might I use the Stoic philosophy of cheerfulness in all situations to my benefit?
Action: Journal about it.