“At 150 miles above Earth in a spaceship smaller than a VW,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way, panic “is death. Panic is suicide.”

1: The art of not panicking was the primary skill required of the astronauts who were the first humans to go into space.  

Why? Because “when people panic, they make mistakes,” writes Ryan. “They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. They just react—not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.”

Panic, he believes, is the source of most of our problems here on Earth: “Everything is planned down to the letter, then something goes wrong, and the first thing we do is trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out. Some of us almost crave sounding the alarm because it’s easier than dealing with whatever is staring us in the face.”

To be successful in life, we must learn to “train out” panic, just like our first astronauts did.

“Before the first launch, NASA re-created the fateful day for the astronauts over and over, step by step, hundreds of times—from what they’d have for breakfast to the ride to the airfield. Slowly, in a graded series of “exposures,” the astronauts were introduced to every sight and sound of the experience of their firing into space. They did it so many times that it became as natural and familiar as breathing. They’d practice all the way through, holding nothing back but the liftoff itself, making sure to solve for every variable and remove all uncertainty.

“Hitting the wrong button, reading the instrument panels incorrectly, engaging a sequence too early—none of these could have been afforded on a successful Apollo mission—the consequences were too great,” Ryan observes.

The real question facing the astronauts was not: “How skilled a pilot are you?” But: “Can you keep an even strain? Can you right the urge to panic and instead focus only on what you can change? On the task at hand?”

2: Life is similar. Becoming emotional is a “luxury, an indulgence of our lesser self,” Ryan believes. “Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check—if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.”

The ancient Greeks called this mindset apatheia, the calm equanimity that comes “with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions,” Ryan writes. “Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind.”

When we worry, we can learn to ask ourselves: “What am I choosing to not see right now? What important things [am I] missing because I chose worry over introspection, alertness or wisdom?” suggests Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear.

3: But that’s what I feel, we may say.

“Right, no one said anything about not feeling it. No one said you can’t ever cry. Forget ‘manliness,'” Ryan tells us. If we need to take a moment, then, by all means, take a moment. “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.”

“So go ahead, feel it. Just don’t lie to [ourselves] by conflating emoting about a problem and dealing with it. Because they are as different as sleeping and waking,” he notes.

We can always: Pause. Ground. Center. We can remind ourselves: “I am in control, not my emotions. I see what’s really going on here. I’m not going to get excited or upset.”

Because we can practice defeating our emotions with logic, a combination of questions and statements.

“We lost money,” Ryan writes. “But aren’t losses a pretty common part of business? Yes. Are these losses catastrophic? Not necessarily. So this is not totally unexpected, is it?”

Why allow ourselves to get emotional about something that will occasionally happen?  

“And not only that,” Ryan reminds us, but we’ve “dealt with worse situations than this. Wouldn’t [we] be better off applying some of that resourcefulness rather than anger?”

We learn that these extreme emotions often dissipate when we have this conversation with ourselves.  

“After all, you’re probably not going to die from any of this,” Ryan writes. “It might help to say it over and over again whenever [we] feel the anxiety begin to come on: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.”

Or, we can try out Marcus Aurelius’ question: “Does what happened keep [us] from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness?”

Probably not.

“Then get back to work!” Ryan implores us.  

“Subconsciously, we should be constantly asking ourselves this question: Do I need to freak out about this?

“And the answer—like it is for astronauts, for soldiers, for doctors, and for so many other professionals—must be: No, because I practiced for this situation and I can control myself,” Ryan writes. Or, No, because I caught myself, and I’m able to realize that doesn’t add anything constructive.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Consider a recent stressful situation. Did what happened keep me from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, and straightforwardness?

Action: Journal about it.

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