“What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice.” -Teddy Roosevelt
1: Ulysses S. Grant was once sitting for a photo shoot. The studio was dark, so the photographer sent an assistant up to the roof to uncover a skylight. “The assistant slipped and shattered the window,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way.
“With horror, the spectators watched as shards of glass two inches long fell from the ceiling like daggers, crashing around Grant—each one of them plenty lethal.”
Ulysses didn’t move, the photographer later recounted. Ulysses wasn’t hurt. He looked up at the hole in the ceiling, then back at the camera as if nothing had happened.
The General was equally unflappable on the battlefield. Once, he was surveying the scene through field glasses when an enemy shell exploded, killing the horse next to him. His “eyes stayed fixed on the front, never leaving the glasses,” writes Ryan.
“There’s another story about Grant at City Point, Union headquarters, near Richmond. Troops were unloading a steamboat and it suddenly exploded. Everyone hit the dirt except Grant, who was seen running toward the scene of the explosion as debris and shells and even bodies rained down.”
Ryan surmises: “That’s a man who has steadied himself properly. That’s a man who has a job to do and would bear anything to get it done. That’s nerve.”
2: Us? Not so much. Too often, we “are a pile of raw nerves,” he notes.
“Competitors surround our business. Unexpected problems suddenly rear their heads. Our best worker suddenly quits. The computer system can’t handle the load we’re putting on it. We’re out of our comfort zone. The boss is making us do all the work. Everything is falling and crashing down around us, exactly when we feel like we can’t handle any more.
“And that’s just the stuff that happens unintentionally. Don’t forget, there are always people out there looking to get [us],” he writes. They want to intimidate us. Rattle us. Pressure us into deciding before we have all the facts. They want us to think and act on their terms, not ours.”
The question is: Are we going to let them?
“When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride,” Ryan notes. “Stuff is going to happen that catches us off guard, threatens or scares us. Surprises are almost guaranteed. The risk of being overwhelmed is always there.”
3: Talent won’t help. What does? Grace and poise.
“Because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill,” writes Ryan. “Ultimately, nerve is a matter of defiance and control.”
As in: “I refuse to acknowledge that. I don’t agree to be intimidated. I resist the temptation to declare this a failure.”
And grace and poise also involve acceptance: “Well, I guess it’s on me then. I don’t have the luxury of being shaken up about this or replaying close calls in my head. I’m too busy, and too many people are counting on me,” Ryan writes.
Defiance and acceptance are combined together in the following principle: “There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up. No one said it would be easy and, of course, the stakes are high, but the path is there for those ready to take it.”
The obstacle is the way.
“We know that it’s going to be tough, maybe even scary,” Ryan surmises. “But we’re ready for that. We’re collected and serious and aren’t going to be frightened off. This means preparing for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it. Steeling ourselves. Shaking off the bad stuff as it happens and soldiering on.”
Reflection: Think back on a recent unexpected, unfortunate event. How did I react? What can I learn?
Action: Journal about the questions above.