Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome nearly 2,000 years ago from 161-180, wrote many personal notes about his life and how he saw it in the moment – how to live, what to live for, and why to live. These notes acted as a reminder to him about how to live in times of stress, weakness, joy, sadness, and hardship, all of which he certainly endured as emperor. These questions have answers relative to who is answering, and are questions that countless people have pondered before and since his time. Aurelius was a practitioner of Stoicism, which certainly influenced how he answered such questions:
the Stoics taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment which were destructive, due to the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life (lex devina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how that person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they taught that everything was rooted in nature.
In the book “Meditations”, which is a collection of his notes, Aurelius says:
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Impediments to action, or anything, is called resistance. More resistance is the way, Aurelius wrote, though the natural order is to take the path of least resistance.
In his book “The Obstacle is the Way”, Ryan Holiday argues that facing obstacles and leaning into resistance (obstacles themselves for example) is the “way” in which people improve, persevere, and accomplish meaningful things in life. Without obstacles, we remain stagnant, lose progress and desire, and have nothing to show. Holiday suggests that often people with the most obstacles are the ones who make the greatest impact.
Holiday argues that obstacles don’t inhibit success, they create success and that readers should see “through the negative, past its underside, and into its corollary: the positive.”
In his book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport argues that deep work, work that requires intense cognitive focus, is what leads to living a meaningful life. “A deep life is a good life”. Doing deepwork isn’t easy, it’s resistance. But it’s what allows knowledge work to become valuable, and is required to accomplish meaningful work in the modern age of unlimited distraction.
In “The War of Art”, Steve Pressfield argues that resistance is universal, everyone has it, and it is from within.
When an electron flows through a circuit, it takes the path of least resistance. When we as humans go for walk, we walk in a way to preserve energy, the path of least resistance. When there is a higher barrier of entry into a market to start a business (high resistance), there is less competition because most business don’t go into high barrier markets.
Everything in life is about making a path in a way from point A to B, and our default instinct is to always take the path of least resistance – preserve our energy, preserve our willpower, stop when it hurts, and avoid facing obstacles. However, where real progress gets made and where we become better is when we’re pushing against that resistance. The more consistently we push, the easier it becomes and the next barrier is then faced which requires further pushing. The harder we push, the more we improve and the easier it gets. Things that once were barriers are looked at as stepping stones that make you who you are.
To demonstrate this clearly, I’ll use a personal example. When I used to actively compete in speedsolving puzzle competitions, one of the events was solving the Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. It would consist of memorizing a scrambled cube, putting on a blindfold, and solving cube without looking at it. When first faced with this challenge, it seemed impossible. Even after I knew the process of solving it, I was faced with resistance. My first solve took me over 30 minutes to memorize after reading about various techniques.
Within a week of attempting several more solves and trying to push my memory limits, I was able to memorize in under 7 minutes – by facing the resistance, I became better, and without facing the challenge I wouldn’t have improved. From there I pressed on the resistance and could memorize in under 45 seconds relatively easily. Others have pressed the resistance even further and can go much faster. When it becomes easy it means we’re not pressing hard enough into the resistance, and resistance is where real change happens.
In modern day where much of our lives are spent staring at computers and sitting in chairs, exercising is talked about by everyone. It is a way to offset our sedentary lives. Going to the gym is resistance. Running when you’re already tired it resistance. Lifting weights when your arms are fatigued is resistance. But resistance is good, it means you’re improving. Improvements don’t come without resistance. And improvements (or seeing progress in life) is what fulfills people.
Tiny daily improvements lead to enormous progress. “We overestimate what we can do in a day but underestimate what we can do in a year.” Managing time is resistance. Letting things flow as they come and go is the easy way, but not the way you improve, not the way you make progress, not the way you become fulfilled, not the way you do more with your time.
So, next time faced with a challenge or obstacle, know that resistance is the way.
Victory will never be found in the path of least resistance.
– Winston Churchill
If you’re interested more in this topic, these books are worth reading: