Recommend Reading for MBA Applicants: “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday

By - Jun 18, 02:01 AM Comments [0]

2015-06-16_19-29-30By Adam Hoff, Amerasia Consulting Group

Partly because I've been reading some great books lately and partly because I want a break from writing about essays, I am starting something new - offering "recommended reading" to MBA applicants.  Now, please understand that I know you are busy.  You are working, applying, and trying to live your life - possibly even still wrestling the GMAT to the ground.  It's probably not the ideal time to be picking up books, right?  On the contrary!  You are at a unique point in your life right now - shifting between what was previous and what is next.  You are probably still fully engaged with work (as you should be, as the typical upcoming Round 1 applicant still has a full year of work to go), but there is part of you that is stepping outside the day-to-day rat race and thinking about the big picture.  "Now" is one big incubation period.  If you are taking your apps seriously and working with a great consultant/coach, you are going to be thinking stuff in a way that might start to become pretty illuminating.  I've long felt that applying to graduate school *should* be an arduous process - not just in terms of nuts and bolts, but in terms of personal introspection.  It's a golden opportunity to learn something about yourself and to improve as a person.

So, with all of that out there, I think it's more than appropriate to try to grab a few key books and soak them up.  Acknowledging that just about anything could become a great read given the right convergence of mood and context, I am going to try to focus on books that hew pretty closely to the idea of business and psychology.  The first book I'm recommending - "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday - is one of the stronger philosophical tomes I've picked up in a while.   He is helping push forward some of the more practical ideas of the Stoics - an oft-overlooked branch of philosophy that seems to be making a comeback these days.  "Stoicism" is often thought to mean some dead-eyed, brutal resolve to just grind away, come hell or high water - it's often seen as almost non-emotional.  But that's thinking of "stoic" as an adjective, rather than Stoic, as a philosopher.  The Stoics actually seemed to be very interested in living a life of passion - in fact, much of what you can read on the subject, whether it's Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus or Seneca, is about getting of your own way so you can enjoy life.  I've never really done a deep dive on Stoicism, but found some of the ideas pretty compelling thanks to Holiday's book.  Which, as you can imagine, is about Stoicism - or, more specifically, about some of the most helpful ideas forwarding by Stoics, how they have helped others (a whole range of amazing people), and how they can help us in our lives today.

Here are a few specific reasons why I think MBA applicants would enjoy it and get a lot out of the book:

1. The basic premise of the book has a lot in common with the application process.  "The Obstacle is the Way" sound a lot like something I've long told my clients, which is that they need to think of the application process not as a series of challenges and hurdles to overcome, but chances to show what they can do.  My longstanding visualization tool here is: "don't picture an essay or an interview as a test that you have to sit down and take, but rather a platform and a microphone where you get to stand up and proclaim who you are and what you can do."  These aren't threats to you or a metaphorical gun to your head - they are the chances for you to be you and to be heard.  It's so important to understand that because it will free you to explore and find truths and compelling pieces that you want people to know, rather than scrambling to find the "right" answer.  I work with so many people who start off our process together asking "what does AdCom want to hear?" (nevermind that the nomenclature isn't even correct), but in the end it always shifts to "I said what I wanted to say."   Let me be clear: no shift is of greater importance.  So if you see essays and interviews as an obstacle, read this book - because they are actually an opportunity. They are the way.

2. I love the way Holiday (and all students of Stoicism, I suppose) think about setbacks.  Now, the idea of the "setback" has always been a big one in the MBA space.  There used to be a ton of setback essay questions, but those have mainly gone away.  Now you see more of those on interviews, whether framed as a setback, a failure, or a weakness.  Regardless, what they are looking for is your ability to handle adversity.  When something bad happens, what do you do?  Most candidates know enough not to say "well, I freak out, melt down, lash out in anger, and generally behave in a destructive manner" - at least, let's hope they know not to do that.  However, I don't think many applicants grasp the full range of options available to them.  As you can read in the book, the Stoics looked at adversity as a true opportunity - to become a better person, to grow, to find a new path.  It's one thing to suffer a setback and soldier on, but it's another matter entirely to reset and make big and meaningful discoveries as a direct result of that adversity.  It's inspiring stuff and can be really helpful in getting your arms around this whole concept before you start dealing with it on the page and in interviews as it pertains to your life.

3. It takes you out of the moment for a bit.  I'm all for being in the moment and being present.  But being strapped to an electronic device is not being "in the moment."  Being a slave to anxiety and adrenaline is not the way we were designed to function, I don't believe.  And trust me, I'm someone who is strapped to an electronic device all hours of the day - I ping around like a pinball most of the time.  But there is something about reading a book that dips back through the ages to draw connections between different eras.  There are stories of John D. Rockefeller and Ulysses S. Grant and Arthur Ashe and Lincoln and Edison.  It's soothing, in a way, to see how vast the human experience spans - obstacle and accomplishment, stress and relief, shared by so many interesting people, century after century.  It will make you feel less consumed by the go, go, go feeling that I see so commonly in A) people in their 20s and 30s and B) MBA applicants.  I swear, this will relax you and give you perspective.  This, in turn, will make you a better writer and a cooler person to be around (good for getting recommendations, for interviews, and just for life in general).

Anyway, check this book out.  I'll be sure to recommend more as the summer marches along, but this is a great place to start.  The fact that Holiday is the same age as many of you will either be all the more inspiring, or it will make you jealous that he's so wise beyond his years - or both.  Either way, he's a good writer, a really great thinker, and someone that I'm happy put his passion project out into the world.

Whether you are looking for a good book to read or you are looking for help with your MBA applications, email us at   

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