Day #640:The Discipline of Perception

“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.” —Marcus Aurelius

John D. Rockefeller took his first job in 1855 at the age of sixteen making fifty cents a day (a day he celebrated as “Job Day” for the rest of his life). Then the Panic of 1857 struck.

It was the greatest market depression in history and it struck just as Rockefeller was getting on his feet. Rockefeller could have gotten scared and quit. He could have become depressed and despondent over his fate. But even as a young man Rockefeller had sangfroid: unflappable coolness under pressure. He could keep his head while everyone lost theirs.

Instead, Rockefeller chose to look at the crisis as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market. He internalized an important lesson that would stay with him forever: The market was inherently unpredictable and often vicious—only a rational and disciplined mind can hope to profit from it.

As he once put it, he was inclined to see the opportunity in every disaster. Within twenty years of that first crisis, Rockefeller would alone control 90 percent of the oil market. His insight into the market lives on today in Warren Buffett’s famous adage to, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

But Rockefeller wasn’t born this way. He received his lesson in discipline during the crisis of 1857, what he called “the school of adversity and stress.”

We can learn to perceive things differently, to cut through the illusions that others believe or fear.

We can stop seeing “problems” in front of us as problems. We can learn to focus on what things really are. Unhelpful perceptions can invade our minds, that sacred place of reason, action, and will—and throw off our compass.

We can see only disaster.

Or rather, like Rockefeller, we can see opportunity in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education and a skill set—and maybe even a fortune.


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