“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
This edition of Kathy’s CliffNotes highlights the book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday. This is a really great read. In this book, Ryan Holiday builds off Stoic philosophers (which are worth reading up on if you have time). Ryan makes these thousand-year-old stoic concepts come to life through modern examples. This is an intelligent “self-help” book packed with examples from history of people who made it through adversity into greatness. This book offers the right mindset for achieving success and provides the reader a system for approaching life, turning obstacles into advantages, and using relentless persistence to achieve what you want.
Key Take Away: We all face obstacles in our lives, what matters is how we perceive them and work with them to move on. Through perception, action, and will, we can achieve despite the obstacles we face.
But before we get to the book highlights, here’s an inspirational poster for your viewing pleasure…complete with adorable animals...
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
Whatever we face, we have a choice: Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?
Every obstacle is unique to each of us. But the responses they elicit are the same: Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Depression. Anger.
When talking about perception of an obstacle, this isn’t about just blindly “being positive”. What this is about is learning to be ceaselessly creative and opportunistic. This isn’t about telling yourself “this isn’t so bad.” Instead, this is about believing you can actually make this situation good, you can leverage it to your advantage.
You will come across obstacles in life—fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming—or possibly thriving because of—them.
Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give in to such feelings. Or, we choose not to.
There are a few things to keep in mind when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. We must try: To be objective; To control emotions and keep an even keel; To choose to see the good in a situation; To steady our nerves; To ignore what disturbs or limits others; To place things in perspective; To revert to the present moment; To focus on what can be controlled
Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of. They can throw us in jail, label us, deprive us of our possessions, but they’ll never control our thoughts, our beliefs, our reactions. Which is to say, we are never completely powerless.
Situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad. This is something—a judgment—that we, as human beings, bring to them with our perceptions.
When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride. Stuff is going to happen that catches us off guard, threatens or scares us. In these situations, talent is not the most sought-after characteristic. Grace and poise are, because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill.
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.
When people panic, they make mistakes.
Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic. This is the skill that must be cultivated—freedom from disturbance and perturbation—so you can focus your energy exclusively on solving problems, rather than reacting to them. If an emotion can’t change the condition or the situation you’re dealing with, it is likely an unhelpful emotion. Or, quite possibly, a destructive one.
Sometimes being superficial—taking things only at first glance—is the most profound approach. In our own lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to things we don’t control, as though there were a way they were supposed to be? How often do we see what we think is there or should be there, instead of what actually is there?
Perspective is everything.
Steve Jobs, having learned early in life that reality was falsely hemmed in by rules and compromises that people had been taught as children, Jobs had a much more aggressive idea of what was or wasn’t possible. To him, when you factored in vision and work ethic, much of life was malleable. For the purposes of accomplishing something, he knew that to aim low meant to accept mediocre accomplishment. But a high aim could, if things went right, create something extraordinary.
Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph?
It is the act of turning what we must do into what we get to do.
Take your situation and pretend it is not happening to you. Pretend it is not important, that it doesn’t matter. How much easier would it be for you to know what to do? How much more quickly and dispassionately could you size up the scenario and its options?
“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant”. —VIKTOR FRANKL
Fear is debilitating, distracting, tiring, and often irrational. The task, as Pericles showed, is not to ignore fear but to explain it away. Take what you’re afraid of—when fear strikes you—and break it apart.
No matter how slight or tentative or provisional the chance. If there was a chance, he was ready to take it and make good use of it—ready to give every ounce of effort and energy he had to make it happen. If effort would affect the outcome, he would die on the field before he let that chance go to waste.
And what is up to us? Our emotions. Our judgments. Our creativity. Our attitude. Our perspective. Our desires. Our decisions. Our determination.
To argue, to complain, or worse, to just give up, these are choices. Choices that more often than not, do nothing to get us across the finish line.
Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power. But every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted—self-indulgent and self-destructive.
Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of the overthinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already. Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.
Remember that this moment is not your life, it’s just a moment in your life. Focus on what is in front of you, right now. Ignore what it “represents” or it “means” or “why it happened to you.”
When given an unfair task, some rightly see it as a chance to test what they’re made of—to give it all they’ve got, knowing full well how difficult it will be to win. They see it as an opportunity because it is often in that desperate nothing-to-lose state that we are our most creative.
Action requires courage, not brashness—creative application and not brute force. Our movements and decisions define us: We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and persistence. Those are the attributes of right and effective action. Nothing else—not thinking or evasion or aid from others. Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments.
Run it through your head like this: Nothing can ever prevent us from trying. Ever.
But let’s ask an honest question: Could you be doing more? You probably could—there’s always more. At minimum, you could be trying harder.
When failure does come, ask: What went wrong here? What can be improved? What am I missing? This helps birth alternative ways of doing what needs to be done, ways that are often much better than what we started with. Failure puts you in corners you have to think your way out of. It is a source of breakthroughs. It’s time you understand that the world is telling you something with each and every failure and action. It’s feedback—giving you precise instructions on how to improve,
“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
Everything is a chance to do and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.
Don’t think small, but make the distinction between the critical and the extra. Think progress, not perfection.
You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alterative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.
We wrongly assume that moving forward is the only way to progress, the only way we can win. Sometimes, staying put, going sideways, or moving backward is actually the best way to eliminate what blocks or impedes your path. There is a certain humility required in the approach.
The brilliant strategic advice that Obama’s adviser Rahm Emanuel, once gave him. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. [A] crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”
Always prepare ourselves for more difficult times. Always accept what we’re unable to change. Always manage our expectations. Always persevere.
We take weakness for granted. We assume that the way we’re born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there. That’s not necessarily the best recipe for the difficulties of life. The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.
A pre-mortem is different. In it, we look to envision what could go wrong, what will go wrong, in advance, before we start. Always prepared for disruption, always working that disruption into our plans. Fitted, as they say, for defeat or victory. And let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise is a lot better than an unpleasant one. What if . . . Then I will . . . What if . . . Instead I’ll just . . . What if . . . No problem, we can always . . . The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.
We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good?
Don’t waste a second looking back at your expectations. Face forward, and face it with a smug little grin.
Our actions can be constrained, but our will can’t be. Our plans—even our bodies—can be broken. But belief in ourselves? No matter how many times we are thrown back, we alone retain the power to decide to go once more. Or to try another route. Or, at the very least, to accept this reality and decide upon a new aim.
Shared purpose gives us strength. Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?
Pride can be broken. Toughness has its limits. But a desire to help? No harshness, no deprivation, no toil should interfere with our empathy toward others. Compassion is always an option. Camaraderie as well. That’s a power of the will that can never be taken away, only relinquished.
Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful. But thinking about and being aware of our mortality creates real perspective and urgency. It doesn’t need to be depressing. Because it’s invigorating. Reminding ourselves each day that we will die helps us treat our time as a gift.
The more you accomplish, the more things will stand in your way. There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill.