January 31, 2023

As you set your sights on the things that you want in your life, you will come across obstacles in life. Obstacles will come in all variety of shapes and sizes that are both fair and unfair. The unsuccessful becomes paralyzed by these obstacles and sits idly blaming their bosses, the economy, circumstances that are out of control and write their goals off as impossible. On the other hand, successful people transform their weaknesses and obstacles into strengths and opportunities. Like oxygen to a fire, obstacle fuels their ambitions and eventually the obstacle in the path becomes the path itself. When you have a goal, obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go – carving you a path. “The things that hurt,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “instruct.”

According to the book Obstacle Is The Way, overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps that are interdependent, interconnected and fluidly contingent to each other.

1. Perception

“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself “- Publius Syrus

It begins with how we perceive our specific problems, our attitudes and approaches. The sixteenth-century Samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi won countless fights against feared opponents, even multiple opponents, in which he was swordless. In The Book of Five Rings, he notes the difference between observing and perceiving. The perceiving eye is weak, he wrote; the observing eye is strong. Musashi understood that the observing eye sees simply what is there. The perceiving eye sees more than what is there.

Problems that we face are rarely as bad as we think – or rather, they are precisely as bad as we think. A good example is our physiological response to certain events. The human body is wired in a way that we unconsciously activate the fight-or-flight response in reaction to danger. A good example is when a human faces a lion in the wilderness. His body will automatically switch into a fight-or-flight mode which would bring immediate physiological changes for him to either fight or run away from the lion most effectively and efficiently possible.

This is a primitive design that we still hold today. We are still primed to detect threats and dangers that no longer exists. “Think of the cold sweats when you’re stressed about money, or the fight-or-flight response that kicks in when your boss yells at you. Our safety is not truly as risk here – there is little danger that we will starve or that violence will break out – though we may feel that way.”

This is how obstacles consolidate into true obstacles. Through our eyes of perception, we become an accomplice in the actual creation of obstacles by ignoring the opportunity within the obstacle but by primitively being threatened by what’s laid upon our eyes. We always have a choice as to how we perceive our problems and obstacles. Before making any haste judgement on a specific event, Ryan Holiday suggests that we try:

  • To be objective
  • To control emotions and keep an even keel
  • To choose to see the good in the situation
  • To steady our nerves
  • To ignore what disturbs or limits others
  • To place things in perspectives
  • To revert to the present moment
  • To focus on what can be controlled

2. Action

“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out”- Theodore Roosevelt

The second step of overcoming your obstacles is to take action. Obstacles become enlarged and more intimidating when you stop to look at them. We’ve heard so many times that taking action is the key to brining changes into our lives. But it’s easier said than done. Taking action not only requires tremendous effort but in most cases, actions that lead to massive changes are risks.

Unlike other traditional and cliché advice out there, Ryan Holiday suggests that we focus on the following when we take action and respond to specific obstacles:

  • Focus on the process, not the end result
  • Persistence is the key
  • Have realistic expectations
  • Action is not always about moving forward, but sometimes about choosing to make a stand
  • Finishing is the most important thing

I really like how the author paints a realistic picture. In his book, he states that “it’s supposed to be hard. Your first attempts aren’t going to work. It’s going to take a lot out of you – but energy is an asset we can always find more of. It’s a renewable resource. Stop looking for an epiphany, and start looking for weak points. Stop looking for angels, and start looking for angles. Settle in for the long haul and then try each and every possibility, and you’ll get there.”

It’s important for us to acknowledge that overcoming obstacles is a difficult task. It’s never meant to be easy, otherwise it won’t be an obstacle in the first place nor would it give us any real benefit when we “overcome” it. When you are faced with something difficult, don’t focus on it. Instead break it down into smaller pieces. Simplify what needs to be done right now and do it well. It’s all about doing the right things, in the right way and following the process not the prize. Once you’ve objectively dissected the obstacle in front of you, do the right things, right now. There’s no need to worry about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.

3. Will

The last principle that will guide you to overcome your obstacles is your will. Having the right mind-set, a strong mentality and having your emotions in check.

“You’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is – at best – indifferent to your existence”- Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is The Way

To have the right mentality suited for overcoming any form of obstacles, you first need to stop being a victim. You have to stop pretending that you are a victim of this world and accept the fact that whatever you’re going through is in no way special or unfair. Whatever difficulty or misfortune that you may be facing, it is not unique nor handpicked especially for you. It just is what it is.

Here’s a great excerpt from the book:

“Perhaps you’re stuck in bed recovering. Well, now you have time to write. Perhaps your emotions are overwhelming and painful, turn it into material. You lost your job or a relationship? That’s awful, but now you can travel unencumbered. You’re having a problem? Now you know exactly what to approach that mentor about. Seize this moment to deploy the plan that has long sat dormant in your head. Every chemical reaction requires a catalyst. Let this be yours. Ordinary people shy away from negative situations, just as they do with failure. They do their best to avoid trouble. What great people do is the opposite. They are their best in these situations. They turn personal tragedy or misfortune-really anything, everything-to their advantage. But this crisis in front of you? You’re wasting it feeling sorry for yourself, feeling tired or disappointed. You forget: Life speeds on the bold and favors the brave. We sit here and complain that we’re not being given opportunities or chances. But we are. At certain moments in our brief existences we are faced with great trials. Often those trials are frustrating, unfortunate, or unfair. They seem to come exactly when we think we need them the least. The question is: Do we accept this as an exclusively negative event, or can we get past whatever negativity or adversity it represents and mount an offensive? Or more precisely, can we see that this “problem” presents an opportunity for a solution that we have long been waiting for?”

– The Obstacle Is The Way

Aside from distancing yourself from a victimized mentality, the author also points out to us that it’s also important to have your emotions in check during times of difficulty. A good example is John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. “John Glenn… spent nearly a day in space still keeping his heart rate under a hundred beats per minute. That’s a man not simply sitting at the controls but in control of his emotions. Life is really no different. Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check-if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.”

The Greeks had a word for this: “apatheia”. It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Having your emotions in check is vital because:

1) 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.

2) Emotion can lead to either helpful or devastating outcomes because emotions are the fuel that drives us to take specific actions.

See things for what they are. Do what you can immediately. Have your emotions in check. If you are able to understand and practice the above three principles, what blocked your path previously will now become a path itself.

Always remember that there is no end to obstacles. As long as you have goals that are worth attaining, new obstacles will always surface in front of you. But this is what makes life really interesting. With each trials turned into triumph, you will develop strength, wisdom and perspective. Soon, you will be left with the best version of yourself and all the great feats you’ve accomplished in life.