The Obstacle is the Way

The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph
by Ryan Holiday

Read:  2017-04-26, Rating:  8/10.

My Notes

Obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced.

Our actions may be impeded… but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle of our acting. 

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Are you worthy? Can you get past the things that inevitably fall in your way? Will you stand up and show us what you’re made of?

Most of us are paralyzed. Whatever our individual goals, most of us sit frozen before the many obstacles that lie ahead of us.

Every obstacle is unique to each of us. But the responses they elicit are the same: Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Depression. Anger.

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

The objective judgement, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance – now at this very moment – of all external events.
That’s all you need.
– Marcus Aurelius

We decide what story to tell ourselves.

Time and time again, 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.

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

We decide what we will make of each situation. We decide whether we’ll break of whether we’ll resist.

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as Shakespeare put it.

There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.

We decide what story to tell ourselves. Or whether we will tell one at all.

And that is your decision.

Defiance and acceptance come together well in the following principle: There is always a countermove, always an escape of a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up.

And we know that it’s going to be tough, maybe even scary. But we’re ready for that. We’re collected and serious and aren’t going to be frightened off.

If your nerve holds, then nothing really did “happen” – our perception made sure it was nothing of consequence.

Panic is suicide.

When people panic, they make mistakes.

Can you fight the urge to panic and instead focus only on what you can change? On the task at hand?

Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. 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.

No one said anything about not feeling it. So go ahead, feel it. Just don’t lie to yourself to conflating emoting about a problem and dealing with it.

Remind yourself:  I am in control, not my emotions. I see what’s really going on here. I’m not going to get excited or upset.

Does what happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness?


Then get back to work!

No, because I caught myself and I’m able to realize that that doesn’t add anything constructive.

Perspective is everything.

Perspective has two definitions

  1. Context: a sense of the larger picture of the world, not just what is immediately in front of us
  2. Framing: an individual’s unique way of looking at the world, a way that interprets its events

Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

What is up to us, what is not up to us. And what is up to us?

Our emotions
Our judgements
Our creativity
Our attitude
Our perspective
Our desires
Our perspectives
Our desires
Our decisions
Our determination

Focus on what is in front of you.

In our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means,” whether something is “fair” or not, what’s “behind” this or that, and what everyone else is doing. Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems.

You have to work at it. Catch your mind when it wanders – don’t let it get away from you. Discard distracting thoughts. Leave things well enough alone.

Remember that this moment is not your life, it’s just a moment in your life.

Ignore what it “represents” or it “means” or “why it happened to you.” There is plenty else going on right here to care about any of that.

Reality Distortion Field

This was Steve Job‘s view of reality at work. Malleable, adamant, self-confident. Not in the delusional sense, but for the purposes of accomplishing something.

He was Napoleon shouting to his soldiers: “There shall be no Alps!”

Boldness is acting anyway

The Blitzkrieg strategy was designed to exploit the flinch of the enemy – he must collapse at the sight of what appears to be overwhelming force.

“The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster,” he commanded. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”

After you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step become possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it.

Boldness is acting anyway, even though you understand the negative and the reality of your obstacle.

Are you ready?

It feels better to ignore or pretend. But you know deep down that that isn’t going to truly make it any better. You’ve got to act. And you’ve got to start now.

Vent. Exhale. Take stock. Just don’t take too long. Because you have to get back to work.

Persist and Resist

Greet our obstacles:

  • with energy
  • with persistence
  • with coherent and deliberate process
  • with iteration and resilience
  • with pragmatism
  • with strategic vision
  • with craftiness and savvy
  • and an eye for opportunities and pivotal moments

Just because the conditions aren’t exactly to your liking, or you don’t feel ready yet, doesn’t mean you get a pass. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself.

Consider this mind-set

  • never in a hurry
  • never worried
  • never desperate
  • never stopping short

Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder.

The MVP model embraces failure and feedback.

Thickheaded and resistant to change, these are the types who are too self-absorbed to realize that the world doesn’t have time to plead, argue, and convince them of their errors. Soft bodied and hardheaded, they have too much armor and ego to fail well.

The world is telling you something with each and every failure and action. It’s feedback – giving you precise instructions on how to improve, it’s trying to wake you up from your cluelessness. It’s trying to teach you something. Listen.