The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday
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.
Too often we react emotionally, get despondent, and lose our perspective. All that does is turn bad things into really bad things. Unhelpful perceptions can invade our minds—that sacred place of reason, action and will—and throw off our compass.
We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.
A mistake becomes training
It’s so much better to see things as they truly, actually are, not as we’ve made them in our minds.
Perspective is everything. That is, when you can break apart something, or look at it from some new angle, it loses its power over you.
Yet 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. 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.
For all species other than us humans, things just are what they are. Our problem is that we’re always trying to figure out what things mean—why things are the way they are. As though the why matters. Emerson put it best: “We cannot spend the day in explanation.” Don’t waste time on false constructs.
The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.
With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. Action requires courage, not brashness—creative application and not brute force.
So when you’re frustrated in pursuit of your own goals, don’t sit there and complain that you don’t have what you want or that this obstacle won’t budge. If you haven’t even tried yet, then of course you will still be in the exact same place. You haven’t actually pursued anything.
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, right now, by getting up and getting started.
In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides us a way. It says: Okay, you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.
But envision, for a second, a master practicing an exceedingly difficult craft and making it look effortless. There’s no strain, no struggling. So relaxed. No exertion or worry. Just one clean movement after another. That’s a result of the process. We can channel this, too. We needn’t scramble like we’re so often inclined to do when some difficult task sits in front of us.
Take your time, don’t rush.
Think progress, not perfection.
Part of the reason why a certain skill often seems so effortless for great masters is not just because they’ve mastered the process—they really are doing less than the rest of us who don’t know any better. They choose to exert only calculated force where it will be effective, rather than straining and struggling with pointless attrition tactics.
When we want things too badly we can be our own worst enemy. In our eagerness, we strip the very screw we want to turn and make it impossible to ever get what we want. We spin our tires in the snow or mud and dig a deeper rut—one that we’ll never get out of.
If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.
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.
“This too shall pass” was Lincoln’s favorite saying, one he once said was applicable in any and every situation one could encounter.
During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it.
To be great at something takes practice.
The goal is: Not: I’m okay with this. Not: I think I feel good about this. But: I feel great about it. Because if it happened, then it was meant to happen, and I am glad that it did when it did. I am meant to make the best of it.
Start thinking: Unity over Self. We’re in this together.
Remember the serenity prayer: If something is in our control, it’s worth every ounce of our efforts and energy. Death is not one of those things—it is not in our control how long we will live or what will come and take us from life. 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. And since this is true, we ought to make use of it. Instead of denying—or worse, fearing—our mortality, we can embrace it.