Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Unlock opportunities within challenges for personal benefit.

This summary delivers a crucial message: every obstacle, impediment, or apparent barrier on the path to success can actually become the path to success itself. In other words, what stands in your way is the way. This perspective is not about being overly optimistic or ignoring obstacles. It involves being clear-headed, logical, prepared, and pragmatic in perceiving and responding to circumstances. The Blink is divided into three sections: Perception, Action, and Will. Perception involves seeing obstacles as opportunities for success. Action entails not just perceiving the path but taking active steps on it. Will represents the determination and energy required to persist on the path, even in challenging times. While the concept is straightforward, it may be challenging to implement in practice. The Blink provides examples of individuals who have successfully turned disadvantages, setbacks, and unfavorable circumstances into hidden pathways to success.

Finding opportunity within challenging circumstances.

John D. Rockefeller, the renowned oil tycoon, mastered the art of perception during a time of crisis. When the financial turmoil of the Panic of 1857 struck, Rockefeller, then a young bookkeeper with aspirations of becoming an investor, chose not to succumb to panic like others around him. Instead, he saw the crisis as an opportunity to observe and learn from the mistakes of others.

Perception, the meaning we assign to events, played a vital role in Rockefeller’s success. While many viewed the crisis as a disaster to be feared and avoided, he perceived it as a chance for growth and knowledge. This empowered him to make level-headed investment decisions, unaffected by reactive emotions or the actions of others. Rockefeller’s calmness, adaptability, and resilience formed the foundation of his empire, enabling him to eventually control 90 percent of oil refineries in the US.     

To emulate Rockefeller’s approach, here are three tips when faced with daunting obstacles:

  • Focus on what you can control, disregarding what you cannot.
  • Maintain objectivity and avoid getting swept up in subjective emotions or projections.
  • Stay present in the moment, avoiding dwelling on past regrets or future worries.

These qualities—logic, objectivity, reason, and composure—are already within you. Cultivating them requires discipline, practice, and the establishment of habits.

Realize your inherent power through perception.

In the 1960s, boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was wrongly accused of a triple homicide and sentenced to life in prison. Faced with this unjust situation, he had a choice: to surrender his power and accept the perception of him as a criminal, or to hold onto his power and act according to his innocence.

Carter chose to embrace his power. Despite being imprisoned, he refused to be treated as a typical inmate and asserted his control over his perception and choices. He rejected the label of a prisoner and everything associated with it, using his time in prison to educate himself and fight for his case. After 19 years, his conviction was finally overturned.

Carter’s story demonstrates that even in the most challenging circumstances, we still have power over our perception, choices, thoughts, and reactions. This power cannot be taken away from us. Regardless of betrayals, setbacks, or unfortunate events, we have the ability to shape our perception of the situation.

It’s important to remember that the labels of “good” and “bad” are subjective constructs. The story we tell ourselves about an event determines its categorization. The power of perception lies in our hands, just as Rubin Carter understood. The choice of how we perceive obstacles before us is ours to make. We have always possessed this power, and we always will.

Changing your viewpoint shapes your reality.

During the Peloponnesian War, General Pericles and his men were sailing when suddenly, darkness engulfed them due to a solar eclipse. Pericles’s soldiers panicked, but their leader remained calm.

Pericles approached the man steering the ship, holding his cloak in front of his face, and asked if the darkness frightened him.

The man responded that it did not.

Pericles’s rough response can be paraphrased as: “Then why are you afraid? Why fear one type of darkness but not another?”

This anecdote carries a profound message: perspective is crucial.

The soldiers on the ship interpreted the solar eclipse as a foreboding sign, viewing the darkness caused by celestial bodies overlapping as ominous. In essence, they adopted a disempowering perspective. On the other hand, Pericles chose an empowering perspective, recognizing that darkness is simply darkness. Unless one has an irrational fear of the dark, there is no reason to be afraid.

The way we perceive something determines whether it is frightening or exciting, enjoyable or miserable, good or bad. And the power to choose our perspective always lies within us.

Another example:

When George Clooney first arrived in Hollywood, he faced struggles like any other actor. Audition after audition resulted in rejection, causing him pain. Clooney knew he possessed talent, but he felt overlooked by the system and became disheartened.

This is a common experience. We often blame companies for not hiring us or attractive strangers for not showing interest in us. We desire to be seen and chosen, and it hurts when that doesn’t happen.

However, there is another way to perceive these situations. There is a way to flip the perspective.

Clooney realized that landing a role was not his obstacle; it was the film producers’ challenge. They desperately needed to find the right actor, and he was the one they were waiting for. He shifted his perspective. He was no longer a humble nobody hoping for a big break, but the dream actor they sought.

This simple shift in perspective changed everything.

In subsequent auditions, Clooney exuded competence and confidence, demonstrating that he would do what was necessary and make the producers’ lives easier, both on and off camera.

 

Next, let’s delve into Action. However, remember that the action we take depends on our chosen perspective. If we perceive something in the right way, we will act accordingly, increasing our chances of success. So, when facing a situation, ask yourself: Does my perspective benefit me? Am I looking at this the wrong way out of fear, apprehension, or insecurity? Am I mistaking a harmless event for something sinister? Am I considering myself a problem when I could be the solution? Remember, you have the power to control your perception, and perception is paramount.

Harnessing discipline for effective action.

During the Peloponnesian War, the general Pericles and his men were at sea when darkness suddenly descended. A solar eclipse had caused day to turn to night, leading Pericles’s soldiers to panic while he remained calm.

Pericles approached the man steering the ship and asked if the darkness frightened him. When the man replied, “Of course not,” Pericles questioned why he would fear one form of darkness but not the other. This anecdote emphasizes the power of perception and the importance of choosing an empowering perspective.

Another example is George Clooney’s early struggles in Hollywood. Despite facing numerous rejections, Clooney shifted his perception. He realized that landing a role was not his obstacle but the film producers’ necessity. This change in perspective transformed his auditions, projecting competence, confidence, and an attitude of making the producers’ lives easier.

Understanding the significance of perception, we must now move to the next step: action. Action does not require naive optimism, but rather clear, rational, and logical perception. It’s about stripping away emotion and approaching tasks with discipline and boldness.

Take the example of Demosthenes, the renowned orator of ancient Athens. Despite his challenging circumstances, he developed a plan and displayed immense discipline. To conquer his speech impediment, he practiced reciting speeches while running, shouting, and even with pebbles in his mouth. He studied diligently, building arguments and refining his skills.

Demosthenes ultimately took his guardians to court, reclaiming what remained of his inheritance. However, the true victory was establishing himself as a remarkable orator and a student of the law.

To achieve your goals, learn from Demosthenes. Develop a strategic vision and persist with discipline. Perception and action go hand in hand—perceive situations in the right way, and you’ll act in ways that lead to success. Control your perception, for it shapes everything.

Embrace the process and take action.

Break down the process and trust it. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of a big goal, focus on the small steps that lead to it. Like Demosthenes and Nick Saban, follow the process and concentrate on the task at hand, one step at a time.
Don’t worry about the end result or the obstacles ahead. Each step executed well with full focus brings you closer to success. The process provides a calming reassurance amidst the uncertainties of the journey. Don’t be deterred by the size of the goal; instead, focus on what you can do right now, no matter how small. 

By trusting the process and embracing it, you can achieve your aspirations, whether they are in sports, public speaking, or pursuing creative endeavors like writing a book.

Outcome uncertain, still take action.

Certain challenges may be insurmountable, and some paths may be impassable. However, it is important to acknowledge that you have made an effort and tried your best. Even if you cannot overcome a specific obstacle, you can utilize the skills and qualities you have developed to reinforce other aspects of yourself.

For instance, if your relationship ends despite your efforts, you can embrace forgiveness and selfless love. If a business venture fails, practice accepting circumstances beyond your control.

Taking action always involves risk, including the possibility that things may not go as planned. However, by being prepared, unafraid, and undeterred, you can accept the outcomes and eagerly embrace what lies ahead.

In this mindset, there are no failures, only valuable lessons. 

Embrace the unchangeable, transform the changeable.

The cultivation of true willpower extends beyond intense desire. Many mistakenly believe that a strong longing guarantees the necessary will to achieve it. However, authentic willpower resides in acceptance rather than coercion. It becomes our ultimate sanctuary amidst challenging circumstances, enabling us to gracefully embrace the unchangeable and display resilience and adaptability when faced with adversity.

The great Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, were masters of willpower. They honed their willpower by continually contemplating a fundamental question: What lies within my control and what lies beyond? They recognized that genuine control rests solely within the realm of our minds. External factors, like the actions of others, natural events, and the inevitability of death, lie beyond our influence. Yet, we retain dominion over our emotions, judgments, attitudes, responses, and decisions.

With this understanding, we can construct our own Inner Citadel—an impervious internal structure unaffected by the unpredictable external world. It’s important to note that no one is born with an Inner Citadel; it must be deliberately built through dedicated effort.

Many assume that abilities are fixed and unchangeable. They resign themselves to lifelong limitations if born with disadvantages. However, this is a fallacy. Consider Theodore Roosevelt, who battled severe asthma from birth. Rather than accepting his fate, he persevered.

Under the guidance of his father, Roosevelt confronted his asthma head-on. From the age of twelve, he embarked on a physical exercise regimen, strengthening his body and improving his lung capacity. Ten years later, his asthma was nearly insignificant. He had diligently overcome his weakness.

Throughout his life, Roosevelt faced numerous obstacles—bereavement, political adversaries, and even assassination attempts. Nevertheless, he remained prepared. He continuously cultivated his strength—physical and mental—every day.

Thus, we must ask ourselves: Are we prepared for the trials that life presents? Loss, setbacks, and unhappiness are inevitable. While we cannot control their arrival, we can ready ourselves. Like Roosevelt, we can fortify our bodies, minds, and emotions. What kind of Inner Citadel must we construct to possess the strength to accept adversity gracefully and persist on our chosen path?

Willpower entails being prepared to persist.

After a decade of fighting in the Trojan War, Odysseus sets sail for home in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. His journey is filled with obstacles and hardships. He endures captivity, temptations, the loss of his men, dangerous whirlpools, and battles with mythical creatures. Despite these challenges, after 20 years, Odysseus finally returns home and reunites with his family.

What enabled Odysseus to persevere through such adversity? It was his unwavering determination and resilience.

Perseverance is different from persistence. While persistence tackles a single problem, perseverance endures all of life’s obstacles. Odysseus refused to give in or complain. He persisted through each trial, knowing surrendering wouldn’t bring him closer to his goal. He relied on his endurance to navigate challenges and steadily worked towards his objective until reaching his beloved home.

Life presents a series of obstacles, and perseverance is key. Choose to persevere instead of giving up. Harness your inner strength and resilience to overcome any challenge, even if it takes years to achieve your goal.

Prepare yourself for a fresh start by contemplating mortality.

Death is an inevitable part of life, and contemplating its significance can give us a renewed sense of purpose and urgency. Rather than fearing it, we should embrace the present moment and focus on what we can control. By acknowledging the certainty of death, other obstacles and irritants in life become less significant. Cut off in traffic? No need to get upset. Worries and anxieties lose their power when we understand the inevitability of death. Instead, we can choose to live graciously, with kindness and appreciation.

Death itself is an insurmountable obstacle. It cannot be avoided or bypassed. However, we can use its presence to our advantage. When faced with the certainty of death, other obstacles seem far less troublesome. If we can embrace death’s reality and its transformative power, what obstacle can’t we overcome?

The journey of life is a continuous cycle of overcoming obstacles. As we conquer one, we must be prepared for the next. Rather than feeling exhausted by this prospect, we can approach it with a sense of determination and resilience. With each obstacle faced and surmounted, we become better equipped to handle the next. Over time, our skills and abilities grow, and we discover greater opportunities along the way.

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