Encountering new obstacles in life is inevitable. Whether it’s in our work, relationships, health, or personal goals, life is always changing – and with that brings new situations we too must change and adapt to.
The simple truth is you’ll never reach a point when life stops throwing you new obstacles. The best thing you can do is know how to better approach these obstacles in your life, and thereby transform them into opportunities for growth and self improvement.
This is a very old idea, but it never stops being true. In the great book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday turns toward the ancient philosophy of Stoicism to show us why these ideas still carry a lot of power today.
- “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.”
The types of obstacles that stand in our way can be very different from person to person.
They greatly depend on our environment, our biology, and our ambitions. However, the right perspective to take when facing obstacles doesn’t change much. It is an immutable law of success and motivation. It is the way, no matter who you are.
There are many gems of wisdom in this book that I wish to share, but here are the most important ones to keep in mind whenever you encounter a new obstacle in your life.
Obstacles are “signals” telling us where to go next
One of the main attitudes you should take when facing obstacles is to see them as signals telling you where to go next.
While, of course, obstacles can bring out many negative emotions in us like frustration, anger, or sadness, it’s important to realize that they don’t inhibit us from reaching our destination – they only change the path we were originally expecting to take.
In the book, Holiday compares obstacles to “traffic signals” and shows why we should never take them too personally:
- “If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane. Yet this is exactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it. That is not to say we allow it to prevent us from reaching our ultimate destination. But it does change the way we travel to get there and the duration of the trip.”
Obstacles can’t stop you from reaching your destination, they only change the path you need to take. When an obstacle rears its ugly head, that means its time to adjust and adapt to it. Ask yourself, “What is this obstacle telling me I need to focus on now?”
Focus on the cards you were dealt with
We often like to judge events in our lives as “fair” or “unfair,” but obstacles are indifferent to these pleas.
Everyone is dealt a particular hand of cards in life, depending on our biology and the environment we were born into. Some people have more advantages, some people have more disadvantages.
The only thing that you can ask from yourself is that you play your hand to the best of your ability.
Everyone faces different obstacles, everyone has a different path. But the moment we start comparing our path to someone else’s path, we lose sight of what’s in front of us and what life is calling for us to do.
- “Born with nothing, into poverty, strife, or the chaos of decades past, certain types of people were freed from modern notions of fairness or good or bad. Because none of it applied to them. What was in front of them was all they knew – all they had. And instead of complaining, they worked with it. They made the best of it. Because they had to, because they didn’t have a choice.”
We don’t have a choice but to make the most with what we have. That is a very simple fact, but it’s not an easy one to accept or digest. We wish for life to be “fair” and “just” – yet it isn’t. It is what it is. We must march forward anyway.
Mistakes are opportunities for growth
We are imperfect and flawed. Accepting this “flawed self” leads to a humility we need if we want to continue learning and improving ourselves.
We don’t know everything about the world, it’s much bigger than us. This is why you should never be too hard on yourself when you make a mistake. It was bound to happen. Mistakes are a natural part of being human.
However, when you do make a mistake, it’s important to use that as an opportunity to grow just as any other obstacle.
- “An employee in your company makes a careless mistake that costs you business. This can be exactly what you spend so much time and effort trying to avoid. Or, with a shift in perception, it can be exactly what you were looking for – the chance to pierce through defenses and teach a lesson that can be learned only by experience. A mistake becomes training.”
In this example, a company uses an employee’s mistake as a way to improve their company and make it even stronger.
Mistakes, like all obstacles, point us at our weaknesses and show us what we need to work on and improve. If you try to ignore your mistakes, you will miss that valuable message. It’s also likely you will continue making that mistake into the future.
Look at things from a “fly on the wall” perspective
It’s hard to be calm and objective about the obstacles we face in life.
Obstacles can be the source of a lot of pain, suffering, and negative emotions. And when emotions run high, it’s that much more difficult to think about our obstacles with a clear head.
When approaching any obstacle, it’s often useful to be able to remove yourself from the situation and imagine it happening from a third person perspective.
Picture someone else in your situation and look at as if you were just a “fly on the wall.” How should that person act in this hypothetical situation? What advice would you give that person?
- “Objectivity means removing ‘you’ – the subjective part – from the equation. Just think, what happens when we give others advice? Their problems are crystal clear to us, the solutions obvious. Sometimes that’s present when we deal with our own obstacles is always missing when we hear other people’s problems: the baggage. With other people we can be objective.
This new perspective can often yield insights that are hard to find if we can only see our problems through our own eyes.
Of course, it’s difficult to be 100% objective about any given situation. We are always looking at things through a particular lens or subjective bias.
However, being able to look at an obstacle from an “outside perspective” can help you distance yourself from it, making it less emotional and less personal. This often gives you a fresher look on the best way to approach it.
The Obstacle Is the Way is a fantastic book by Ryan Holiday that combines the ancient wisdom of Stoicism with engaging pragmatism and realism. It teaches you how to accept the “hard truths” of life while at the same time viewing your obstacles as a guide to motivate and inspire growth and self improvement.
Think about the whole process
When we think about our goals and the obstacles we face, we often get trapped into only thinking about where we are starting and where we want to end up, while ignoring the many steps in-between.
Life is a process. The achievement of every goal is a process of many ups and downs – countless learning experiences – and a gradual progression toward where we want to be.
Success doesn’t happen over-night. It often takes a lot longer than we expect it to take.
If you are in it for the long haul, then you need to be very process-oriented. You have to remind yourself that you can only take small steps each day, and it is the consistency of these small steps that will eventually add up over time.
- “All of these issues are solvable. Each would collapse beneath the process. We’ve just wrongly assumed that it has to happen all at once, and we give up at the thought of it. We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.
We trap ourselves into wanting to get away from “A” and toward “Z,” but we neglect the “B-Y” that is necessary to make the full journey. Understand that everything is a process and often growth is small and gradual.
Recognize the small steps ahead of you each and everyday, while still not forgetting the bigger picture behind everything you do.
The power of last resorts
Let’s say you’re trying to overcome a particular obstacle in your life, but you keep failing and failing and failing.
Instead of things getting better, they seem to keep getting worse. The obstacle begins to seem insurmountable and you start telling yourself things like, “Maybe there’s no way to overcome this. Maybe all hope is lost. Maybe I’m completely helpless.”
These dark moments of desperation can sometimes bring out the best in us. When we find ourselves running low on options and down to our last resort, it can sometimes force us to be bold and creative in a way we didn’t think we were capable.
- “If you mean it when you say you’re at the end of your rope and you would rather quit, you actually have a unique chance to grow and improve yourself. A unique opportunity to experiment with different solutions, to try different tactics, or to take on new projects to add to your skill set.”
Psychologist Gary Klein says that “creative desperation” can be a unique pathway to insight. When we find ourselves in a situation where all hope seems lost, we are actually put in a position to be stronger and smarter than we’ve ever been before.
If I’m at the lowest of lows, I often remind myself that “If I can overcome this, I can overcome anything.” And that motivates me to rise up to the challenge.
The opportunity to help others
If you’ve gone through a difficult obstacle in your past, you’ve likely gained useful experience and knowledge to help others who may be going through similar obstacles.
When people go through traumatic situations (like physical abuse or drug addiction), it can be incredibly difficult to shake themselves free from these negative experiences and find ways to empower themselves and create new opportunities.
One powerful way to turn this negative into a positive is to use your “negative experience” as a way to help others who are also going through the same negative experience, or to help prevent others from going through what you did.
- “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? Take it for granted, for a second, that there is nothing else in it for us, nothing we can do for ourselves. How can we use this situation to benefit others? How can we salvage some good out of this? If not, for me, then for my family or the others I’m leading or those who might later find themselves in a similar situation.
Focusing on how you can help others can give you a new sense of power and control over your life than if you were to only focus on what you can do for yourself.
When you have trouble changing a situation for yourself, helping others change their situation and helping others overcome their own obstacles can be a healthy way to put your obstacles to good use.
Everyone has a death sentence
The Stoics had an interesting perspective on “death” and they would frequently remind themselves of their mortality to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for their existence.
It can be a powerful thing to remind ourselves that our time in this world is limited and therefore we must make the most of it when we can. We can’t take any day for granted – we never know when we might leave this world.
Here’s one final quote from The Obstacle Is the Way that touches on this essential fact of our existence:
- “The diagnosis is terminal for all of us. A death sentence has been decreed. Each second, probability is eating away at the chances that we’ll be alive tomorrow; something is coming and you’ll never be able to stop it. Be ready for when that day comes.”
Knowing that life on Earth has an expiration date can be a very motivating realization. It teaches us to make the most of our time here while we can and to appreciate every moment we have here.
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