With many of us waiting for life to return to somewhat normal, I finally got a new book “The Obstacle is the way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage” by Ryan Holiday.
It’s exactly what I need to be reading now; a practice-oriented book that digs into your perceptions, assumptions and ways of thinking what your problems are and how to do something about them.
I do recognise that most of us are going through unprecedented times and that the challenges we face are multiplied by our anxiety of catching the virus, protecting our family and making sure we stay as healthy and sane as we can.
Yet, it’s also a time for deeper reflection as many of us are facing issues, ideas, and thoughts that normally we wouldn’t have time to face or even notice.
What obstacles are, really
As a society, we have grown accustomed to the idea that success should somehow be easy, and if it is not, then that’s a sign we are going down the wrong path.
Yet, if you ask top athletes, writers, artists, or experienced leaders, you’d quickly discover that for many of them (unless you are an instant YouTube or Tiktok hit), challenges are in fact what have carved their paths:
“All great victories, be they in politics, business, art, or seduction, involved resolving vexing problems with a potent cocktail of creativity, focus and daring. When you have a goal, obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go – carving you a path. “The Things which hurt”, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “instruct” “ (p. 8). .
Some even welcome obstacles because they know that if they are not willing to try harder, then they are highly unlikely to get anywhere.
Others view obstacles as teaching moments: a teaching moment where we can learn something about ourselves, the way that the world works, and test our assumptions.
In fact, much of success in most areas of life has to do with how we approach “obstacles”, what we think the problem is and whether we think there is a way around it:
“Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps. It begins with how we look at specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty” (p. 9).
It is finding perspective that can help you in seeing the problem for what it is, and then deciding on action how to move forward.
Finding your perspective on the problem
One of the key perception shifters that Ryan points to is how we interpret the nature of the problem and the emotions associated with it:
“The way we look at the world changes how we see things. Is our perspective truly giving us perspective or is it what’s actually causing the problem? That is the question” (p. 38)
Perspective is based on two separate yet linked issues: the context (a broader view of the world) and framing (our individual way of looking and interpreting what goes on in the world).
But finding a realistic perspective to a problem requires stopping and observing but also more of a “cool head” approach that provides new types of questions that can help in defining our problem.
For example, George Clooney used to fail in most of his early auditions because his aim was to get the directors to like him.
But the directors were not looking for people to like, they were looking for the right person to that role and were under pressure in finding this talent.
But after a while, Clooney changed his perspective: instead of trying to be just liked, he started seeing himself as the solution for the directors who needed to hire the best talent, and started to be that somebody that they were so desperate to find.
We each have a story about the problem that we face but that does not mean that the story is always true:
“Just because your mind tells you that something is awful or evil or unplanned or otherwise negative doesn’t mean you have to agree. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story we tell ourselves. Or whether we tell one at all.” (p. 23).
Obstacles are obstacles often because we decide that that is what they are.
This is a hard truth that many are not willing to embrace but instead keep coming back to why things are wrong, and usually it is the system or other people or “if only I was given a fair chance”.
Yet, if we don’t shift our perspective, we will keep hitting our heads on the same obstacles, which in itself takes a tremendous amount of energy.
Moving forward: learning a new thought skill set
The book reminds us that owning your perspective is not about seeing life through rose coloured glasses and denying that there are problems.
This is about building that muscle of resistance, of defiance, of saying no to other people’s assumptions about you, and finding your way forward.
Moving forward, however slowly, is important and keeping in mind that all of the following things are actually under our control:
Our determination” (p. 43).
We each are worthy of the quest that we are taking on, to have an impact, to create something that only we can create.
In this journey, obstacles will come on our way regardless.
But it is more important how you handle those than what the actual obstacles are.
The art of reframing problems is not easy, especially in the current circumstances when our worlds have been turned upside down and there is so much uncertainty about everything.
Yet, if we can master even a few of those aspects in the list above, we can start moving towards a mindset that is agile and able to problem solve in a way we didn’t think was possible.