Skip to content
The Obstacle is the Way | Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the Way | Ryan Holiday

Subjected to those pressures, these individuals were transformed. They were transformed along the lines that Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, outlined when he described what happens to businesses in tumultuous times: "Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them." [...]

"The Things which hurt," Benjamin Franklin wrote, "instruct." [...]

Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps. It begins with how we look at our 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.

It's three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will. [...]

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.

Where one person sees a crisis, another can see opportunity. Where one is blinded by success, another sees reality with ruthless objectivity. Where one loses control of emotions, another can remain calm. Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give in to such feelings. Or, like Rockefeller, choose not to. [...]

"What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool-headedness. This he can get only by practice." THEODORE ROOSEVELT [...]

"Don't let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test." Epictète [...]

In our own lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to things we don't control, as though there was a way they were supposed to be? How often do we see what we think is there or should be there, instead of what actually is there?

Having steadied ourselves and held back our emotions, we can see things as they really are. We can do that using our observing eye.

Perceptions are the problem. They give us the "information" that we don't need, exactly at the moment when it would be far better to focus on what is immediately in front of us: the thrust of a sword, a crucial business negotiation, an opportunity, a flash of insight or anything else, for that matter. [...]

Take your situation and pretend it is not happening to you. Pretend it is not important, that it doesn't matter. How much easier would it be for you to know what to do? How much more quickly and dispassionately could you size up the scenario and its options? You could write it off, greet it calmly.

Think of all the ways that someone could solve a specific problem. No, really think. Give yourself clarity, not sympathy— there'll be plenty of time for that later. It's an exercise, which means it takes repetition. The more you try it, the better you get at it. The more skilled you become seeing things for what they are, the more perception will work for you rather than against you. [...]

Fear is debilitating, distracting, tiring, and often irrational. Pericles understood this completely, and he was able to use the power of perspective to defeat it.

The Greeks understood that we often choose the ominous explanation over the simple one, to our detriment. That we are scared of obstacles because our perspective is wrong—that a simple shift in perspective can change our reaction entirely. The task, as Pericles showed, is not to ignore fear but to explain it away. Take what you're afraid of— when fear strikes you—and break it apart.

Remember: We choose how we'll look at things. We retain the ability to inject perspective into a situation. We can't change the obstacles themselves—-that part of the equation is set—but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome. [...]

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 [...]

Behind the Serenity Prayer is a two-thousand-year-old Stoic phrase: "ta eph'hemin, ta ouk eph'hemin." What is up to us, what is not up to us.

And what is up to us?

Our emotions
Our judgments
Our creativity
Our attitude
Our perspective
Our desires
Our decisions
Our determination

This is our playing field, so to speak. Everything there is fair game.

What is not up to us?

Well, you know, everything else. The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people's emotions or judgments, trends, disasters, et cetera.

If what's up to us is the playing field, then what is not up to us are the rules and conditions of the game. Factors that winning athletes make the best of and don't spend time arguing against (because there is no point).

To argue, to complain, or worse, to just give up, these are choices. Choices that more often than not, do nothing to get us across the finish line. [...]

"We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out." THEODORE ROOSEVELT [...]

Remember and remind yourself of a phrase favored by Epictetus: "persist and resist." Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder.

There's no need to sweat this or feel rushed. No need to get upset or despair. You're not going anywhere—you're not going to be counted out. You're in this for the long haul.

Because when you play all the way to the whistle, there's no reason to worry about the clock. You know you won't stop until it's over—that every second available is yours to use. So temporary setbacks aren't discouraging. They are just bumps along a long road that you intend to travel all the way down.

Doing new things invariably means obstacles. A new path is, by definition, uncleared. Only with persistence and time can we cut away debris and remove impediments. Only in struggling with the impediments that made others quit can we find ourselves on the untrodden territory—only by persisting and resisting can we learn what others were too impatient to be taught.

It's okay to be discouraged. It's not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you've decided to lay siege to in your own life—that's persistence.

Edison once explained that in inventing, "the first step is an intuition—and comes with a burst—then difficulties arise." What sets Edison apart from other inventors is tolerance for these difficulties and the steady dedication with which he applied himself toward solving them.

In other words: It's supposed to be hard. Your first attempts aren't going to work. It's goings to take a lot out of you—but energy is an asset we can always find more of. It's a renewable resource. Stop looking for an epiphany, and start looking for weak points. Stop looking for angels, and start looking for angles. There are options. Settle in for the long haul and then try each and every possibility, and you'll get there.

When people ask where we are, what we're doing, how that "situation" is coming along, the answer should be clear: We're working on it. We're getting closer. When setbacks come, we respond by working twice as hard. [...]

In Silicon Valley, start-ups don't launch with polished, finished businesses. Instead, they release their "Minimum Viable Product" (MVP)—the most basic version of their core idea with only one or two essential features.

The point is to immediately see how customers respond. And, if that response is poor, to be able to fail cheaply and quickly. To avoid making or investing in a product customers do not want.

As engineers now like to quip: Failure is a Feature.

But it's no joke. Failure really can be an asset if what you're trying to do is improve, learn, or do something new. It's the preceding feature of nearly all successes. There's nothing shameful about being wrong, about changing course. Each time it happens we have new options. Problems become opportunities.

The old way of business—where companies guess what customers want from research and then produce those products in a lab, isolated and insulated from feedback—reflects a fear of failure and is deeply fragile in relation to it. If the highly produced product flops on launch day, all that effort was wasted. If it succeeds, no one really knows why or what was responsible for that success. The MVP model, on the other hand, embraces failure and feedback. It gets stronger by failure, dropping the features that don't work, that customers don't find interesting, and then focusing the developers' limited resources on improving the features that do. [...]

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.

The road to back-to-back championships is just that, a road. And you travel along a road in steps. Excellence is a matter of steps. Excelling at this one, then that one, and then the one after that. Saban's process is exclusively this— existing in the present, taking it one step at a time, not getting distracted by anything else. Not the other team, not the scoreboard or the crowd.

The process is about finishing. Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions. Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you and finishing it well. [...]

When we get distracted, when we start caring about something other than our own progress and efforts, the process is helpful, if occasionally bossy, voice in our head. It is the bark of the wise, older leader who knows exactly who he is and what he's got to do: Shut up. Go back to your stations and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves instead of worrying about what's going on out there. You know what your job is. Stop jawing and get to work.

Subordinate strength to the process. Replace fear with the process. Depend on it. Lean on it. Trust in it.

Take your time, don't rush. Some problems are harder than others. Deal with the ones right in front of you first.

Come back to the others later. You'll get there.

The process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture. [...]

As they say in Brazilian jujitsu, it doesn't matter how you get your opponents to the ground, after all, only that you take them down.

What Zemurray never lost sight of was the mission: getting bananas across the river. Whether it was a bridge or two piers with a dock in the middle, it didn't matter so long as it got the cargo where it needed to go. When he wanted to plant bananas on a particular plantation, it wasn't important to find the rightful owner of the land—it was to become the rightful owner.

You've got your mission, whatever it is. To accomplish it, like the rest of us you're in the pinch between the way you wish things were and the way they actually are (which always seems to be a disaster). How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to do about it?

Scratch the complaining. No waffling. No submitting to powerlessness or fear. You can't just run home to Mommy. How are you going to solve this problem? How are you going to get around the rules that hold you back?

Maybe you'll need to be a little more cunning or conniving than feels comfortable. Sometimes that requires ignoring some outdated regulations or asking for forgiveness from management later rather than for permission (which would be denied) right now. But if you've got an important mission, all that matters is that you accomplish it. [...]

The great myth of history, propagated by movies and stories and our own ignorance, is that wars are won and lost by two great armies going head-to-head in battle. It's a dramatic, courageous notion—but also very, very wrong.

In a study of some 30 conflicts comprising more than 280 campaigns from ancient to modern history, the brilliant strategist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart came to a stunning conclusion: In only 6 of the 280 campaigns was the decisive victory a result of a direct attack on the enemy's main army.

Only six. That's 2 percent.
If not from pitched battles, where do we find victory?

From everywhere else. From the flanks. From the unexpected. From the psychological. From drawing opponents out from their defenses. From the untraditional. From any-
thing but . . .
As Hart writes in his masterwork Strategy:

"The Great Captain will take even the most hazardous indirect approach—if necessary over mountains, deserts or swamps, with only a fraction of the forces, even cutting himself loose from his communications. Facing, in fact, every unfavorable condition rather than accept the risk of stalemate invited by direct approach."

When you're at your wit's end, straining and straining with all your might, when people tell you you look like you might pop a vein...

Take a step back, then go around the problem. Find some leverage. Approach from what is called the "line of least expectation."

What's your first instinct when faced with a challenge? Is it to outspend the competition? Argue with people in an attempt to change long-held opinions? Are you trying to barge through the front door? Because the back door, side doors, and windows may have been left wide open.

As someone once put it after fighting Jigoro Kano, the legendary five-foot-tall founder of judo, "Trying to fight with Kano was like trying to fight with an empty jacket!" That can be you.
Being outnumbered, coming from behind, being low on funds, these don't have to be disadvantaged. They can be gifts. Assets that make us less likely to commit suicide with a head-to-head attack. These things force us to be creative, to find workarounds, to sublimate the ego and do anything to win besides challenging our enemies where they are strongest. These are the signs that tell us to approach from an oblique angle.

In fact, having the advantage of size or strength or power is often the birthing ground for true and fatal weakness. The inertia of success makes it much harder to truly develop good technique. People or companies who have that size advantage never really have to learn the process when they've been able to coast on brute force. And that works for them . . . until it doesn't. Until they meet you and you make quick work of them with deft and oblique maneuvers, when you refuse to face them in the one setting they know: head-to-head. [...]

What setbacks in our lives could resist that elegant, fluid, and powerful mastery?
To be physically and mentally loose takes no talent. That's just recklessness. (We want right action, not action period.) [...]

To be physically and mentally tight? That's called anxiety. It doesn't work, either. Eventually we snap. But physical looseness combined with mental restraint? That is powerful. [...]

Well, now something has happened—some disruptive event like a failure or an accident or a tragedy. Use it.

Perhaps you're stuck in bed recovering. Well, now you have time to write. Perhaps your emotions are overwhelming and painful, turn it into material. You lost your job or a relationship? That's awful, but now you can travel unencumbered. You're having a problem? Now you know exactly what to approach that mentor about. Seize this moment to deploy the plan that has long sat dormant in your head. Every chemical reaction requires a catalyst. Let this be yours.

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.

But this crisis in front of you? You're wasting it feeling sorry for yourself, feeling tired or disappointed. You forget: Life speeds on the bold and favors the brave.
We sit here and complain that we're not being given opportunities or chances. But we are. [...]

It's much easier to control our perceptions and emotions than it is to give up our desire to control other people and events. It's easier to persist in our efforts and actions than to endure the uncomfortable or the painful. It's easier to think and act than it is to practice wisdom.

These lessons come harder but are, in the end, the most critical to wresting advantage from adversity. In every situation, we can :

Always prepare ourselves for more difficult times.
Always accept what we're unable to change.
Always manage our expectations.
Always persevere.
Always learn to love our fate and what happens to us.
Always protect our inner self, retreat into ourselves.
Always submit to a greater, larger cause.
Always remind ourselves of our own mortality.
And, of course, prepare to start the cycle once more. [...]

We take weakness for granted. We assume that the way we're born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there.

That's not necessarily the best recipe for the difficulties of life. Not everyone accepts their bad start in life. They remake their bodies and their lives with activities and exercise. They prepare themselves for the hard road. Do they hope they never have to walk it? Sure. But they are prepared for it in any case. [...]

We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano—sound mind in a strong body). [...]

This is strikingly similar to what the Stoics called the Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down. An important caveat is that we are not born with such a structure; it must be built and actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it. We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us.

To Roosevelt, life was like an arena and he was a gladiator. In order to survive, he needed to be strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness.

You'll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is—at best—indifferent to your existence. Whether we were born weak like Roosevelt or we are currently experiencing good times, we should always prepare for things to get tough. In our own way, in our own fight, we are all in the same position Roosevelt was in.

No one is born a gladiator. No one is born with an Inner Citadel. If we're going to succeed in achieving our goals despite the obstacles that may come, this strength in will must be built.

Previous article Can't Hurt Me | David Goggins
Next article Vivre ! dans un monde imprévisible | Frédéric Lenoir