The Obstacle is the Way

The final section that I highlighted from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a quick passage that sums up the author’s personal philosophy and views of the world. Throughout the book Holiday encourages us to persevere and to find true growth in the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties we will encounter, but helps us understand the ways in which our perspective can turn obstacles into opportunities. Throughout his book I was reminded of a painting that hung on the wall of Coach Kirk Elias’s office at the University of Nevada. Coach E is the women’s cross country coach, and during an internship with the University’s Sports Media department, I spent a lot of time in his office talking running, coaching, and the team. He had a small abstract painting with a person holding a big square object and a caption reading something along the lines of, “here is a large block of whatever is the most difficult for you to carry. Throughout life you will carry it more times than you expect, until it no longer becomes so heavy.” Holiday’s book takes that message and shows us how that heavy block becomes the thing that gives our life direction, not by crushing us, but by helping us develop greater strength.

 

Toward the end of holiday’s book he recaps his writing with the following, “see things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The obstacle is the way.”

 

It is so easy to become frustrated by events beyond our control, but changing our focus and perception can help us better approach our challenges. What keeps us up at night can become the thing that defines us by either crushing us, or by giving us a greater foundation to stand upon. Overcoming obstacles does not just put us further along our path, it creates an entirely new path for us. When we shrink from challenges or back away when we see difficulties ahead we limit our growth, but remembering that we will always face obstacles and that we can only grow by facing them nobly allows us to charge forward. Things are always difficult, indeed Abraham Lincoln described life as a trial, but enduring the challenges will help us reach a more meaningful place where we can make a difference in the world as an example for those who follow and run up against the same challenges.

New Avenues for Movement

One of the ideas in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is developing a focus on other people and things beyond ones-self and one’s immediate wants and desires. Holiday follows stoic principles to build a more purposeful and meaningful life, and one of his strategies is to think more deeply about others. He encourages present mindedness in our thoughts, but in a way that is reflective and understanding, beyond a presence that is concerned about what we have, what we want, and what others have that we do not. By applying this type of thinking to the challenges we face, Holiday give us a new vision of obstacles, the difficulties we face, and how our challenges relate to other people. He writes, “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?”

 

This quote shows the importance of thinking beyond ourselves when we are faced with obstacles. The easy thing to do when we are stuck and unable to see potential solutions is to give up and complain about how unfair our situation is. What Holiday argues is a productive response to being stuck, is to stop thinking about ourselves and how limited our possibilities are. By shifting our focus of the problem away from our own “stuckness” and instead thinking of what we could do to help those who are in similar situations, we give ourselves new pathways forward. They may not be the pathways we originally envisioned, and they may not lead to the same destination, but they do move forward.

 

The crucial idea in Holiday’s quote is that thinking of others allows us more growth through deeper reflection. This mindset provides an opportunity for us to develop deeper connections with other human beings through the struggles we share. We likely will not find ourselves in situations that are truly unique to only us. Others have certainly been in our shoes at some point, and many more will experience situations similar to ours in the future. Thinking about what would have been helpful for ourselves, and creating ways to share our experiences, attempted solutions, and successes allows us do something meaningful at a point where none of our actions seem important.

 

This thought process gives us a new direction and new goals. we likely will have to shift our aim and pursue new actions to try to implement ideas that benefit others, but in doing so, we abandon our stuckness, and open doors for others. We experience new energy through acts that do good for others, and we create new opportunities for ourselves that we could not have predicted had we not been creative during our struggles. Holiday’s simple idea gives us an oblique approach to forward growth and a more meaningful life for ourselves and those around us.

Helping Others

Ryan Holiday has a solution for overcoming fears and personal anxieties – thinking beyond ourselves and our immediate situation. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday helps us see ways in which we can reach greater growth by learning from the challenges we face and changing our thought process when we encounter difficulties. In a section I find quite moving given my recent obstacles, Holiday writes, “when we focus on others, on helping them or simply providing a good example, our own personal fears and troubles will diminish. With fear or heartache no longer our primary concern, we don’t have time for it. Shared purpose gives us strength.”

 

Holiday’s message is that our own personal growth can be something that benefits others and provides for more than just ourselves. Seeing our connections with those around us and learning to focus on ways in which we can benefit others through our own perseverance in difficult times helps us to reduce our own internal demons. When we recognize that our actions to overcome obstacles will benefit those who watch us advance or will provide opportunity for us to help others with advice and future guidance, we are able to find deeper motivation for positive action. Rather than walking away from difficulties, we can see ourselves as pioneers, leading a charge and building a pathway for others to follow.

 

A benefit of the passage above, beyond the reduced fear and anxiety that Holiday addresses, is the ability to develop stronger friendships. The message fits in with a discussion I listened to in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast hosted by the director of Vox.com. Klein interviewed author Tim Ferris and at one point in their discussion Ferris introduced the idea that friendships can be strengthened by shared experiences of trials and struggles. He offered anecdotes about doing tough physical exercise with friends to build greater bonds and discussed friendships he had forged from meeting people in situations that are often difficult and challenging to sort through (like graduate school, volunteer projects, or athletic competitions).

 

Combining Ferris’s idea with the quote above helps me see that we can better connect with the world around us by reflecting on our challenges and seeing the ways in which our successes can benefit others. By pushing through tough times, reflecting on the challenges we face, and being open about our struggles we can become better human beings, and we can assist those who go through similar hard times. This will lead to better friendships, and gives our life more meaning. Our connections with others helps our mental state, and our success becomes the success of all, reducing our stress and anxiety as we understand the difference we can make in the world.

A Better Place

One of the last chapters in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is titled, “Something Bigger Than Yourself” and Holiday starts the chapter with a quote from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul.” Holiday continues by sharing  the story of an American prisoner of war who brought unity to a POW camp and continued to serve for the men under his rank in the camp who were all enduring incredible torture and suffering.  By focusing on others, and not himself, the prisoner of war in Holiday’s story was able to better the lives of all, and to make survival an option for everyone during the most challenging point in their lives. 

The story from Holiday and the quote from Percy work together to show that we can find incredible meaning and joy in our lives when we begin to shift our focus away from ourselves and back toward others. There is no perfect balance of how much one should do for themselves and how much one should do for others, but focusing solely on yourself and seeking to only improve your life or the world for your purpose will leave you in an empty existence. Your home may be full of things, but your connections with the world around you will always be lacking.

I don’t approach the idea in a spiritual sense, but our time on earth is so short that there is always something bigger than ourselves that we can strive for. Our own happiness is meaningless in the sea of suffering and challenge around us, but we have the ability to begin to change the tides of struggle that wash against not only us, but of many of those that we encounter.

When we begin to live life thinking of what we can do to make the world a better place for those around us, we can find purpose and meaning anywhere that we are. We can recognize that the timeline of the earth and human civilization will outlast us, meaning that there will be something greater than us that goes beyond our lifetime. Anything positive that we can do now, will have a lasting impact on those around us and will hopefully outlive us. We do not have to worry about how large our good actions are, we only need to worry that we complete those actions. The small scale of positive actions should not dismay us, for we would never get started if we thought that our positivity must change everything in the world.

Energy and Endurance

“Life is not about one obstacle, but many.” Author Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday looks at life as a series of challenges and views our success as being measured by how we respond to the road blocks and obstacles we face along our journey. In this view, the measure of success is not wealth, or career titles, or any of the other myriad of ideas of success we have gained from popular media, but instead, it is how well you adapt and adjust along the way. Popular visions of success may be byproducts of overcoming obstacles, but rarely are they a true measure of our success as Holiday sees it. Successfully navigating a sea of obstacles and challenges should be our focus because we never reach a place where difficulties subside and life becomes simple. Our attention should constantly be on self-improvement and self-reflection to guide us through the difficult times. Holiday writes,

 

“We will overcome every obstacle,—and there will be many in life—until we get there. Persistence is an action. Perseverance is a matter of will. One is energy. The other, endurance.”

 

By expecting that life will not be easy and that we will not reach a place of simplicity, we can prepare ourselves for what we will actually face while we grow. Aligning our actions to match our expectations and directing actions toward obstacles will help us reach success. We will not be judging ourselves against a ruler built by someone else, but instead we will judge ourselves based measures of our own efforts. This measure will be calibrated by the impediments, adversity, and luck of our own lives. Our actions build to become the rings on the ladder lifting us further against our ruler.

 

To continue our path requires constant focus and motivation. The perseverance that Holiday discusses comes after we have studied our challenges and identified the best path forward. The path is rarely the path of least resistance, but rather a path filled with questions that will challenge, push back, and ultimately help us grow as we learn and climb. The quick energy needed to surge forward with new ideas and perspectives can only come if we have a strong level of endurance to support our efforts over the long haul.

Things Will Go Wrong

The importance of anticipation and preparation for challenges is one of the items that author Ryan Holiday writes about in his book, The obstacle is the Way. In true stoic fashion, Holiday encourages us to step back and anticipate what challenges we might face along our path, and plan ways in which we could overcome our obstacles or the challenges ahead of us. Holiday also highlights the importance of understanding that our plans will not always go the way we want, and that it is important to handle negativity and failure in a calm and objective manner. Setting up this idea he writes, “the only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.”

 

No matter what, our plans to do not take place in a vacuum and we are always dependent on other for our success. The more people we involve in our plans, the more opportunities for things to go wrong, but at the same time the more people included, the further we can go. What Holiday explains in his writing is that we should expect situations and demands to change, meaning that our actions and endpoints will also change. Our plans may seem extraordinary, but they may not always be realistic given the actors and expectations we have, and we should be willing to adjust accordingly in reaction to the real world around us.

 

When our plans completely crash, Holiday offers additional advice. “And in the case where nothing could be done, the stoics would use it as an important practice to do something the rest of us too often fail to do: manage expectations. Because sometimes the only answer to “What if . . . “ is, it will suck but we’ll be ok.” When we fail to reach our goals and when our plans do not work out the tempting thing to do is blame someone else and make excuses for why things went wrong. Holiday instead encourages us to move forward and understand that we are still ok. Rather than letting ourselves be wrecked because a plan failed, be it as small as the rout we plan to take to the movie or as large as our plan to get a new job, we should recognize that nothing has truly affected us, and it is simply our mind that decides whether we are impacted at all.

The Path of Least Resistance

The premise of Ryan Holidays book, The Obstacle is the Way, is that our fortune in life will shift continuously, and we will face success, failure, challenges, and obstacles along our journey. Reaching our goals requires that we prepare for the difficulties of the journey in order to be prepared and find growth. Holiday focuses on how these challenges mold and shape us to become better people, and he discusses the ways in which we can ready ourselves for the obstacles in our life and writes, “the path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.”

 

His quote is building on the idea that  overcoming obstacles is what will propel our lives, and that we find the success we desire when we work toward something great without backing down from obstacles that intimidate us. We know some of the challenges that we will face along our journey and we know there are obstacles that we won’t be able to see, but we should not let that keep us from advancing or from starting out at all. When we go beyond the path of least resistance we learn more about ourselves and develop skills that will help us take greater steps toward what we want. If we see challenges and back down, then we miss an opportunity to grow and develop ourselves. If we look at the rewards of our future goals, but dismiss those goals because we think the challenges will be too great, then we are letting something external control our minds and our lives.

 

What Holiday encourages us to do is recognize our weaknesses and think forward to the difficulties we have to prepare for them. By doing so we can begin to plan for how we will surmount those obstacles and how we will battle against the challenges. By understanding our weaknesses and leaning into them, we give ourselves opportunities for action and growth. Hiding our weaknesses from ourselves and backing away from the barriers between us and our goals will limit our growth and create only an illusion of success and hard work. Ultimately without thinking of where we need to grow and how adversity helps us achieve growth, we trick ourselves into thinking we have reached our zenith and we create excuses for why we cannot go further. Avoiding the path of least resistance and planning for the challenges we will face is what will give us true growth.