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.

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.

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.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “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).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.

What is Will

Author Ryan Holiday provides an in depth exploration of human will in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Giving us an in depth view, Holiday writes, “Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared.” Holiday sees our will as something deeper than what we typically understand as will power, and by building a more profound meaning of will, he gives us a new dimension of fortitude and strength. This vision that can be cultivated and built into who we are, the goals we have, and how we press forward to overcome the obstacles we face.

 

Will is our ability to relentlessly approach the world in a way where we can benefit and grow. Holidays continues in his writing to explain that will is not just the idea of perseverance to win, but a deeper strength of mind that stays with us even when we have lost everything else. Our mind is the only thing we can ever have the possibility of controlling, and our will is derived from our habits of thinking, our actions, and our perceptions. It is our ability to take a situation in which action appears impossible and in which all seems lost, and find a way to move forward in a positive direction. Will builds from our ability to recognize our situation, choose our reaction, and continue to pursue our goals.

 

Holiday explains that typical forms and ideas of will fall short of the view he puts forth. Rather than thinking of will as the degree to which we want something, it is better to see will as our inner strength that does not waver when we face an obstacle. Holiday explains that this type of will is stronger than the will that pushes us to act and charge forward, because a will built on calmness and inner power will guide us ahead evenly, regardless of whether the world is surging around us or falling down.

Discouragement and Persistance

Continuing his writing about focusing on the long term over the short term, author Ryan Holiday presents a new idea of persistence and brings a perspective to the discouragement we all feel from time to time. Holiday writes, “It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but 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.” The power in this quote is Holiday’s acknowledgment of our feelings and reminder that it is ok to feel discouraged when we are struggling along our path. He helps us look at our emotions and take a step back to think about what they mean.

I really enjoy when author’s look at our emotional states and explain that we should not be critical of ourselves for feeling a certain way. It is normal to feel discouraged when facing obstacles, and in a very realistic manner, Holiday accepts our discouragement and provides us with inspiration to press forward. His advice is powerful because it is honest about the way we will feel when trying to reach out goals, and does not simply paint a rosy future of how nice our life will be once we surmount the obstacles in front of us. By pushing through the discomfort and inching along, we can reach our goals, but there are times where we will not feel great about our journey.

Holiday’s message is that our continued efforts, despite our desire to quit, is what true persistence is all about. Persistence is not just continued action, but it is not giving up when it does not feel as though we can be successful. When our emotions have been shot down and all we can do is crawl along toward our goal, according to Holiday, we have reached a point where persistence is all we have. By viewing persistence and discouragement in open terms, we can better understand that our goals won’t be easy and that overcoming our goals will not be as glamorous as a Hollywood movie montage would suggest, but that incremental action can nevertheless drive us to where we set our sights.

The Long Haul

Another shift in perspective that author Ryan Holiday presents in his book The Obstacle is the Way is focused around the time frames through which we view the world and the things which happen to us. When we look at where we are and what is happening to us it is easy to be overwhelmed and frustrated by the negative things that occur on a daily basis. Often times when we step back and look at a longer view of our life and our actions, we see that what happens today that feels so negative is often a very small blip in the narrative of our life. Holiday writes,

 

“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.”

 

Holiday’s advice is to give up worrying about things in our past that have plagued us, and to instead focus on how we can move forward in a new direction. What held us back in the past does not dictate what we are capable of today, and just because we missed an opportunity in the past does not mean that we are out of time for improving ourselves or beginning a new path today. This not just a shift in perspective of the past, but it is a reassurance that we don’t need to be limited by the expectations that we have always held, and we are not pushed into or out of certain opportunities because of our age or experience.

 

When we connect Holiday’s quote above to the theme of the book we see that each little bump and setback along the road helps us improve. As we face more small bumps and challenges our lives can feel overwhelmingly challenging and unfairly difficult, but if we learn from each bump and grow, we will constantly be improving and developing ourselves to handle future challenges. Looking over the entire span of our life, past, present, and where we expect to go in the future, we can see each challenge as a badge of knowledge and experience showing that we can handle difficulties that arise in the future. We can see the obstacles we have overcome in our rearview mirror, study how we overcame our challenges, and apply those lessons to our current dilemmas or use those lessons to prepare for  the challenges we have yet to face. The important thing to remember is that our current challenge is not what will define our life, but rather a small chapter in the story of how we applied ourselves throughout our time on this planet.