The Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle is the Way

The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph

by Ryan Holiday

I was recommended this book by one of the entrepreneurship groups I belong to. The premise of this book is that obstacles don’t necessarily have to be bad. Indeed, the author contends that the “goodness” or “badness” of obstacles lies only in our perception. As every entrepreneur (and really every person) faces a multitude of obstacles every day, I thought it imperative that this book get a review.

The book starts out with a line from the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, who said, “Our actions may be impeded… but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (emphasis added).

This quote underpins the philosophy of this entire book. That which you may call an obstacle can either remain an obstacle or it can be “flipped” (as Ryan puts it) and turned into an opportunity. Ryan provides quite a few examples of people flipping obstacles from Demosthenes (who was slow of speech and had his inheritance and chances for education stolen from him before becoming one of the greatest of the Greek orators) to Amelia Earhart (who succeeded in becoming a respected pilot at a time when women were still considered to be less capable than men.)

Our particular obstacles are unique to each of us. But the method for flipping them is not. Ryan describes a three-step process to turn obstacles into opportunities. The first step is Perception. This is perhaps the most difficult. Perception requires us to change our patterns of thinking and understanding the world. Instead of seeing an obstacle as a roadblock, we can see that roadblock as the opportunity to forge a better way. Or an opportunity to gain strength from removing that roadblock. Or perhaps the roadblock is laced with gold ore and we just have to look a little closer to see it. Obstacles become opportunities based on how we see and understand those obstacles.

The second step is Action. No roadblock was ever moved by sitting and staring at it. Action is necessary to flip any obstacle. Sometimes action means actively pushing against the obstacle, but sometimes it means finding another way around. There is no one best way to overcome an obstacle. The famous general Ulysses S. Grant tried several different ways to crack the fortress at Vicksburg before finding the way the would succeed. But without trying different approaches, without Acting, Grant would not have succeeded.

And the final step is Will. Edison had the will to keep trying even though the first thousand tries to make a filament met with failure. Edison found a thousand roads that led to dead ends, but each of those helped him to find the road that ultimately led to success. There were other people trying to make a working lightbulb at the same time, but Edison succeeded because he had the Will to keep trying even though he failed a thousand times. Think about it. Do you have the Will to fail a thousand times and keep trying?

Overall, this is one for entrepreneurs of all types to read. Honestly, everyone should probably read this one. The ability to persevere in the face of obstacles, and even to turn the obstacles into a positive, is a powerful skill. If nothing else, take courage from the examples of many of the world’s greatest who have gone before. Ryan has crafted a book with inspiring stories and powerful lessons. I recommend this one.

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