Obstacles and Growth

“The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels  the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.” Author Ryan Holiday wrote this in his book The Obstacle is the Way, perfectly summarizing his thoughts about the challenges and difficulties we face along our journey. We will all struggle and we will all hit roadblocks trying to get to the point we want, but we are only ever defeated if we decide to allow ourselves to be overcome by the challenges we face.  In his book, Holiday explores ways in which we can change our perspectives and work to better understand ourselves and our expectations, so that the difficulties and limitations which seem to hold us back instead become tools to be used in our own growth.

 

The quote above starts with an idea that is nothing more than a change in perspective. The idea that our obstacles, the things that hold us back, are actually the propellents we need on our journey is incredibly foreign to most people. We often desire a life where things simply come easy and where we move without being inhibited from one success to another, but that is simply not the life for any of us. Holiday urges us to study our obstacles and press forward even harder when faced with challenges. It is absolutely true that modern descriptions of success, defined by income and possessions, can be more easily attained for some with fewer obstacles, but true growth and fulfillment necessarily includes obstacles and challenges. To  learn and become a more well rounded and an overall better individual we need to have adversity to learn from. The challenges that hold us back and make our lives difficult are also the things that connect us with the rest of humanity, and understanding those challenges and growing from them is what will help us reach a version of success that is far more rewarding than a bank account or vehicle.

 

Recognizing the ways in which obstacles help us requires a herculean shift in our perspectives and the ways in which we think about success, hard work, and growth. If success is reaching a place where struggle no longer exists, then you may need to rethink your goals. The only place where struggle does not exist is in a land of mediocrity where one is well supported (read: spoiled) by people beyond oneself. It is a goal that necessarily lacks any goals. At the same time, a goal defined by a certain income, house, or lifestyle can be just as dangerous as the goal of a life  free from challenges since we never truly control our income and are using a false measure of success as our yardstick. It is a goal with a constantly moving finish line that is often well beyond our control.

 

Holiday would encourage us to better understand our goals so that when we face obstacles we can better understand the ways in which those obstacles help us and prepare us for the success we actually seek. Focusing on the way an obstacle holds us back and diving to better understand the obstacle will force us to action and growth in a way that a life of simplicity never could. By being challenged we are given an opportunity to expand who we are, and we can find ways forward that we never knew existed.

The Right and Wrong Perspective

“The difference between the right and wrong perspective is everything,” Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.” In the two quotes above Holiday lays out his thoughts for the importance of the systems we build for looking at the world. Stepping beyond our initial view of the world and learning to adjust our perception is incredibly important in the world today. Limiting our views and entrenching ourselves in our single perspective creates a reality for us that is not shareable nor understandable beyond ourselves to those with different experiences, beliefs, and views.

 

Holiday’s quotes feel very timely for me given the recent election. Our country has become increasingly polarized and there seems to be a great disconnect between those living in rural and urban areas. I’m afraid not that we have different opinions, but that we are not cultivating the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives, and that we are not striving to to better understand the other half of the country that does not live the way we do. When we limit our perspective and don’t seek a greater understanding of what others believe, we cut ourselves off from a large number of people. It becomes easy to hide behind those who share our views and we fail to even talk to those who are different from us.

 

In his writing, Holiday approaches our ability to change our perception as a tool for adapting to life’s many challenges. We can become more productive by thinking about the work we do from a different angle, and we can learn to better appreciate any given situation when we can focus on the present moment. For Holiday there are two parts of perception that shape the way we experience the world. We have the context of our lives that connects our view with the larger world, and we have our individual framing which is our determination of the meaning of a given event. We decide what something means according to our world view, and our entrenched perspectives on the specifics determine how that thing fits in with our daily actions and individual reactions.

 

Expanding on the idea of perspective as discussed in our daily lives makes me think about Amanda Gefter and her quest for ultimate reality in her book that I recently read, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter is a science journalist and author, and she explains how she built a career for herself reporting on physics. What she and her father have spent their life focusing on as a hobby is the search for ultimate reality, the search for the truest building block of the universe that may be the foundation for all of physics.  Ultimately, what she and her father found is that to the best of our understanding right now, there is no ultimate reality. Our perspective truly is everything. Where we are in the universe, how we choose to view the universe, and what we choose to look at determines the reality of the physics around us. Stepping outside the universe and taking a god’s-eye view of everything causes physics to break down, and ruptures reality. Change your frame and you lose gravity, divide atomic and subatomic particles far enough and you reach a possible eleven dimensional field of vibrations where there is no actual physical thing, accelerate yourself to the speed of light and time ceases to exist.  The physics and reality of our world only seem to work from our single perspective where we view the world and assemble our own information. There is no ultimate reality that can be agreed upon by everything, and there is no gods-eye view that can help us find “truth”. If this is true in the world of physics then it can be applied to our lives, and we can begin to understand that we never have an answer to the right way of doing things, we only have our perspective and how we choose to understand the world given the framework and understandings that we have built and adopted from our slice of the universe.

The One Thing We Control

Perception is a major focus throughout the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. By focusing on how we see the world around us and how we choose to react to the world in which we live, Holiday explains the many ways in which we can adapt and overcome the barriers which impede us along our path. For Holiday, our perception can become either a tool that we use to expand the possibilities around us, or a roadblock preventing us from becoming the best possible version of ourselves. Holiday writes,

 

“We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.”

 

Reacting automatically and living on autopilot is an easy way to move through life, but it is also a lifestyle that abandons self-control by giving up consciousness in regards to our perceptions. Allowing our lives to be limited by narrow views of what is possible leaves us in a position where our power to change is insignificant. Rather than allowing our mind to see obstacles in new ways, we double down on limitations, and assume that we were never meant to proceed. We accept that our world is finite, and we give control to another person or what we see on television or to forces that seem to operate above us.

 

Holiday encourages us  to regain control over our choices and our perceptions. I don’t think his message is to simply have greater will power or determination in our lives, though that may be part of what he advocates, but ultimately he encourages more thought and expansion of the way we look at any situation.  Life can pull us in many directions and our busy lives may feel like a tornado beyond our control, but through mindfulness and self-reflection, we can begin to recognize the choices we make, and we can begin to recognize how we think about and approach the situations in our life. Changing our perspective and refocusing our thoughts in ways that align with our values will allow us to be more fulfilled. Reaching this point requires the ability to shift our perspectives and to understand the power we have in deciding whether our minds with be fortified and sound, or whether our thoughts will be reactionary and at the discretion of the world around us.

What it Takes to Overcome Obstacles

There are three parts to overcoming our obstacles that Ryan Holiday lays out in his book The Obstacle is the Way. In a single short quote he gives us a quick roadmap for developing ourselves and facing our challenges.

 

“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.”

 

His approach breaks down the barriers that we face and looks at each part of an obstacle to help us see how we can take small steps to face what limits us. It also builds a framework for looking at our problems that can become a committed part of who we are, and a habit that we adopt for thinking about the world.  The process is not intended to be a tool that we pull out when needed for a specific job, but rather a mental scaffolding built around our decision making and thought processes.

 

I think it is very fitting that Holiday calls this process a discipline. It requires self-awareness and self-control to stand back and methodically pick through our obstacles to find creative solutions to bridge the gap between where we are and the success we desire.  Even once we have imagined a creative solution we must put forth great effort for that solution to manifest in the real world. Holiday is honest in the quote about about the challenges of applying this discipline. Each of his three steps require taking action that runs counter to the easy path away from our obstacles. Facing and using our obstacles to build new opportunity requires not just determination and strong will-power on our end, but the ability to overcome the negative voices in our head which tell us to turn away from our challenges in search of an easier rout. It requires that we change the way we think about that which limits us, and demands that we find new solutions to the problems we face.

 

Our new perceptions and novel solutions don’t just help us overcome any single obstacle, but they literally change who we are. The growth we find on our path results from our new ways of looking at the world, and from the practice of building greater will-power to reach our goals. The solutions we develop become a playbook for facing obstacles, and serve as proof of our accomplishments.

Impediments to Action

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday looks at how we can reach our goals and find success in the face of hardship. Holiday focuses on the challenges we face, how we can overcome those challenges, and how the act of surpassing obstacles shapes us into better people. He follows in the tradition of stoic philosophers focusing on building mental fortitude through awareness and reflection, placing the control of our ability to overcome impediments in our own hands, or more accurately, in our own minds. Holiday begins his book by quoting Marcus Aurelius,

 

“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.”

 

Holiday continues, interpreting the short paragraph, “In Marcus’s words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down. To act with a “reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.”

 

His writing focuses on how we can grow and find new opportunities when we change the way we look at obstacles. Aurelius recognized that obstacles and impediments created opportunities for those who were brave enough and creative enough to approach them rather than run from them. Holiday explains that perseverance and a unique approach to the world can turn new opportunities into defining moments. When we see a challenge we should not back away from it, but we should study that obstacle and work to fully understand what we are presented with and what it would look like to overcome it.

 

By facing challenges and striving to reach the other end of the path we grow and develop a greater understanding of the world. We may not always be successful in our actions, but we can still learn and grow. Our path forward will be defined by the lessons we learn and the skills we develop by scaling the mountains that block our path.

Placing Blame

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a very interesting way of looking at other people and thinking about those around us. He held others in high regard, and looked at their actions in a very open way. Compared to the way we often think of others today, Aurelius was very generous and forgiving, and he worked hard to see the good in others rather than the negative. When it came to finding fault in others he wrote, “With respect to that which happens conformably to nature, we ought to blame neither gods, for they do nothing wrong either voluntarily or involuntarily, nor men, for they do nothing wrong except involuntarily. Consequently we should blame nobody.”

 

I really enjoy this quote because it softens the way we look at others and their actions or decisions. In our society today we are overrun with cynicism and oftentimes the first thing we look for in another person is their faults. When we enter into business agreements, receive some sort of advice, or are given an opportunity, it is hard to keep from thinking about possible ulterior motives of the other individual. When we see negative situations arise from the mistakes of another person we are very quick to blame their moral character and to assume they acted with intent to do bad.  Aurelius would encourage us to slow down in our judgments about others, and to step back to consider the situation, how we would act if we were the other person, and what could have been influencing the individual who is in the wrong.

 

In my post from July 21st, 2016, I wrote about Aurelius’ thoughts on where our mental focus should be in regards to others. He encourages us to see the positive and negative in the actions and lives of those around us, but so that we may then turn inward to reflect on whether or not we have the same shortcomings in our own life. By pausing to reflect in this way we do not blame others, but we learn from them to improve our own lives. The section above shows that the faults of others is not a result of their direct failure, but on everything that has occurred to shape them into the person they are now. In one way or another, their current actions seem defensible to them. Understanding where their thought process went wrong and how they came to discount the negative will help us improve our lives and better understand those around us who seem to be headed down the wrong path. With this new perspective, we may be able to better assist others and work toward positive change as opposed to simply living cynically and criticizing the people and institutions around us.

Benevolent Toward All

Throughout Meditations Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius encourages us to maintain an even temperament, especially in our interactions with others. He focuses on the idea that we will see the world as we choose to see it, with positives and negatives projected onto the world by our own mind.  Aurelius believes that our opinions shape the reality of the world around us, and he writes about ways that we can take control of our thought process to change our opinions and perspectives.  This is clear in his writing of other people and our interactions with others,

 

“Suppose any man shall despise me. Let him look to that himself. But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.  Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.”

 

In this quote he is showing how important it is to look toward all people  with an attitude of brotherhood and unity. When we accept and recognize that we are all connected then we see that the best way to move forward would be to work together and to lift everyone in our actions. Looking for the negative and hypocritical in others is not productive, but developing into the person who can lead a group with clear focus will help guide the change we want to see.

 

Aurelius is encouraging us to abandon our reliance on the opinions of others and to develop strong personal thoughts about ourselves. He is not simply encouraging us to be self-confident or even to hold fast to our opinions, but rather to let other people’s opinions of us remain separate from how we act toward others. By treating everyone well and avoiding grudges we can be more open toward those around us. Constantly checking to see if we have been harmed by another will be exhausting, and will also build barriers between us and people in our lives.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”

 

As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.

 

When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Complaints

When it came to complaints, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius stayed true to his stoic philosophy and took a step back to consider his thoughts and actions before complaining about those around him and about the things in life which happened to him.  Through rational thought and reason Aurelius found that complaining led to no benefit in his life, and he sought to make the most out of his time and thoughts on Earth.  Aurelius wrote, “Let no man any longer hear thee finding fault with the court of life or with thy own.”


I think there are a few perspectives that Aurelius is adopting in this quote that encourage us to find ways not to complain about our lives.  The first is the simple idea of not complaining which is never as easy as the short sentence makes it seem.  He is encouraging us to begin our complaint free life by not voicing our complaints. This will open up new  conversation for us with others, leading to more positive interactions with those around us. Rather than blowing off steam by talking about the negative aspects of our days and lives, we can focus on the positive or what we have recently learned. Our mind can be shifted and adjusted to give up the negative and more strongly highlight the positive in all aspects of our life.


The second level of Aurelius’ quote has to do with our perception of reality and what we understand as good or bad.  The emperor had a keen sense for the way that our perspective shaped the way we understand the world, and throughout Meditations he focused on ways that we could adjust our perception to adjust the reality in which we live. As he wrote  the following about our focus, “how much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure” we can make a decision about our perspective to focus on the positive or the negative. We can hold up what we find to be good, or we can look down upon ourselves as hopeless beings wrecked by the negativity around us.


When we voice our complaints we are showing the rest of the world that we do not hold strong perspectives. We show others that we have abandoned control of our mind through rational thought, and we have allowed outside forces to control and shape our interpretations and beliefs of the world.  For Aurelius the most important thing one can do with ones mind is shape it to be self-empowered and not dependent on other people or things for happiness and meaning.  When we quit complaining we take a step closer to this goal. We allow ourselves to see the world in a spectrum that is not black or white, opening new avenues for decisions and actions.  Aurelius would agree with George Saunders who wrote a letter for James Harmon’s book Take My Advice, when he wrote, “enter a new moral space in which the emphasis is on seeing with clarity, rather than judging.” When we complain we are not looking at events with clarity, but we are judging each moment by the negative, and our opinion shapes independent events, changing randomness to an evilness that we powerless against.

The Practicality of the Present

In the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius offers us insight into the mindset of stoicism and shows us both how to practice stoicism and the benefits that it can bring to our lives. The power behind stoicism lies in shaping our thoughts, controlling our emotions, and giving ourselves the power to choose how we wish to behave in any given situation.  It requires ardent self-awareness and self-reflection to truly recognize how we are living and to adjust our lives, thoughts, and actions to better align.

 

Part of stoicism requires the ability to be fully present in any given moment so that you are conscious of your thoughts and deliberate in your actions. Aurelius writes,

 

“Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings . Confine thyself to the present. Understand well what happens either to thee or to another. Divide and distribute every object into the causal and the material. Think of thy last hour. Let the wrong which is done by a man stay there where the wrong was done.”

 

His passage is full of short stoic soundbites that reveal the importance of staying present, and the importance of controlling your mind as opposed to letting other people or other things shape your thoughts. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the benefits of his advice in this section, but it is easy to see that you can be more at peace when living in the present without your mind overflowing with fears of what the future holds or with grudges against those who have done wrong to you.  When you sort yourself into the present and become more considerate and clear regarding the world around you, it becomes possible for you to achieve more and build better perspectives of the world.

 

When Aurelius encourages us to put a stop to our imagination he is not encouraging us to leave all creative thought behind. What he is urging the reader (originally himself) to do is to avoid thoughts of the future that leave one full of fear or with specific desires.  Anticipating a future that one imagines to be difficult and unhappy may cause one to become depressed in the present. At the same time, imaging a future that is bountiful and rich may lead one to feel unnecessary pressures in the present to ensure that ones life lives up to the luxury imagined. In both cases, visions of the future can impact the decisions made in the present, affecting the way in which we approach our current tasks.

 

By staying present we avoid thoughts of what we cannot predict and reduce the amount of stress that we have.  We can leave our grudges behind by recognizing that a wrong can only be harmful to us if we carry it with us at every moment.  Making decisions in the present that we know will benefit us in the future will help to prepare us for the challenges we will face, but being focused on just the future may cause us to loose sight of where we are now, abandoning the life that sustains us on our way to our goals.