The Obstacle is the Way

If you follow this blog, you’ll hear me mention three people on a regular basis.  Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss and Jocko Willink.  I credit them as the majority shareholders in my recent learning investment portfolio.  They themselves are prolific in their teachings, and I recommend you read and listen to them all as much as possible.  Along with the resources they recommend, they form a 3-person Advisory Council that’s hard to beat.  I must note that I’ve never met any of them – although I did once get a Facebook response from Jocko – but reading their books and listening to their podcasts has been as good a schooling as you’ll get anywhere, and I’m thinking of making a trip to Jocko’s Musterin 2019.  Side note: Ant, I’ll be crashing at your joint so get that air bed pumped up.

Today’s post is a review of Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way.  For reasons unknown, I read the first 3 chapters of the book back in early 2017, and it then sat on my shelf for almost a year.  Why?  It wasn’t boring or poorly written.  I suspect it was because I wasn’t really ready to absorb the message it spruiked on the dust jacket and those early chapters, and I was possibly a little apprehensive, or maybe even blinded by my ego that the lessons would even apply to me.

“It’s impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows”
– Epectitus

For reasons even further unknown, I picked it up again recently and simply devoured it.  Perhaps I was ready for what he had to say, perhaps I needed to hear what he had to say, but regardless of the reason, it’s certainly made an impact.

The book is set out similarly to his others (Ego is the EnemyThe Daily Stoicboth are highly recommended), in that it looks to break down huge, mind-bending concepts into tasty bite-sized pieces.  Similar I’m told, to the way you should eat an elephant.  These tasty brain nuggets make the concepts infinitely easier to retain and even more importantly, easier to implement.

Simplify.
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So what are these concepts, these principles?

Holiday doesn’t just look to, but succeeds in, cleverly detailing a personal operating system to help you perceive, act and persevere in the face of obstacles.  I write that, but actually it’s more – it’s providing a way to entirely refocus your approach to obstacles, great and small.  Redefining them in your head so that they no longer appear as obstacles, but opportunities for growth, learning and improvement.

He does this by providing a way to visualise obstacles in the same way Stoicism teaches an approach to life.  Three basic principles.

Perception – See things for what they are.
Action – Do what we can.
Will – Endure and bear what we must.

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Photo credit: author

Fundamentally, these principles, or maxims, are what have guided the Stoics for centuries.  From the teachings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and beyond, Stoicism provides us a framework for re-configuring our perspective on life, with the ultimate aim of a simpler life.  Simpler doesn’t necessarily mean living like a pauper or foregoing pleasure, but that whichever path you choose is chosen for sound reason.  Apart from the seemingly obvious benefit of this, it then ultimately provides you with more time and focus on doing what it is you need to do in this life.

I’ll be sharing a post in the coming weeks on how reading and learning, and practising Stoicism has had a huge impact on my life, but for now you might be asking “What does any of this have to do with leadership?”

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to provide a specific answer to this.  If I could, it would have been be me that would have written the book.

But alas.

What I can tell you is that since trying to implement the fundamentals Holiday writes of, I’ve noticed that what would have previously pi$$ed me off for hours or even days, seems to have shrunk to minutes, or not at all.  Is it because I’m older, wiser (ha!), or maybe it’s having two kids who are growing up too fast?  Do all these things mean I’ve mellowed with age?

Perhaps.  I’m not saying I’ve reached a Zen-level calmness, far from it, but with the stresses and obligations more pronounced than ever before, you’d think this would be offset by any mellowing and I’d still be pi$$ed off.  I truly believe that the combination of Stoicism and the teachings of this book have made me a better father, better leader, and a better human.

Yeah right, I hear you mutter under your breath.  Check out this sucker caught up in yet another self-help cult.  I understand your scepticism.  I felt it myself before I started learning again.  Just read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

Holiday’s fundamental principle is that the obstacle you face, whatever it might be, is unlikely to go away simply because you want it to.  You stub your toe on a table.  You then shout at the table, and while you’re at it, you shout at your toe.  Neither of these are going to upset the table, nor you toe for that matter.  You stub your toe on the table and then take a chainsaw to the table.  This is also not going to upset the table.  I recommend not taking a chainsaw to your toe.  The table is a simple example, but illustrates the point.  It is your response to an obstacle which causes the reaction, not the actual obstacle itself.  More importantly, it is only your response to an external stimulus that you are able to control.

He’s mindful of not wanting to sound glib, which is difficult when you consider some of the obstacles people face every day.  A sudden and unexpected death of a loved one?  Hard to see how that’s a good thing, and while grieving is a natural response, Holiday’s approach is to limit the impact that that grieving has on your life, by understanding that there’s nothing you can do to change what happened, and that being paralysed by that grief serves no one.  To take it to the next level, the person that’s dead doesn’t care at all.

On a lighter note, the approach can be applied to your work (and home) life almost every day.  I’ve stolen from Jocko Willink a method of changing your perspective, whose standard response to members of his SEAL team when things didn’t go as planned was “Good!

Good!
– Jocko Willink (when something went wrong)

Good?  Yup.

Same approach as Holiday describes, but provides a tactical method that you can implement today.

Ammunition re-supply didn’t arrive?
Good!  Opportunity for us to practise hand-to-hand combat.

Our operation got cancelled?
Good!  Opportunity for us to run through the plan a few more times.

Now unless you’re in a combat zone, these may not seem particularly relevant, but in our normal, ‘not being shot at’, lives, the approach still works.

Got a boss that micro-manages you?
Good!  Now’s your opportunity to work on methods in dealing with this type of person.

Got looked over for that promotion?
Good!  More time to get better.

Got dumped?
Good!  Now there’s more time to spend with your family who you’ve ignored recently.

“If you can say the word Good!  Guess what?  It means you’re still alive.  It means you’re still breathing.  And if you’re still breathing, guess what?  You’ve still got fight in you.  So get up.  Dust off. Reload. Recalibrate. Re-engage.
And go out on the attack.”
– Jocko Willink

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Jocko Willink – Good shirt.  Note how it’s written mirrored?  The message is for YOU.  Visit jockostore.com

Your response to the obstacle is the only thing you can control.  Re-visualise it and see it as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to develop, and you’ll suddenly find that everything is a lesson in leadership.  Even the hard sh!t, in fact, especially the hard sh!t.  It’s an uplifting revelation to have.

Obstacles in whichever form they take, are a vast majority of the time, not placed in your way deliberately, or with malice.  Obstacles are life’s way of reminding you that you’re alive, and that while you think you may have mastered her, that Mother Nature still runs this show so and you’re really just a passenger.  Each time you conquer an obstacle, you’ll learn something.  Each time, you’ll develop strength, wisdom and perspective.  Each time, a little more of the competition falls away.  Until all that is left is you: the best version of you.

“Lose money?”
Remember, you could have lost a friend.

Lost that job?”
What if you’d lost a limb?

“Lost your house?”
You could have lost everything.

Perception.

So we’ve covered off Perception and we’re already at 1,600 words.  There’s enough meat on this bone to warrant more posts, so we’ll stick with just Perception today and cover off Action and Will in a few weeks.

Of all the stories in the book about Perception, the one that stuck most in my mind, and the one I’ve reflected on the most, is a story about a factory fire at Thomas Edison’s laboratory which destroyed almost all of his life’s work.

Now it’s statistically unlikely that any of us will ever reach the heady heights of Edison, but if he can approach the razing of his factory as a spectacle to behold, who told his son with childlike excitement as the fire raged, fuelled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, “Go get your mother and all of her friends.  They’ll never see a fire like this again”, and calmly state afterwards, “It’s alright.  We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish”, we can surely re-frame having a difficult boss or poor Wi-Fi reception as an opportunity.

Side note:  Edison’s factory was up and running again in weeks, at full production some 3 months later, and almost tripled its output and profit within a year.

Good!

Make no mistake.  It’s hard work trying to implement the approaches outlined in the book.  It’s easy to see every obstacle as another reason to rest.  Another reason that explains why the other guy is succeeding when you’re not.  Another reason to give up.

But that’s the exact reason why you should try.  Why you must try.

The only person you should try and be better than…..
is the person you were yesterday

I promise you that you only need to do this exercise a few times to see the benefit.  But I promise you will, as the effect is immediate.

The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.
– Marcus Aurileus

As I promised in my first book review, I’m happy to send through a copy of my index in Excel format.  Leave a comment below, or get in touch via the Contact page.

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The Obstacle is the Way – index

As also as promised, my 3 takeaways;

  1. Edison’s factory fire – everything is an opportunity if you’re open to it.
  2. Changing your perspective on obstacles being opportunities is difficult and takes time.  Worth the effort though.
  3. A quote from Amelia Earhart “Always think with your stick forward”.  That is, you can’t ever let up your flying speed – if you do, you crash.  Be deliberate, of course, but you always need to be moving forward.

Re-framing my relationship with obstacles, and making it part of my existence, is I suspect, going to be something I’ll have to work on for the rest of my life.  But in the short time I’ve been trying to implement it, I’ve learned a lot.

Learning to be better than I was yesterday.

And as I always say, isn’t that what’s it all about?

8 thoughts on “The Obstacle is the Way”

  1. Pingback: Action & Will

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