How do we find the strength to turn adversities into opportunities? Wait, is there even such a way to do this?
The “Obstacle is The Way” claims there is. Using the ancient philosophy of the stoics, this book eloquently describes the art known as “turning obstacles upside down,” helping us see that what impedes us can also empower us.
When I started reading this book, I was deeply committed to believing that, in order to succeed, the road in front of me has to be clear and straightforward. Never had it occurred to me that obstacles are blessings in disguise,or that they can shape our character and redefine our sense of self. I approached this book with a serious dose of skepticism. I had read way too many self-development books which resulted in a deep disillusionment with a best-seller’s promise of saving me from my misery. However, unlike many other trendy books that simply deliver beautifully wrapped nonsense, “The Obstacle is the Way” provides valuable insights into the art of reframing your perception of the challenges in your life. Its aim is to teach you how to control what matters most: the thoughts and attitude you have whenever you face something seemingly insurmountable.
Let’s jump in:
Perception and Action
It is not sufficient to simply adjust your perception – you must also act in accordance with it. It is also not sufficient to act when you are doing it from a place of disempowerment and resentment. The right perception and action are two synergistic parts of approaching hardship, and the major parts of this book will provide numerous examples on how to do this.
We might not be emperors, but the world is still constantly testing us. It asks: Are you worthy? Can you get past the things that inevitably fall in your way? Will you stand up and show us what you’re made of?
The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.
The Discipline of Perception
The book begins with a promising chapter on the art of adjusting your perception. The main idea of this chapter is simple: What truly matters is not necessarily WHAT happens to us or around us, but rather what we decide those events will mean for us. The good or bad nature of outward events is always relative and subjective, hence acting on the basis of temporary distress or satisfaction can hinder our ability to recognize the truth.
The truth, according to the Stoics, is that things are neither good nor bad, for they can both be used to our advantage. Once we learn to adjust our perception, we are already one step forward towards finding our way through obstacles.
Recognize Your Power
“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed.
Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.”
Whenever we identify as victims of certain situations, we give away our most important resource: our inner power. Many people do not realize that they still have important assets to fight with, even in the midst of the most challenging times; their power of choice, their belief system, and their attitude. Giving bold examples of people who have been thrown in the most unfair situations, Ryan Holiday conveys a simple message – that it also comes down to how we decide to exercise our power of choice. Recognizing your power shifts your mindset from being a victim to someone who is able to choose how to respond:
They can throw us in jail, label us, deprive us of our possessions, but they’ll never control our thoughts, our beliefs, our reactions.
Control Your Emotions
Further on, the book also outlines the importance of remaining calm in the face of challenges. Ryan Holiday claims that we make the biggest mistakes when we are under the influence of strong emotional reactions. It is not that emotions are a bad thing, but they are transient, unreliable and impede our ability to make accurate decisions. Approaching challenging times with a sharp focus and level head will give you more chances to remain focused on solutions rather than get tangled in an emotional storm. As Holiday claims:
When people panic [….] They just react – not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.
This is why one of the most important skills to master is emotional regulation. The chapter on the importance of controlling your emotions will display why emotional reactions are overrated and why we should invest in keeping our composure rather than stirring yet another emotional freak-out.
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.
This chapter aims to show just one thing: that our perception might not always paint the perfect picture of reality. Most of the time, we are painfully subjective. And this subjectivity can cost us a great deal in terms of energy, motivation to act, and perhaps even misery. The ideas in this chapter are a natural continuity of the previous one on emotions; they outline the fact that, steadying ourselves and holding our emotions back are the prerequisites of crystal-clear objectivity.
Is it Up to You?
In life, our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.
In this chapter, Ryan Holiday states that another skill that needs to be mastered in our journey to transforming obstacles into opportunities is our ability to distinguish between things we have no control over and those that we can directly influence. Battling with situations that are outside of our power is a futile endeavor that only results in loss of important resources. What is in our control? Ryan Holiday names only a few things:
The Discipline of Action
The second part of “The Obstacle is the Way” addresses the other side of mastering challenges: action. While the first one was largely concerned with preparing your mindset with the right ideas and helping you reframe your perceptions, this part talks about implanting those ideas into concrete actionable plans.
We forget: In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you come from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given. And the only way you’ll do something spectacular is by using it all to your advantage.
A Final Word
“The Obstacle is The Way” is not necessarily the type of book that you read and put away, or that you only skim through for a temporary motivation boost. Instead, it is a resource that helps you take a serious inventory of your approach to life. It asks you, do you have the right perception of the nature of your hardships? If not, is there any way you can change it? Do your emotions serve your goals? If not, can you change them? Most importantly, the book outlines the two most important aspects of overcoming adversity: the importance of having the right perception and the power of focused action.
By: Teodora Ghiur
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Further your stoic education with our Summary and Key Ideas from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius