The Obstacle is The Way: The ancient art of turning adversity into advantage Ryan Holiday 224 pages; Average reading time 2 hours 9 min This bookbhook summary will take not more than 7 minutes “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.” In the year 170, Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire, penned these words that have become the cornerstone of the art of tackling adversity to triumph. Obstacles may be unique to each of us, but their responses can be clubbed in common buckets (Fear, frustration, confusion, helplessness, depression & anger) with one dominant action: doing nothing. However some amongst us are able to translate this response of fear or confusion into action and turn the obstacles into rocket fuel. Marcus Aurelius’ words are not about “being positive” but about being opportunistic about the obstacles so as to move forward. Converting obstacles into a launching pad is essentially a discipline of three things: 1. Perception (How we look at our problems in an objective manner) a. Recognise your power: As Shakespeare said “Nothing (is) either good or bad, thinking makes it so.” The power to perceive a situation as positive or negative is within you. This does not mean that we hallucinate wearing rose tinted glasses that there is no problem, when there is a problem. This is about looking at the obstacle without clouding with emotions. The power to evaluate the problem in terms of what is up to us and what is not up to us makes the difference. If someone has decided not fund your new start-up, that isn’t up to you. But the power to improve your pitch lies with you and is up to you. b. Practice objectivity: Impression and perception are, to an extent, cause and effect. Impression is objective “this happened” while perception is subjective “and it’s bad thing that happened.” The ability to see everything objectively require discipline and the mind needs to be trained to do that. There is a simpler definition for this ability-the art of not panicking. When NASA sent John Glen into space, he orbited the earth for a day in spaceship the size of a mini car, and his heart rate stayed under 100 BPM all through. You are going into space for the first time, NASA till then, had never sent a man into space-so many things that can go wrong, and yet Glen was calm all through. How? Extensive training. Before the launch, NASA recreated the process for the astronauts hundreds of times, testing every step, introducing all possible variables that could go wrong. The uncertainty and fear around a first-ever process (sending an American to space) was removed by training. The mind of Glen and his colleague astronauts were trained to remove uncertainty and bring objectivity. c. Find the opportunity: Once you have controlled your emotions and perceived the situation objectively, the next step is to train the mind to look at the opportunity within the obstacle. During World War II, the German blitzkrieg rushed into Poland, Belgium and France with little opposition from the Allies. The Allies were at complete loss till General Eisenhower saw the opportunity within the problem-that the Germans were carrying destruction of the blitzkrieg within themselves. Each blitzkrieg would send thousands of Germans into a “meat grinder” zone, following which the Allies would attack them from the sides and the rear. The success of the Germans’ penetration became a problem for Allies and the Allies found an opportunity within the problem, when they realised they could lock the Germans inside a “meat grinder” zone by surrounding them from the sides and the rear. d. Our life is not about World War II. Yet in our day to day challenges & problems, the mind needs to look at the opportunity within the obstacle. Overcoming fear and doubt to emerge stronger is known as adversarial growth. For a lot of us, the fact that “it has not been done before” brings a sense of fear and inaction. To the entrepreneur, the fact that it has not been done before is the opportunity to start-up. 2. Action (The ability to break down the obstacle into opportunities) a. Disciplined and persistent action: There is a difference between action and right action. Right action has elements of thoughtfulness, courage and persistence. When you face a problem, you either give in or you give it your all. Demosthenes was not born as the greatest orator of Athens. He became one. Demosthenes was born frail and with a speech impediment. He lost his father at seven, and his inheritance was swindled by relatives. To overcome his speech impediment, he would practise speaking with his mouth full of pebbles. He would narrate speeches while running up a steep incline. Eventually, he emerged as one of the strongest orators of his time. He then filed litigation against his relatives who had wronged him, and argued for himself in the court to win the case. We are all skilled and knowledgeable. And we believe those strengths will compensate for persistence or the need to slog. That is a mistake. In 1878, Edison was not the only inventor experimenting with incandescent light bulb. But he was the only one who tested 6000 filaments made of different materials! And we know he was capable and knowledgeable as well, so were his peers. Edison’s persistence to test 6000 filaments outlasted his peers’ intelligence and patience. Persist and resist is the maxim to imbibe. b. Do your job right: Do you often think “This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter”? The reality is that everything we do matters-from clearing the garbage to studying for a professional degree. We owe it to ourselves and the world to do every job well. Remember that story where Steve Jobs learnt from his father to finish the back of cabinets as well as the front? That discipline to do the job well irrespective of whether it is a cabinet or the iPhone is the essence of Steve Jobs’ design philosophy. c. The flexibility of pragmatism: Steve Jobs was a perfectionist, but he was also pragmatic. The first iPhone shipped without the copy-and-paste feature. How could a revolutionary phone not have something as basic as the copyand-paste? But Steve knew that he could get the feature in the next version and what was more important was to launch the iPhone within the timeline promised. Steve Jobs was a radical pragmatist-immensely ambitious and yet guided by the possible. What stops you from being a radical pragmatist? Progress is better than perfection. d. The opportunity within obstacles: Marcus Aurelius’ core message is “What stands in the way becomes the way.” When Gandhi marched to the ocean to make salt, he flipped the obstacle of the might of British Empire into an advantage-the British knew that arresting Gandhi would lead to intensifying the struggle for India’s independence, and not arresting him would mean that British laws could be broken by anyone. In our daily lives, we get consumed by the ambition for the next promotion, the next pay hike-assuming wrongly that moving forward is the only way to progress. And when the forward movement gets stalled, we put more energy into the same thing, finally accumulating frustration. We then complain that we do not get enough opportunities. Believing that the road ahead can be paved sideways or even by taking a few steps back requires humility. The humility to accept that “I cannot get it the traditional way, but so what?” 3. Will (Build the inner discipline to accept what we cannot change and change what we can) a. Perception & action require discipline of mind and body. Will is the playground of heart and soul. While both perception and discipline have dependence on others and the outside world, will is totally and completely in your control. You may make the effort to change the perception about you in your boss’ eyes, but the final perception still rests with your boss. However, when you decide to run 5 km in three weeks, given that you have never run, everything is in your control and within your will. On one hand, will is about accepting what you cannot change, when you flip this over- will is also about changing what you can change. b. Will is not inherent. It is not something we are born with. It needs to be built, just like a muscle is built. Building up will is like building an inner citadel-a fortress inside us that no one can break. Theodore Roosevelt built such an inner citadel in his childhood years when he was weak and frail. His father helped a smart but frail 12 year old Theodore become stronger, overcome his asthma and prepare for life ahead, during which he would lead his country in times of global turmoil. One evening, 67 years old Thomas Edison got the news that his research & development complex had caught fire. By the time Edison reached the complex, the fire had engulfed the premises. Edison asked his son “Go get your mother and her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” He did not cry or get angry or quit. He knew that for those moments, there was nothing in his control. However, next morning he told a reporter that he wasn’t too old to make a start. Within a month, Edison’s laboratory was back to working two shifts a day. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. c. There is a German word Sitzfleisch which means “staying power.” Obstacles are not a one-off event. They can come back, again and again. The will is about building perseverance-the ability to persist against obstacles in the long run. William Churchill described perseverance in an easy to understand acronym-KBO (Keep Buggering On). In our technologically advanced world, it is easy to believe that nothing and no one can defeat us. Your problems become the biggest problems, your life becomes the most unfair, you are the unluckiest person. This is myopia of believing that you are the centre of the world. The Romans had two words for such people-Memento moriRemember you are mortal. Being aware of our mortality is not depressing, it creates an objective perspective and a sense of urgency. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defined a Stoic as “(who) transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.” And the philosophy of turning an obstacle into opportunity is ironically not about thought alone but about a combination of perception, action and will. The story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter Rubin Carter, when he was the height of his boxing career, was convicted for triple homicide and sentenced to three life sentences. Rubin believed that he had not committed the crime. When he entered the prison, Rubin told the warden that he was not giving up the last thing he controlled-his own self. He said,“ I know you had nothing to do with the injustice that brought me to this jail, so I’m willing to stay here until I get out. But I will not, under any circumstances, be treated like a prisoner-because I am not and never will be powerless.” He was angry about the injustice meted out but he refused to rage or despair. He refused to eat prison food, wear uniform or accept visitors. Carter spent all his prison time on his legal case and he was determined to leave the prison a free and innocent man, but also a better and improved human being. It took 19 years and two trials to overturn the original verdict and when Carter walked out of the prison, he just went back to regular life. He did not ask for apology from the court or sue for damages because he felt doing so would mean that the world had taken something from Carter which he wanted back. But he had never given up himself, so there was no question of apology or damages. Carter believed, “This can’t harm me-I might not have wanted it to happen, but I decide how it will affect me. No one else has the right.” As Marcus Aurelius said in 170, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Buy this book from: 1. Flipkart 2. Amazon
This article was originally published in Greater Good.
I’ve been an avid hiker my whole life. From the time I first strapped on a backpack and headed into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I was hooked on the experience, loving the way being in nature cleared my mind and helped me to feel more grounded and peaceful.
Nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior.
But, even though I’ve always believed that hiking in nature had many psychological benefits, I’ve never had much science to back me up … until now, that is. Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and to increase our attention capacity, creativity, and ability to connect with other people.
“People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several hundred years—from Thoreau to John Muir to many other writers,” says researcher David Strayer, of the University of Utah. “Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.”
While he and other scientists may believe nature benefits our well-being, we live in a society where people spend more and more time indoors and online—especially children. Findings on how nature improves our brains bring added legitimacy to the call for preserving natural spaces—both urban and wild—and for spending more time in nature in order to lead healthier, happier, and more creative lives.
Here are some of the ways that science is showing how being in nature affects our brains and bodies.
1. Being in nature decreases stress
It’s clear that hiking—and any physical activity—can reduce stress and anxiety. But, there’s something about being in nature that may augment those impacts.
In one recent experiment conducted in Japan, participants were assigned to walk either in a forest or in an urban center (taking walks of equal length and difficulty) while having their heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure measured. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their moods, stress levels, and other psychological measures.
Results showed that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress) and reported better moods and less anxiety than those who walked in urban settings. The researchers concluded that there’s something about being in nature that had a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.
We evolved to be more relaxed in natural spaces.
In another study, researchers in Finland found that urban dwellers who strolled for as little as 20 minutes through an urban park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than those who strolled in a city center.
The reasons for this effect are unclear, but scientists believe that we evolved to be more relaxed in natural spaces. In a now-classic laboratory experiment by Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University and colleagues, participants who first viewed a stress-inducing movie and were then exposed to color/sound videotapes depicting natural scenes showed much quicker, more complete recovery from stress than those who’d been exposed to videos of urban settings.
These studies and others provide evidence that being in natural spaces—or even just looking out of a window onto a natural scene—somehow soothes us and relieves stress.
2. Nature makes you happier and less brooding
I’ve always found that hiking in nature makes me feel happier, and of course decreased stress may be a big part of the reason why. But, Gregory Bratman, of Stanford University, has found evidence that nature may impact our mood in other ways, too.
In one 2015 study, he and his colleagues randomly assigned 60 participants to a 50-minute walk in either a natural setting (oak woodlands) or an urban setting (along a four-lane road). Before and after the walk, the participants were assessed on their emotional state and on cognitive measures, such as how well they could perform tasks requiring short-term memory. Results showed that those who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination (focused attention on negative aspects of oneself), and negative affect, as well as more positive emotions, in comparison to the urban walkers. They also improved their performance on the memory tasks.
Nature may have important impacts on mood.
In another study, he and his colleaguesextended these findings by zeroing in on how walking in nature affects rumination—which has been associated with the onset of depression and anxiety—while also using fMRI technology to look at brain activity. Participants who took a 90-minute walk in either a natural setting or an urban setting had their brains scanned before and after their walks and were surveyed on self-reported rumination levels (as well as other psychological markers). The researchers controlled for many potential factors that might influence rumination or brain activity—for example, physical exertion levels as measured by heart rates and pulmonary functions.
Participants who walked in a natural setting versus an urban setting reported decreased rumination after the walk, and they showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain whose deactivation is affiliated with depression and anxiety—a finding that suggests nature may have important impacts on mood.
Bratman believes results like these need to reach city planners and others whose policies impact our natural spaces. “Ecosystem services are being incorporated into decision making at all levels of public policy, land use planning, and urban design, and it’s very important to be sure to incorporate empirical findings from psychology into these decisions,” he says.
3. Nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity
Today, we live with ubiquitous technology designed to constantly pull at our attention. But many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and that it can lead to mental fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout, requiring “attention restoration” to get back to a normal, healthy state.
Strayer is one of those researchers. He believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving.
“When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources,” he says.
In a 2012 study, he and his colleagues showed that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike—in fact, 47 percent more. Although other factors may account for his results—for example, the exercise or the camaraderie of being out together—prior studies have suggested that nature itself may play an important role. One in Psychological Science found that the impact of nature on attention restoration is what accounted for improved scores on cognitive tests for the study participants.
This phenomenon may be due to differences in brain activation when viewing natural scenes versus more built-up scenes—even for those who normally live in an urban environment. In a recent study conducted by Peter Aspinall at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and colleagues, participants who had their brains monitored continuously using mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) while they walked through an urban green space had EEG readings indicating lower frustration, engagement, and arousal, and higher meditation levels while in the green area, and higher engagement levels when moving out of the green area. This lower engagement and arousal may be what allows for attention restoration, encouraging a more open, meditative mindset.
Being in nature restores depleted attention circuits.
It’s this kind of brain activity—sometimes referred to as “the brain default network”—that is tied to creative thinking, says Strayer. He is currently repeating his earlier 2012 study with a new group of hikers and recording their EEG activity and salivary cortisol levels before, during, and after a three-day hike. Early analyses of EEG readings support the theory that hiking in nature seems to rest people’s attention networks and to engage their default networks.
Strayer and colleagues are also specifically looking at the effects of technology by monitoring people’s EEG readings while they walk in an arboretum, either while talking on their cell phone or not. So far, they’ve found that participants with cell phones appear to have EEG readings consistent with attention overload, and can recall only half as many details of the arboretum they just passed through, compared to those who were not on a cell phone.
Though Strayer’s findings are preliminary, they are consistent with other people’s findings on the importance of nature to attention restoration and creativity.
“If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says Strayer. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”
4. Nature may help you to be kind and generous
Whenever I go to places like Yosemite or Big Sur, on the coast of California, I seem to return to my home life ready to be more kind and generous to those around me—just ask my husband and kids! Now some new studies may shed light on why that is.
In a series of experiments published in 2014, Juyoung Lee, GGSC director Dacher Keltner, and other researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the potential impact of nature on the willingness to be generous, trusting, and helpful toward others, while considering what factors might influence that relationship.
As part of their study, the researchers exposed participants to more or less subjectively beautiful nature scenes (whose beauty levels were rated independently) and then observed how participants behaved playing two economics games—the Dictator Game and the Trust Game—that measure generosity and trust, respectively. After being exposed to the more beautiful nature scenes, participants acted more generously and with more trust in the games than those who saw less beautiful scenes, and the effects appeared to be due to corresponding increases in positive emotion.
I seem to return to my home life ready to be more kind and generous.
In another part of the study, the researchers asked people to fill out a survey about their emotions while sitting at a table where more or less beautiful plants were placed. Afterwards, the participants were told that the experiment was over and they could leave, but that if they wanted to they could volunteer to make paper cranes for a relief effort program in Japan. The number of cranes they made (or didn’t make) was used as a measure of their “prosociality” or willingness to help.
Results showed that the presence of more beautiful plants significantly increased the number of cranes made by participants, and that this increase was, again, mediated by positive emotion elicited by natural beauty. The researchers concluded that experiencing the beauty of nature increases positive emotion—perhaps by inspiring awe, a feeling akin to wonder, with the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself—which then leads to prosocial behaviors.
Support for this theory comes from an experiment conducted by Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues, in which participants staring up at a grove of very tall trees for as little as one minute experienced measurable increases in awe, and demonstrated more helpful behavior and approached moral dilemmas more ethically, than participants who spent the same amount of time looking up at a high building.
5. Nature makes you “feel more alive”
With all of these benefits to being out in nature, it’s probably no surprise that something about nature makes us feel more alive and vital. Being outdoors gives us energy, makes us happier, helps us to relieve the everyday stresses of our overscheduled lives, opens the door to creativity, and helps us to be kind to others.
No one knows if there is an ideal amount of nature exposure, though Strayer says that longtime backpackers suggest a minimum of three days to really unplug from our everyday lives. Nor can anyone say for sure how nature compares to other forms of stress relief or attention restoration, such as sleep or meditation. Both Strayer and Bratman say we need a lot more careful research to tease out these effects before we come to any definitive conclusions.
Still, the research does suggest there’s something about nature that keeps us psychologically healthy, and that’s good to know … especially since nature is a resource that’s free and that many of us can access by just walking outside the door. Results like these should encourage us as a society to consider more carefully how we preserve our wilderness spaces and our urban parks.
Something about nature makes us feel more alive and vital.
And while the research may not be conclusive, Strayer is optimistic that science will eventually catch up to what people like me have intuited all along—that there’s something about nature that renews us, allowing us to feel better, to think better, and to deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.
“You can’t have centuries of people writing about this and not have something going on,” says Strayer. “If you are constantly on a device or in front of a screen, you’re missing out on something that’s pretty spectacular: the real world.”