The Obstacle is The Way


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

About shahishaharyar

Chartered civil engineer,Fellow institution of engineers India, Member Indian road congress,Member American society of civil engineers, Presented over 70 papers in various seminars,published books over 36 on environment,history, sufi saints, genealogy,free lance writer, travelled in India and abroad.

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