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Book review: The Obstacle Is The Way

I read this book a couple of years ago – quickly and perhaps too dismissively. I recently picked it up again and am more enthused by it for several reasons.

I think my cursory look originally was driven by confirmation bias – I’m quite a stoical, calculating person, and this book aligns with that thinking. I agreed with the concept but did not take the time to digest it.

In the interest of encouraging you to read it, I want to examine the concepts in more detail.

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.

Emotional intelligence – a calculating approach

In business, you hear a lot about emotional intelligence or emotional quotient. Intelligence quotient reflects your general aptitude and ability to solve puzzles.

“What sets people apart from their peers isn’t cognitive intelligence or a specific skill set. It’s their emotional intelligence,” says Lindsay Kolowich on Hubspot’s 19 signs you are emotionally intelligent, (and why it matters for your career).

If you want to read more about the topic, hop over to the Practical Emotional Intelligence course website for more blogs.

Also, try these tests on the Harvard website to evaluate your own emotional intelligence.

Pushing an obstacle up a slope

Making the obstacle your focus, not your frustration

Marcus Aurelius, credited with being one of the earliest notable proponents of the ethos, described it with these words.

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

Think about your daily life at work. When things don’t go your way, there’s always a reason, and we have a natural human tendency to point the finger of blame.

As Ryan Holiday, the author, writes, “We blame our bosses, the economy, our politicians, other people, or we write ourselves off as failures or our goals as impossible. When, really, the only thing at fault is our attitude and approach.

“Great individuals, like great companies, find a way to transform weakness into strength. They took what should have held them back and used it to move forward.”

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

Tips to ploughing through obstacles

Holiday provides these tips to bear in mind.

  • Be objective
  • Control emotions and keep an even keel
  • Choose to see the good in a situation
  • Steady your nerves
  • Ignore what disturbs or limits others
  • Place things in perspective
  • Revert to the present moment
  • Focus on what can be controlled

Professionals who work in highly dangerous situations have to be trained to focus on the moment and ignore any emotion. Astronauts carrying out dangerous missions, soldiers, firefighters, surgeons. Forget what they do on TV, in real life, these people are trained to act calmly and without fear. Any other approach and they could be dead.

I recently spent some days in hospital. One morning, the patient on the bed next to me started choking and needed emergency attention. In seconds, a team of doctors and nurses were surrounding him, stopping him choking, trying to regulate his breathing and a doctor was giving calm instructions.

Everyone was calm, knew their job and the patient calmed down. No one panicked. Even I was calm, watching them work, sure that the patient was in good hands.


Real world examples of overcoming obstacles

The author shares many real world examples of people overcoming or ploughing through obstacles – from Seth Godin to George Clooney, from NASA to college sports coaches.

He even points out the long list of successful companies that were started during economic recessions – a time when many would advise against it – FedEx, UPS, Walt Disney, HP, Coors, Costco, Revlon, General Motors, United Airlines and more.

In all those cases, fear of obstacles would have prevented action, but the attitude was what drove the businesses forward.

Action is the key

The second part of the book focuses on action, which is key to this whole ethos. Not being afraid of obstacles is only a mentality. Lack of action gets you nowhere.

“It’s not any kind of action that will do,” says Holiday, “but directed action. Everything must be done in service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us.”

Failure is a key part of the iterative process. We try, fail, learn and move forward. Great entrepreneurs are “never wedded to a position, never afraid to lose a little of their, never bitter or embarrassed, never out of the game for long”.

Don’t focus on the end goal, focus on the steps to getting there. “Think about what you can do today, the task at hand,” says Holiday.

Then, of course, you should be prepared for none of it to work – for your path through the obstacle to create another obstacle and therefore a need for a new path.

This is the whole pragmatic, stoic approach that emotionally intelligent people can handle. Every problem has a solution – you might even relish working in situations where overcoming obstacles is a core part of the job.

I often say that my favourite customers are the ones that people describe as difficult or challenging.

Do you fit this mould?

I’d love to hear and discuss your thoughts on this topic. What kind of person are you? Do you avoid obstacles, being put off by a challenge that makes a task seem unachievable?

Or, are you the kind of person who grapples with the problem until you are through the other side?

Feel free to comment below.

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