Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way

In what I hope will be an ongoing series, I will be reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

All of us face obstacles in one form or another. Often these obstacles seem to be overwhelming, insurmountable, formidable, and we surrender before we even begin to fight.  However, what if we viewed the obstacle in front of us not as a source of despair, but as an opportunity? In other words, what if we took a perceived disadvantage and used it to advance ourselves? Ryan Holiday explores this thought process in his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage.

Holiday masterfully combines the principles of Stoic philosophy with profiles of historical and contemporary figures such as John D. Rockefeller, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Margaret Thatcher, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and Nick Saban to name a handful of people who saw opportunity and seized it when others retracted in fear.

Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations serves as the inspiration for the book. Holiday quotes Aurelius: “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.”[1]

Holiday expands on these principles throughout the book, but he summarizes what we need to do in order to overcome our obstacles:

“Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps. It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them to opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty. It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will.[2]

Throughout the book, Holiday employs such Stoic principles as negative visualization, which is being able to examine the worst case scenario in any given situation. Negative visualization is not fear or pessimism, but serves as a way for us to adapt and anticipate obstacles that may come our way. Holiday also employs the Stoic mindset of separating what is in our control and what is not in our control. For example, our thoughts, emotions, decisions, attitudes, will, and reactions to events are perfectly within our control. What is not in our control? The Stoics, particularly Epictetus, called these events “externals,” such as what happen to us, our reputation, our property, the economy, the weather, and our overall health. The Stoics also believed that no matter what you do, be the best at it. We must also be mindful of the present moment. There is a process we must follow in order to be successful. If we remain persistent and work at the obstacle, we will find success.

My favorite story in the book is about Thomas Edison. Holiday relays a story that Thomas Edison received word that his factory was on fire. Edison came to the factory and viewed the fire, in which the various chemicals in the building were reacting to the fire, and shot yellow and green flames high into the sky. What was Edison’s reaction to the fire? Did he say, I’m Finished? Did he say, I’m sixty-seven years old and I’m too old to start over? Did Edison rant and rave, scream and have himself a “good old fit?” The story goes that Edison sought and found his son in the massive crowd of onlookers and instructed him to, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” Edison added, “Don’t worry. It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”[3] Of course, as prolific of an inventor as Edison was, there wasn’t simply “rubbish” alone that was lost in the fire. Within weeks, the factory was running a partial shift and within a month the factory was back to operating two shifts. Also, Edison and his investors lost quite a bit of money due to the fire, but he was still able to recover and earned back ten times the loss in revenue. What separated Edison’s mindset? Edison simply perceived obstacles not as failures and setbacks, but as discovering the ways something would not work.

Holiday adds, “To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks. We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens.”[4]

In his book, Holiday admits that taking this approach to adversity is a difficult process, but it can be done with enough hard work and persistence. I highly recommend The Obstacle is the Way to anyone no matter the stage of life. There is great wisdom and perspective that can be gained from this book.

[1] Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage. London: Profile Books LTD, 2014: XIV.

[2] Ibid: 9.

[3] Ibid: 150-151.

[4] Ibid: 151.

 

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