How has University of Alabama coach Nick Saban built “perhaps the most dominant dynasty in the history of college football?” asks Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
1: He doesn’t focus on winning, at least not the way other coaches do. Instead, he teaches “the process.”
“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the National Championship,” Nick says. “Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
We live in a VUCA world: Volatility. Uncertainty. Complexity. Ambiguity.
“The process” provides us a way forward. “It says: Okay, we’ve got to do something very difficult,” writes Ryan. “Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing.”
Stop worrying about what could happen later. Stop worrying about the end result. Stop worrying about the whole picture.
“Follow the process and not the prize,” Ryan suggests.
The process is about existing in this moment: Focus on the task at hand. Don’t get distracted. “Not [on] the other team, not [on] the scoreboard or [on] the crowd.”
The process is about finishing: “Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions. Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you and finishing it well,” writes Ryan.
The process works in good times and bad.
“Whether it’s pursuing the pinnacle of success in your field or simply surviving some awful or trying ordeal, the same approach works,” Ryan observes. “Don’t think about the end—think about surviving. Making it from meal to meal, break to break, checkpoint to checkpoint, paycheck to paycheck, one day at a time.
“And when you really get it right, even the hardest things become manageable. Because the process is relaxing. Under its influence, we needn’t panic. Even mammoth tasks become just a series of component parts.”
The process is about taking responsibility and ownership. “Like a relentless machine, subjugating resistance each and every way it exists, little by little,” writes Ryan. “Subordinate strength to the process. Replace fear with the process. Depend on it. Lean on it. Trust in it.”
2: What gets in our way? Disorder and distraction.
“The unordered mind loses track of what’s in front of it—what matters—and gets distracted by thoughts of the future,” Ryan writes. “The process is order, it keeps our perceptions in check and our actions in sync. It seems obvious, but we forget this when it matters most.”
Do we settle or compromise because the solution seems too unrealistic or beyond our grasp? Do we think that change is impossible because it just seems too hard? Do we get paralyzed because we have too many ideas and don’t know where to start?
“All these issues are solvable,” writes Ryan, “Each would collapse beneath the process. We’ve just wrongly assumed that it has to happen all at once, and we give up at the thought of it.
“We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.”
But we’re trapped, we say.
“Being trapped is just a position, not a fate,” Ryan notes. We “get out of it by addressing and eliminating each part of that position through small, deliberate actions—not by trying (and failing) to push it away with superhuman strength.”
3: One key ingredient of success? Goals. “When we know what we’re really setting out to do, the obstacles that arise tend to seem smaller, more manageable. When we don’t, each one looms larger and seems impossible. Goals help put the blips and bumps in proper proportion.”
We take our time. Some problems will be harder than others. We deal with the ones in front of us right now. We’ll come back to the other ones later. We will get there.
Reflection: How can I use “the process” to improve my life? Action: Block out time and journal about it.