The king believed his people had grown soft and entitled. He decided to teach them a lesson.
1: “His plan was simple: He would place a large boulder in the middle of the main road, completely blocking entry into the city. He would then hide nearby and observe their reactions,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
What would happen? Would they work together to remove it? Or would they get frustrated and give up?
The king watched as subject after subject came to the large boulder and either turned away or halfheartedly attempted to move it before giving up. “Many openly complained or cursed the king or fortune or bemoaned the inconvenience, but none managed to do anything about it,” writes Ryan.
Then, after several days, a man came upon the rock on his way into town. He did not turn away. Rather, he pushed and pushed, trying to move it. “Then an idea came to him: He scrambled into the nearby woods to find something he could use for leverage. Finally, he returned with a large branch he had crafted into a lever and deployed it to dislodge the massive rock from the road.”
Underneath the rock was a purse of gold coins and a note from the king, which read: “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
Life is hard. We will face obstacles in our life—fair and unfair. And, we will find: “What matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure,” Ryan writes. Our “reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming—or possibly thriving because of—them.
2: “Where one person sees a crisis, another can see opportunity. Where one is blinded by success, another sees reality with ruthless objectivity. Where one loses control of emotions, another can remain calm. Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions,” Ryan observes. “All that does is turn bad things into really bad things.”
The key? Realizing nothing makes us feel this way. Instead, we choose to give in to such feelings.
Or, choose not to: “Whether we’re having trouble getting a job, fighting against discrimination, running low on funds, stuck in a bad relationship, locking horns with some aggressive opponent, have an employee or student we just can’t seem to reach, or are in the middle of a creative block, we need to know that there is a way,” Ryan writes. “When we meet with adversity, we can turn it to advantage.”
The obstacle is the way. “The things which hurt,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “instruct.”
“All great victories, be they in politics, business, art, or seduction, involve resolving vexing problems with a potent cocktail of creativity, focus, and daring,” Ryan suggests.
3: We begin by focusing on our perceptions: “How we see and understand what occurs around us—and what we decide those events will mean,” he writes.
Our battles are mainly internal, not external. “Since World War II, we have lived in some of the most prosperous times in history. There are fewer armies to face,” Ryan notes, “and far more safety nets. But the world still rarely does exactly what we want. Instead of opposing enemies, we have internal tension. We have professional frustration. We have unmet expectations. We have learned helplessness. And we still have the same overwhelming emotions humans have always had: grief, pain, loss.”
We begin by cultivating the right mindset. Our attitude. Our approach.
“To prevent becoming overwhelmed by the world around us, we must, as the ancients practiced, learn how to limit our passions and their control over our lives,” Ryan writes. “It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it’s worth it, for what’s left is truth. While others are excited or afraid, we will remain calm and imperturbable. We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are—neither good nor bad.”
The right mindset is an incredible advantage in our fight against adversity. “Our brains evolved for an environment very different from the one we currently inhabit. As a result, we carry all kinds of biological baggage,” notes Ryan. “Humans are still primed to detect threats and dangers that no longer exist—think of the cold sweat when you’re stressed about money, or the fight-or-flight response that kicks in when your boss yells at you.”
Yet, we have a choice. “We can be blindly led by these primal feelings or we can understand them and learn to filter them. Discipline in perception lets [us] clearly see the advantage and the proper course of action in every situation—without pestilence of panic and fear.”
The true jujitsu move is to embrace the obstacles in our path. We can teach ourselves to “see opportunity in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education, a skill set, or a fortune. Seen properly, everything that happens—be it an economic crash or a personal tragedy—is a chance to move forward.”
How do we learn to see the opportunity within the obstacle? “It does not happen on its own. It is a process —one that results from self-discipline and logic,” Ryan writes. “We must try:
To be objective
To control emotions and keep an even keel
To choose to see the good in a situation
To steady our nerves
To ignore what disturbs or limits others
To place things in perspective
To revert to the present moment
To focus on what can be controlled.”
Reflection: Consider an obstacle or challenge I am presently facing. What is the lesson here? How can I use Ryan’s suggestions to change or strengthen my mindset?
Action: Discuss with a colleague or with my team.