1: The year was 170 A.D. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire, sat down to write.
Perhaps it was “at night in his tent on the front lines of the war in Germania,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. “Or perhaps it was before dawn at the palace in Rome. Or he stole a few seconds to himself during the games, ignoring the carnage on the floor of the Colosseum below.”
And while the precise location isn’t essential, what is important is what he wrote. A single paragraph. Eighty-five words.
“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.”
And then: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
There it is. The secret to success and achievement.
Ryan frames it as: “The obstacle is the way.”
2: To live this way is to take on a mindset where “there is always a way out or another route to get to where [we] need to go,” Ryan writes. “So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.”
During his nineteen-year reign, Marcus, called the last of the Good Emperors, would encounter “nearly constant war, a horrific plague, possible infidelity, an attempt at the throne by one of his closest allies, repeated and arduous travel across the empire—from Asia Minor to Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Austria—a rapidly depleting treasury, an incompetent and greedy stepbrother as co-emperor, and on and on and on,” Ryan notes.
“And from what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity,” Ryan writes. “He rarely rose to excess or anger, and never to hatred or bitterness.”
In 1863, the essayist Matthew Arnold wrote: “in Marcus we find a man who held the highest and most powerful station in the world–and the universal verdict of the people around him was that he proved himself worthy of it.”
The obstacle is the way. In time, this mindset would lead to “the creative outpouring of the Renaissance to the breakthroughs of the Enlightenment,” Ryan writes. “It’s seen starkly in the pioneer spirit of the American West, the perseverance of the Union cause during the Civil War, and in the bustle of the Industrial Revolution. It appeared again in the bravery of the leaders of the civil rights movement and stood tall in the prison camps of Vietnam. And today, it surges in the DNA of the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.
“On the battlefield or in the boardroom, across oceans and many centuries, members of every group, gender, class, cause, and business have had to confront obstacles and struggle to overcome them–learning to turn those obstacles upside down.”
3: Wherever we are, whatever we face, we have a choice, Ryan tells us: “Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?”
The world will test us. Expect challenges. Expect adversity. Are we worthy? Can we overcome the obstacles that inevitably will get in our way?
“Plenty of people have answered this question in the affirmative,” Ryan writes. “And a rarer breed still has shown that they not only have what it takes, but they thrive and rally at every such challenge.”
Reflection: What obstacles am I facing in my life right now? How can I overcome these challenges and grow stronger in the process?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.