The Obstacle is the Way

Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.

Most of our obstacles are internal, not external.

Many of our problems come from having too much: rapid technological disruption, junk food, traditions that tell us the way we’re supposed to live our lives. We’re soft, entitled, and scared of conflict. Great times are great softeners.

🖇️ Related to Naval Ravikant’s idea that “all our diseases are diseases of abundance, not diseases of scarcity”

The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity.

Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps.

  • Perception: how we look at our specific problems, our attitude.
  • Action: the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities.
  • Will: the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will.


Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself.

Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.

—— Marcus Aurelius

Obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced.

Remain calm and imperturbable: we will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are — neither good nor bad.

What matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them.

Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

—— William Shakespeare

There is no good or bad without us, there is only perceptions. They are the thing that we’re in complete control of. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.

No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic. Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check.

Does getting upset provide you with more options? Sometimes it does. But in this instance? No, I suppose not. Well, then.

Objectivity means removing “you” — the subjective part—from the equation.

Take your situation and pretend it is not happening to you. Pretend it is not important, that it doesn’t matter.

🖇️ Related to Tony Robbins’ idea that “anxiety is just an excessive focus on the self”.

In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.

When it comes to perception, this is the crucial distinction to make: the difference between the things that are in our power and the things that aren’t.

—— Epictetus

To argue, to complain, or worse, to just give up, these are choices. Choices that more often than not, do nothing to get us across the finish line

Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead. We’re always trying to figure out what things mean — why things are the way they are. As though the why matters. Emerson put it best: “we cannot spend the day in explanation.” Don’t waste time on false constructs.

Remember that this moment is not your life, it’s just a moment in your life.


And then what do we do about it? Go out and party. Treat ourselves. Sleep in. Wait. It feels better to ignore or pretend. But you know deep down that that isn’t going to truly make it any better. You’ve got to act. And you’ve got to start now.

They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work.

While you’re sleeping, traveling, attending meetings, or messing around online, the same thing is happening to you. You’re going soft. You’re not aggressive enough. You’re not pressing ahead.

What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first steps to something better.

—— Wendell Phillips

The world is telling you something with each and every failure and action. It’s feedback — giving you precise instructions on how to improve. It’s trying to teach you something. Listen.

People fail in small ways all the time. But they don’t learn. They don’t listen. They don’t see the problems that failure exposes. It doesn’t make them better.

When failure does come, ask:

  • What went wrong here?
  • What can be improved?
  • What am I missing?

The process is about finishing. 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.

Take your time, don’t rush. Some problems are harder than others. Deal with the ones right in front of you first. Come back to the others later. You’ll get there. The process is about doing the right things, right now.

There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel — and to learn.

But you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.

Everything is a chance to do and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.

Respect the craft and make something beautiful.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.

How you do anything, is how you do everything.

Because all we need to do is those three little duties — to try hard, to be honest, and to help others and ourselves. That’s all that’s been asked of us. No more and no less.

Not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.


This too shall pass.

—— Abraham Lincoln

If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul. The will is the one thing we control completely, always.

In a world where we can beam documents around the world in nanoseconds, chat in high-definition video with anyone anywhere, predict the weather down to the minute, it’s very easy to internalize the assumption that nature has been domesticated and submits to our whim. Of course, it hasn’t.

We forget how light our grip on life really is. Otherwise, we wouldn’t spend so much time obsessing over trivialities. All of these are negated by death. All these assumptions presume that death won’t affect us, or at least, not when we don’t want it to. The paths of glory, Thomas Gray wrote, lead but to the grave.

Correct action depends upon focusing on the process and living within each moment of that process.

Reminding ourselves each day that we will die helps us treat our time as a gift. Someone on a deadline doesn’t indulge himself with attempts at the impossible, he doesn’t waste time complaining about how he’d like things to be.

Each time, you’ll learn something. Each time, you’ll develop strength, wisdom, and perspective. Each time, a little more of the competition falls away. Until all that is left is you: the best version of you.

Knowing that life is a marathon and not a sprint is important. Conserve your energy. Understand that each battle is only one of many and that you can use it to make the next one easier. More important, you must keep them all in real perspective.

First published on October 12, 2017