The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius
This is the primary maxim of Ryan Holiday’s new book: The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trial into Triumph.
The book is about applying the principles of Stoicism and Ryan uses stories – from the ancient Stoics, like the Marcus Aurelius quote above, through to Barack Obama’s election campaign in 2008 – to illustrate how we can choose to face challenges, endure them and ultimately turn them to our advantage.
For me, the lesson from this book is that to turn trial into triumph is not an ability we are born with, but rather an ability we can train and develop by practice and Ryan lays out the 3 areas that form the foundation of that practice:
Perception is all about how we see and understand the world around us. Through training and practice we can come to see and understand things and events for what they truly are, rather them how we’d like them to be.
If you understand that an event on its own is neither good nor bad, then we are left with a choice as to how we will allow it to affect us. Rather than bemoaning the bad, we can find the good and see the opportunity it presents. The thing to remember is that every situation has both. The rest is up to us.
In this part of the practice, we are not just looking for any action but the right action, directed action. The right action is conscious and creative and will show itself in the choices we make and the steps we take. That is how we will make progress.
“Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us.”
Ryan also talks about action being a process. The process of trial and error, of eliminating what won’t work so you are one step closer to discovering way that will work. So that rather than being overwhelmed by the size of the obstacle, you can break it down into smaller pieces and stay focussed on the present.
The only thing you can be certain of in life is that you’ll come face to face with obstacles – some big, some small. When they will happen and what form they take is unknowable. The piece you can control is how you prepare for them, how you respond to them, and at times, how you endure them.
As Ryan highlights in the book, ultimately life is a string of obstacles and passing one simply says that you’re worthy of more. So the Serenity Prayer is good to remember:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The time for Will then, is in the first line, when you can’t do anything to change a situation and in which case as the Stoics demanded of themselves: “Cheerfulness in all situations, especially the bad ones.”
A final note:
If you’re at all interested in Stoicism, then The Obstacle Is The Way is a great introduction to the philosophies and people who have practiced its principles. And importantly, regardless of whether you’re already familiar with the Stoics or not, then this book provides a great framework for deconstructing and improving your practice of the philosophy.
I’ll finish with Ryan’s own words:
See things for what they are.
Do what we can.
Endure and bear what we must.