The Obstacle is the Way

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. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. -Marcus Aurelius, AD 170

The stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius (i.e. the old man in the Gladiator movie), were interesting problem solvers. They realized that while they couldn’t always control what happened to them they could control how they responded. Put another way, they didn’t perceive setbacks as insurmountable problems or obstacles… instead they only saw opportunities.

This is the premise behind the idea of stoicism and was the basis for Ryan Holiday’s must read book, “The Obstacle is the Way.”

I finished this book over the Christmas break and really enjoyed it. As a Christian there are some aspects of stoicism I don’t personally agree with but, for the most part, there are so many facets of this ancient philosophy we lean thinkers can learn from.

Specifically, Holiday presents a three-part plan of attack for how anyone can, and should, approach problems or setbacks.

Perception

The first discipline has to do with our perception. How do we see the obstacle? Is it horrible? Unfair? Impossible to counter? The stoics believe if you perceive obstacles with a doomsday attitude your chances of success are next to none. So, even though the situation is less than idea the stoic will tell him or herself that the obstacle is what it is.

Holiday shares several, real world, examples of this in the book including the story of how Thomas Edison dealt with what most would perceive as an earth shattering disaster.

One evening, after dinner, Edison was informed that a fire had broken out at his research and production campus. After arriving on the scene, and assessing the situation, Edison calmly told his son, “Go get your mother and all her friends… they’ll never see a fire like this again.” Bewildered, Edison’s son seemed shocked at his Dad’s reaction. Edison simply responded, “Don’t worry. It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.

The stoics refer to Edison’s reaction as Amor Fati – a love of fate. Of course this doesn’t mean we cannot, or will never, get angry or frustrated when met with obstacles. But these moments of frustration and angst must be just that… momentary. Dwelling on the negative and/or falling into despair helps no one.

Action

Next, once we’ve properly perceived the situation with a clear, focused, head it’s time to take action with creativity, persistence, and ingenuity. We lean thinkers love this part… this is what we’re good at. Of course, we also need to plan things out and then check and adjust as needed.

Obviously it does us no good if we accept a bad situation with a clear head but then do nothing. So, acceptance is the first step. Taking action is the second.

Now, as you may already know, Edison and his team remained calm and resolute during the great fire and quickly rebuilt things and went on to incredible success later that same year.

Will

Finally, the third discipline Holiday touches on is the will. These are the things we don’t have control over. For example, we’re all going to die. We can, and I contend should, do our best to extend this time… but obsessing, or despairing, over our immortality isn’t value added.

From a lean thinking perspective we can’t control who our boss is or how our company values continuous improvement. But we can control our behavior. We can do our very best with the cards we’re dealt.

Put another way, stoicism teaches that with everything that happens to us there’s a chance to practice excellence so long as we perceive the problem correctly, take action, and accept the things we have no control of.

My wish for all of us is that we’ll remember these disciplines the next time we’re faced with what we perceive to be a problem or even tragedy.  Instead of despairing, or getting angry, we’d likely do better if we simply embraced the situation as an opportunity to grow and excel at life.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this final quote which perfectly summarizes the book and, really, stoicism.

Objective judgement, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance – now at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need. -Marcus Aurelius