Embracing Your Obstacles How to make the most of adversity

At any given point in our lives, we all have a laundry list of obstacles that stand in our way. No matter who you are or what socio-economic strata you come from, there’s no escape from adversity. Suffering doesn’t care how much money you make or how popular, famous or pretty you are. 

Maybe you face physical limitations or external conditions aren’t favorable—didn’t get the job you wanted, broke your leg in training camp, an important relationship has deteriorated to the point of constant pain and frustration, or you’re trying to move the ball forward in the arena of your dreams but meet opposition and failure at every turn.

Can’t kick the addiction, can’t find a solution, can’t get unstuck.

As Ryan Holiday argues in his book, “The Obstacle is the Way,” we’ve got to come to grips with Marcus Aurelius’ maxim: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” 

“the impediment to action advances action. what stands in the way becomes the way.” 

What does that mean? It means your obstacles, no matter how bad they seem right now, are actually your greatest opportunities for growth. But only if you can change your perspective about them. Only if you can use them as a catalyst for action. 

At first glance our adversity seems to hinder us, but it can also be our greatest teacher, helping us to see the good in it—that it’s helping us to move forward, adjust our strategy, or go in a better direction. 

A relationship falls apart. This could paralyze you and send you into despair, or it could help you see that your dependence on a certain person was holding you back, choking the life out of you. Now that it’s over, you’re free to move on and find greater health. 

You get laid off from your job at a software company. You could spend your days binging on Netflix and Miller Lite, or you could see it as an opportunity to pursue the small business opportunity you’ve always dreamed of. A change in perspective frees you to start hustling, open a new business, move in a different direction. 

Winston Churchill was known as one of the greatest orators of all time, and yet he grew up with a speech impediment, a stuttering problem. Instead of giving in to despair, Churchill would practice his speeches for hours, focusing on every word, every burst of emotion. What appeared at first glance to be his greatest obstacle became the instrument that shaped him into one of the greatest speakers of all time. 

As Holiday says, 

All great victories, be they in politics, business, art, or seduction, involved resolving vexing problems with a potent cocktail of creativity, focus, and daring. When you have a goal, obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go—carving you a path. “The things which hurt,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Instruct” (8).

Ultimately, it’s about understanding that our adversity isn’t pointless. It serves a purpose, in the hands of God, to shape us into the people we were meant to be. Even when others intend evil against us, God uses that for our good (Genesis 50:20). It’s why King David could say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted,” and “In faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:71, 75). 

It starts with our perception. Do you see the obstacles in your life as dead end roads ending in paralysis and fear, or do you see them as detours that bring you to where you need to be? The right perspective, which views obstacles as opportunities, enables action. 

“Obstacles are not only to be expected,” Holiday writes, “but embraced. Embraced? Yes, because these obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph. The obstacle is the way.” 

Didn’t get the promotion? Good. More time to get better, perfect your skills, and redirect your vocational pursuits. Relationship didn’t work out? Good. More space to grow in love, mature, and move on. Project fell on its face? Good. More time to work on your craft, perfect the discipline of art, and come back with something better.

Realized you sucked at something? Good. Now you know what you’re not meant to do and you can check that off the list. Finding out who you are also requires finding out who you’re not. 

What this requires is something our snowflake generation could use a lot more of—mental toughness. Instead of running for your safe space at the first outward sign of opposition or criticism, we have the opportunity to harden our resolve, lace up our boots and get to work. 

Failure isn’t the enemy; quitting is. As Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The trick is knowing that you’ll take your share of knockdown blows, but getting up and starting again, no matter what. 

Finally, Jocko nails it: 

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