The obstacle is the way? 2


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obstacle

Picture by Madhan R, on Creative Commons

As a part of my ‘every day spend 30 minutes reading a book’ habit I am currently going through the book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday. Its keynote is a famous sentence from Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The overall idea is that whenever you meet difficulties you should accept them and try to overcome. Obstacles should be embraced into our lives and seen as an opportunity to grow. The book often refers to the philosophy of stoicism, explaining how important holding negative emotions and having a cool head is. I have quite a lot of mixed feelings about what I have read up to now. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense. On the other, what about justice!

One of the first concepts we are acquainted with is discipline of perception. It bases itself on the assumption that how we see the current situation is strictly based on our emotions in a specific moment. Panic, fear or enthusiasm will significantly change the perspective. Controlling our emotions or even cutting them down would allow us to see things as they are. Focusing on parts of the reality that we can control and ignoring the ones that we cannot would help a lot also. Initially, this sounds easy and like common sense. However, think for moment about it. What about politics, the overall economical state, or even that one department in your company that pisses you off? We are constantly getting emotional about things we cannot or do not want to change. What a waste of energy! On the other side, those emotions are a part of being human.

Was the above concept a little controversial? What about this one:

It is only your decision whether you are going to be harmed or not.

The author reminds us of the history of a boxer, Rubin Carter. He was wrongfully convicted of murder and imprisoned. For almost 20 years he was fighting in court and finally he was released. As the story claims, Carter decided not to be harmed by imprisonment. He decided to control all of what he was able to: his attitude and inner self. When he left the prison walls, he just resumed his previous life. He hasn’t sued anyone, he hasn’t asked for an apology. What amazes us is that he had a full right to be mad and get crazy. To curse everyone. While human nature demands such reactions, I have to agree that it wouldn’t help him much. While it is very hard to accept, even if some actions are fully justified it is not wise to execute them.

Here is another nice argument on why steading our nerves and controlling our emotions is crucial in any undertaking:

If you are not able to control your emotions, it doesn’t matter what skills you have acquired and how well you have mastered them. In the most important moment, you will not be able to use them.

I cannot agree more with this statement. You can ruin your most important meeting just because of emotions, no matter how well you are prepared. An interesting fact is that controlling panic is the most important skills of NASA astronauts. They are so good at it that they can even ensure that their heart rate will not increase above a certain level.

However, how do we control our emotions and maintain objectivity? How do we see things for what they are, not what they appear to us through the lenses of our emotions? While it sounds like an easy saying, it is in fact very hard to do. One of the hints we get is to look at our lives from a different perspective – as though it was the life of someone neutral to us, a stranger. Not an easy task initially. However, think about how clearly we are able to see other people’s situations and help them solve their problems. What would happen if we would be able to maintain the same level of objectivity when analysing our lives?

While it is hard to see things for what they are, an easier way may be changing our perspective. While usually we are focused on our framing, being aware of people we deal with can be very helpful. It is really visible in recruitment process. What potential employees focus on is to show themselves from the best side – present his skills and advantages in the best possible way. What it misses is the perspective of their future employer. Their main requirement is to find a person to do some specific job. And usually find it fast. If a recruit would switch his mindset from showing themselves to proving that they are a perfect fit they would gain a significant advantage. While changing perspective is sometimes a hard task to do, I have to agree that it really help to achieve any goals.

There is a more or less hidden advice within all the chapters that I came through up to now:

Focus on what is in control and what is in the moment

Saying it another way around, do not think about what things mean, why they happened to you and that they are unfair. Just take care of and solve them. Hey, wait a moment? How can I not think about how my boss threatened me recently? The above advice is one of the hardest to accept. However, after rethinking, there is a hidden depth within it. While it is against our human and emotional nature, I admit the thought that it probably distinguishes success and failure. Isn’t it how successful people behave, at least in the beginning of their paths?

I have finished one third of the book. It already gave me a lot of hard to accept advice that I still have mixed feelings about. Completely leave  our ego, negative emotions and righteous reactions. Initially everyone would agree but would they apply them? However, all of them have a hidden depth within. I have to agree that properly applied this would significantly increase the chance of success for any undertaking. I am eagerly awaiting what the next chapters will reveal. And I will take notes from them too.

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