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“The things which hurt, instruct.”
When’s the last time you cried? I mean, really cried?
Or if you’re not the crying type, when’s the last time you woke up in a cold sweat? Couldn’t fall asleep? Loathed leaving the warmth of your bed?
Or how about the last time you struggled through a daunting task — final exams, an impossible conversation with a parent, scavenging around for funding so you and your employees could eat?
When’s the last time you saw a monster of an obstacle before you — scary, hairy, and grinning like a sonofabitch — and felt like cowering into the fetal position, cursing and intimidated?
If you’re a human being here on planet Earth, it probably hasn’t been too long. Could have been last week. Hell, it may have been this morning.
Here’s a thought: what if those monsters were, in fact, not monsters at all? What if those obstacles were actually your best friends, your wisest teachers, your greatest allies? And what if instead of hating your obstacles, you learned to love them?
This is the very idea Ryan Holiday explores in his newest book, The Obstacle is the Way. Using examples from Marcus Aurelius to Amelia Earhart, Ulysses S. Grant to Barack Obama, Holiday shows that the greatest feats in humanity weren’t accomplished in the absence of obstacles — they were accomplished because of them.
Obstacles, Holiday suggests, are just blessings in disguise. And so instead of cowering before the monstrous obstacles in our life, we should learn to embrace them.
Here are 10 reasons to love the obstacles in your life (with 10 of my favorite quotes from The Obstacle is The Way):
1. Obstacles show us who we really are
“Certain things in life will cut you open like a knife. When that happens–at that exposing moment–the world gets a glimpse of what’s truly inside you. So what will be revealed when you’re sliced open by tension and pressure? Iron? Or air? Or bullshit?”
In my solo travels, I learned most about myself during the absolute worst moments. Times of loneliness (and realizing a fear of rejection was holding me back). Times of sadness (and facing the fact that part of my happiness was irrationally dependent on others). Times of heartbreak (and secretly wishing a bus would hit me and remove the ache).
This is ugly stuff to admit. Obstacles that force us to feel these things expose our core — which can be scary if we don’t like what we see.
The good news is that once we’ve revealed our darkest demons, we can begin dealing with them.
2. Obstacles instruct us on what we need to do next
“In every situation, that which blocks our path actually presents a new path with a new part of us. If someone you love hurts you, there is a chance to practice forgiveness.”
Like neon signs, obstacles literally spell out what we must do — especially those obstacles that hurt the most. They reveal the parts within us that need fine-tuning. They show us the things inhibiting our own growth. And once exposed, they show us what to do next — lean into them, learn from them, and get past them.
Or as Benjamin Franklin would say, “The things which hurt, instruct.”
3. Obstacles make us tougher
“Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge it ourselves.”
If an obstacles rips us open and we see air (or bullshit, I suppose), this isn’t something to shy away from. Instead, we can look it in the face and resolve to do something about it. Obstacles give us a chance to practice courage — courage to improve our situation, our world, and ourselves.
And if we find that our courage, quite frankly, kinda sucks? Obstacles make us tougher for the next round.
4. Obstacles help us focus on what’s important
“We want to have goals, yes, so everything we do can be in service to something purposeful. When we know what we’re really setting out to do, the obstacles that arise tend to seem smaller, more manageable.”
When we don’t know what’s important to us, we can’t tell the difference between obstacles worthy of our time, and those that aren’t. Every challenge in our periphery looks like a massive mountain we must climb.
But once we determine and define that thing (or things) we most want to accomplish, suddenly the majority of our obstacles reduce themselves to molehills. We’re now focused and can pour our energy into the few true mountains worthy of us.
5. Obstacles make us more creative
“Only in struggling with the impediments that made others quit can we find ourselves on untrodden territory–only by persisting and resisting can we learn what others were too impatient to be taught.”
When it feels like all is lost, when the obstacle before us is the baddest badass we’ve seen — what can we do?
We can give up. Or we can get creative.
It’s like the story of the lecturer asking the audience to raise their hands as high as they can.
“Higher!” he yells, and everyone is somehow able to reach a little higher.
“Higher still!” Again, miraculously, everyone found an extra inch to reach.
“Can you go any higher? Is there anything more you can do?!?” And suddenly people are leaping onto their chairs, jumping up and down.
In other words, people got creative. They started pulling out all the stops — chairs, tables, athleticism — to reach higher than they initially thought possible. When all feels lost, obstacles help us stretch our creative muscles.
Sometimes it helps to ask: Is there anything more I can do?
6. Obstacles help us find (or define) meaning in our lives
“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.”
It’s uncommon knowledge that President Lincoln battled with depression throughout his life. Yet the man is legendary for leading the United States through one of it’s most challenging times: the Civil War.
Lincoln learned how to find meaning in his inner turmoil by focusing his efforts outward to unite an entire nation:
“[Lincoln] learned to endure all this, articulate it, and find benefit and meaning from it…Above all, he found purpose and relief in a cause bigger than himself and his personal struggles.”
7. Obstacles remind us that the deepest meaning is found outside of ourselves
As Lincoln discovered, the richest flavors of meaning are found when we stop peering so intensely at our own problems, and start to look at ways we can help the world around us.
“You won’t have time to think of your own suffering, because there are other people suffering and you’re too focused on them.”
The added benefit? Focusing outward helps us improve ourselves inward as well.
8. Obstacles give us the opportunity to change our lives for the better
Or sometimes, an excuse, to change our lives.
I’m forever intrigued by the concept of the impetus — the tragedy, the disaster, the death — that causes one to make a massive, deliberate life change. It’s something I discussed in my TEDx talk in April.
Got dumped? Laid off? Developed shingles? Diagnosed with something terrible? Witnessed a close friend die?
Look at these events as life’s way of helping you reassess your existence. And in doing so, providing a window of opportunity to make a change in your life, if you so dare to make it.
“Well, now something has happened–some disruptive event like a failure or an accident or a tragedy. Use it.”
9. Obstacles can give us greater inner peace
“If what’s up to us is the playing field, then what is not up to us are the rules and conditions of the game.”
The biggest, baddest obstacles in life — think natural disasters, economic depressions, and untimely death — remind us something that’s easy to forget: how little control we actually have over most things in life. Yet in the same breath, we’re reminded of the single thing we do have control over: our reaction.
These obstacles remind us of the importance of detaching what happens to us from how we react. As we internalize this, we’re able to achieve a higher level of inner peace. And this inner peace allows us to love our obstacles even more.
10. Obstacles prepare us for death.
“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.”
Let’s face it: we’re all on a timeline.
Death is the ultimate obstacle — the single, inevitable, impossible elephant in the room which we will never conquer.
Once we embrace this, all other obstacles reduce themselves to less than impossible. And finally, we’re able to focus our efforts on the obstacles we can get past.
Armed with this knowledge, we can courageously grin back at our Obstacles, and love them fiercely — for having the privilege to grapple with those hairy monsters for yet another day means we’re still human, still on Earth, and still very much alive.
To dive deeper into the land of obstacles, The Obstacle is the Way is available on Amazon.