There is an old Zen story about a king whose people had grown soft and entitled. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, he hoped to teach them a lesson. His plan was simple: He would place a large boulder in the middle of the main road, completely blocking entry into the city. He would then hide nearby and observe their reactions.

How would they respond? Would they band together to remove it? Or would they get discouraged, quit, and return home?

 With growing disappointment, the king watched as subject after subject came to this impediment and turned away. Or, at best, tried halfheartedly before giving up. Many openly complained or cursed the king or fortune or bemoaned the in- convenience, but none managed to do anything about it.

After several days, a lone peasant came along on his way into town. He did not turn away. Instead he strained and strained, trying to push it out of the way. Then an idea came to him: He scrambled into the nearby woods to find some- thing he could use for leverage. Finally, he returned with a large branch he had crafted into a lever and deployed it to dislodge the massive rock from the road.

Beneath the rock were a purse of gold coins and a note from the king, which said:

The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.

What if you had the ability to flip your obstacles and turn them into opportunities?

Here are 10 historical strategies for doing just that—practiced by great men and women throughout the centuries.

Strategy 1: Alter Your Perspective

Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. — Viktor Frankl

We chose how we look at things. How we approach an obstacle determines how daunting it will be to overcome.

By controlling our irrational emotions, we are able to see thing as they are, not as we perceive them to be.

Think of it as selective editing—not to deceive others, but to properly orient ourselves.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.

Strategy 2: Flip The Obstacle On Its Head

There is good in everything, if only we look for it.— Laura Ingalls Wilder

The events that we initially perceive as negative all contain a positive, exposed benefit that we can recognize and act on.

A computer glitch that destroys your work is now a means to make it twice as good because you’re better prepared.

Having a terrible boss is now an opportunity to learn from his faults while you fill up your resume and look for better jobs elsewhere.

Notice this is a complete mental flip: Seeing through the negative, past its underside and through to the positive.

Strategy 3: Stay Moving, Always.

We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out. — Theodore Roosevelt

Those who attack problems and life with most initiative and energy usually win.

Courage is really just taking action. Start by saying yes to create momentum and you’ll be on your way.

Obstacles seem more intimidating when we stop to look up at them.

Strategy 4: Fail Cheaply and Quickly

What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first steps to something better. —Wendell Phillips

Engineers now like to quip: Failure is a Feature.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Each time it happens, new options open up to us and problems can be flipped into opportunities.

When failure does come ask: Why did this happen? This helps birth alternative ways of doing what needs to be done. Failure puts you in corners you have to think your way out of and is a source of breakthroughs.

Strategy 5: Follow The Process

Under the comb the tangle and the straight path are the same. — Heraclitus

In the chaos of life, process provides us a way.

For whatever obstacles you come across, take a breath, do the immediate, composite part in front of you—and follow its thread into the next action.

The process is about doing the little things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.

Strategy 6: What’s Right Is What Works

I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. — Deng Xiaoping

We spend a lot of time thinking about how things are supposed to be.

As they say in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it doesn’t matter how you get our opponent to the ground, only that you take them down.

Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: not on changing the world right at this moment,but ambitious enough to get everything you need.

Think progress, not perfection.

Strategy 7: Use The Flank Attack

Where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy will be unprepared and consequently there is the fairest prospect of success. — George Washington

Think about this: In a study of more than 280 military campaigns, only two percent were decided on a direct attack on the enemy’s main army.

Being overmatched don’t have to be a disadvantage. It forces us to find workarounds, instead of challenging our enemy head on.

Remember, sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.

Strategy 8: Use The Obstacle Against Itself

Wise men are able to make a fitting use even of their enemies. — Plutarch

Action has many definitions. Sometimes you overcome obstacles not by attacking them but by withdrawing and letting them attack you.

A castle can be an intimidating, impenetrable fortress, or it can be turned into a prison when surrounded. The difference is simply a shift in action and approach.

So instead of fighting obstacles, find a means of making them defeat themselves.

Strategy 9: Seize The Offensive

The best men are not those who have waited for chances but who have taken them; besieged chance, conquered the change, and made chance the servitor. — E.H. Chapin

Ordinary people shy away from negative situations and avoid trouble. What great people do is the opposite.

They never waste an opportunity to flip a personal tragedy or crisis to their advantage.

At certain moments in our brief existences we are faced with great trials. We must see that this “problem” presents an opportunity for a solution that we have long been waiting for.

It is in these moments that we must seize the offensive, because it is when people least expect it that we can pull off our biggest victories.

Strategy 10: Focus On Something Bigger Than Yourself

A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul. — Leroy Percy

Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think:

If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?

You’ll be shocked by how much of the hopelessness lifts when we reach that conclusion—the strength that comes by thinking of people other than yourself.

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

So when you’re frustrated in pursuit of your own goals, don’t sit there and complain that you don’t have what you want or that this obstacle won’t budge. If you haven’t even tried yet, then of course you will still be in the exact same place. You haven’t actually pursued anything.

All the greats we admire started by saying, Yes, let’s go. And they usually did it in less desirable circumstances than we’ll ever suffer.

Just because the conditions aren’t exactly to your liking, or you don’t feel ready yet, doesn’t mean you get a pass. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started.

The post appeared originally on the New York Observer.


The economist Tyler Cowen observed that few people when asked to describe their lives would answer ‘a mess.’ Instead they say their life was ‘a journey.’ They tended to use the metaphor of a novel. They see their life as a story.

Life feels like a story because when we look back on our pasts, we have a beginning and an end and we can put it all in order. We can filter out the events that don’t fit, we can forget the stuff that’s not worth remembering.

In a world of social media, this is a hard idea to shake. Not only does every platform and medium urge you to tell your story but it weaves it all into a narrative for you (Snapchat stories, Facebook’s Year in Review, etc). And because you have an audience—your followers, friends, fans and subscribers—there is always someone to perform it for.

Think about what you put on Instagram, on Twitter, on a blog, on Facebook. These are great media but it’s clear they select for a very specific type of content. It’s got to be bite sized. It’s got to look good. It has to be spreadable. It has to compete with all the other content out there from professionals, from pretty girls, from snarky assholes. Oh, and it has to generate a certain number of public responses or you look like a loser.

In a sense, these tools that were intended to help us share our realities ironically has turned into a sort of unpaid performance art.

I know that you sense this too. That moment of hesitation before you post something. Is this good enough? That flash of guilty giddiness when you see something that you know other people would be impressed by when they see it. Yes! when you capture it perfectly.

It might seem like we’re all connected with each other today but in fact, we’re as isolated as we’ve ever been. We don’t even experience our own experiences except through some artificial lens, let alone the experiences of others.

It’s related to an important concept in science known as the “Publication Bias.” Discovered bafflingly recently (1960s), the Publication Bias refers to an interesting fact: people rarely publish papers about experiments that didn’t work. Who is going to put the time into writing it, and what journal is going to give space to something that doesn’t prove anything?

This doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is. It means that almost every piece of scientific literature you’ll ever read is “positive.” When in reality, most experiments fail. Most of them don’t mean anything.

So it paints a false picture, an unrepresentative one. It makes us think we know more than we do.

You’ve seen this—friends who are going through a rough patch in a relationship but post loving photos of themselves with their partner, almost as if they’re willing it to be better. People going through financial difficulties apparently living it up on Instagram. Even in your own life, do you ever post when things aren’t going well?

It’s the Publication Bias. It’s the Performance Bias.

I think about this a lot because as a writer the job makes you start to view your life as material. It’s a real easy and tempting way to escape what another writer, Walker Percy, called the “everydayness” of your life.” Or what Nassim Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy.”

Nobody sees the article ideas that I couldn’t quite figure out. Nobody sees me when I am uncertain or unsure. I don’t write about the parts of my life I don’t feel qualified to talk about or I’m too embarrassed to reveal. And as a result, I leave a lot out.

This is true for every public facing creative in the world.

Casey Neistat’s daily vlog gives a pretty undeniable sense that his life is awesome. I’m sure it is—but you’re watching six to seven edited minutes out of 1440. My friend Tucker, who has sold a couple million books about his life, will tell you that his stories—as crazy and funny as they are—are only from one side of his life, and really just a fraction of that one side. The other moments are much more boring. Considering the three books span little more than a decade and contain about 150+ stories, it should give you a sense of how unrepresentative they really are. I read a lot. You know how many books I’ve ever found written by someone who failed? Two. (email me if you want recommendations)

That’s just the filtering that comes from the selection process. It’s even deeper than that of course. I like to show people the source photo that eventually became the cover of my first book. It makes me look a lot cooler than I actually am or ever will be (in real life it was a pen in my mouth and I was wearing a hoodie from Wal-Mart). The TV show they’re producing on the book will warp things further still.

Increasingly, the real world is left on the cutting room floor. What is left is artifice and even deceit.

Your Instagram filters can make an overcast day seem bright. A tweet can strip out nuance and claims certainty it doesn’t deserve. A Facebook post shares an article that no one actually bothered to read.

These forces are acting on us. Separating us from our own actual experiences and separating us from the other people who consume them creates envy, inferiority and conflict. For one young, deeply depressed athlete, it meant misled parents and the loss of a great promising talent. It creates that eternal fear of missing out. It’s not lying. It’s that tools and media exploit our fantasies and what we wish to be true.

Where does it end? Not in happiness, that’s for sure.

One of the things I really like about Beme (where I’ve done some advising) is that the app makes so much of this impossible. It’s fun and real precisely because it subtly eliminates all the features that encourage us to fool others and ourselves.

If you decide you want to film something, it’s posted automatically—you can’t stop the process once the recording has begun. You can’t edit your clips. You can’t even see what you’re filming as you’re filming it. In other words, it demotes you from your role as the cinematographer of your own life. It’s just a facilitator. It helps you share what you experience—cutting clips together based on time and place, not your perceived narrative of events or the script you’d like to follow. It keeps the performance to a minimum.

The name Beme—is a portmanteau of Be Me. Even the metrics in the app emphasize this (seen here). There is no follower count, just the number of people and the amount of time they have spent seeing things from your perspective. You actually get to be yourself and be other people and other people get to be you. Isn’t that what art is fundamentally about?

Some critics have said that this doesn’t work. Because no one likes authenticity.

Of course that’s ridiculous. The videos are riveting and the app is addicting. Like actual life.

So in this sense, life is not like a novel. It’s not a movie. It’s a mess.

Unfiltered by social media, life is real. It is what it is.

It is also awesome.

We’ve just forgotten.

This post appeared originally on the New York Observer


(Photo: Ryan Holiday)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States. This is what it says on the cover of his new book, Between the World and Me. It’s actually a quote from The New York Observer (where I am an editor at large).

It’s also true.

I would take it a step further and say that he’s one of America’s best writers and journalists, period. I’m a big fan.

I’m also disappointed in his new book.

But before we get there, I suppose I should declare my various biases. First off, it was a book I have eagerly anticipated for some time–if only selfishly because this book has taken him away from the prodigious amounts of daily output that his fans have come to cherish over the years. The other bias is that my father was a police officer. First as a hate crimes detective and later the robbery division, and also as the head of Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Also I am white (though puzzlingly tan) and a writer myself.

In other words, I bring some baggage to the table. But I also desperately wanted to love this book.

Someone needs to articulate and detangle the pernicious myths and bad history that has long held our country back from dealing with, understanding and moving forward when it comes to the issue of race. It’s in literature that unique human experiences can be shared and communicated—and what it feels like to be black in America is a powerful and important reflection on this nation as a whole. In a world of television pundits and pageview hungry bloggers, it is rare to see someone as big picture and historical and thoughtful as Coates. It’s even rarer still to see them reach such a massive online audience without pandering, and without exploiting politics to get traffic.

I am humbled at the way that Coates makes you think, makes you question your assumptions, and makes you see the inhumanity and disgrace of many of this country’s laws and politics. There are moments in this book that accomplish that.

The problem with the rest of it is that it often feels like it was written by a writer who has fallen in love with their own voice (something that can increasingly be said about his blog as well). This is apparent from the very beginning of the galley copy which contains a letter from Chris Jackson, the book’s editor. It says that the book was originally supposed to be a book of essays about the Civil War (which I do hope Coates also writes) but instead changed after Coates re-read James Baldwin. He writes “[Coates] called after his reading and asked me why people don’t write books like that anymore—books that combine beautiful story-telling, intellectual rigor, powerful polemic, and prophetic urgency.”

This is dangerous territory for a writer—when they’re motivated to emulate someone else, particularly a style from a different generation (a unique and peerless one I would add to that). It’s dangerous for an editor to encourage it too and to set such expectations for advanced readers is in poor judgement. As a fellow author put it to me recently, “emulating Baldwin is death.”

The result is that this book seems to rarely come out and say anything. Or at least, say directly what it means. The opening scene is Coates writing about an appearance on cable television where he discussed race, fear and safety with the host. But instead of coming out and saying that, he writes “Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far side of Manhattan. There was a one word snaking into my ear and another dangling down my shirt. The satellite…” I’ll cut it there but it goes on like this for some time.

My point is, what Coates is talking about is urgent and important. But it’s almost as if he doesn’t want to get to it. He can’t be direct. He has to refer to Howard University as “The Mecca” throughout the book, he has to use a million other euphemisms and overwrought phrases, but why? It doesn’t make his point clearer. On the contrary, if you’re not searching for it, you might miss it. In fact, it often feels like he missed it—or at least lost track of it.

Some of the other reviewers have focused on his controversial reaction to 9/11 and the deaths of many police officers on that day. Despite my bias, I appreciated this. Because it was real. It was authentic. It was a powerful revelation and powerful personal point (which is all it was intended to be). It makes you think–what if my close friend had been brutally executed by the police, how would that change my perspective?—EVEN if you ultimately push back on it

Elsewhere, I tried to imagine someone currently not convinced of Coates’ genius or the significance of his message. Sadly, I could not see them making it more than a few chapters before closing it and moving on to someone else. Someone less talented, less insightful, but at least more straightforward. No one would make that argument about his past writing, which is almost always cogent and clear and definitive.

The response here will be that this book wasn’t written for me, or someone like me. The book was written as a letter to Coates’ son, so of course, some of this is to be expected. But certainly, no father would ever actually speak this way. Not without their kid rolling their eyes anyway.

The irony is that there is a section in the book where Coates discusses what he learned from poetry. He writes “I was learning the craft of poetry, which is to say I was learning the craft of thinking. Poetry aims for economy of truth–loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” The reality is that this is a very short book that somehow manages to violate that dictum. It certainly waxes poetic at times, far too indulgently.

A writer’s job, as Fitzgerald once said about ‘genius’, is “to put into effect what is in your mind.” An editor’s job is to help a writer sort through their own experience and lens of seeing so that the vision best reaches the audience. The audience’s job is take the step forward to the material and be prepared to receive and interact with it. Somewhere in the rush to publication (which was moved up in light of recent news events) these parties have not fully met.

The book exists in some kind of thick bubble.

Which is really unfortunate because as events have shown recently, America is its own impenetrable bubble.

There’s that line from Kafka about how a book should be an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.

This could have been this book. Coates has been that writer for me, personally. His guided journey through the Civil War, through segregation and race relations and so many other topics, have been that for thousands of other people.

Between the World and Me is a book with many gems in it but it forces the reader to search for him. And thus it fails to fully break through as one would hope.

This post appeared originally on the New York Observer.