How To Think About Obstacles
The obstacles we face in life make us emotional. Yet, being emotional is pretty much the easiest way to make a problem worse. In fact, in order to overcome obstacles is to keep a steady and clear head about us at all times.
The ancient Stoics had a word for this state: apatheia.
What follows are the 7 critical ways to think about every obstacle, every problem and every and any kind of adversity you face.
Step 1: Steady Your Nerves
“What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can only get by practice.” — Theodore Roosevelt
During the Civil war troops were unloading a steamer when it exploded. Everyone hit the dirt except Ulysses S. Grant, who instead ran towards the scene.
That is nerve.
Like Grant, we must prepare ourselves for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it.
Step 2: Control Your Emotions
“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.” — Publius Syrus
When America first sent astronauts into space, they trained them in one skill more than any other: the art of not panicking.
Here on Earth, when something goes wrong we trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out.
As Nassim Taleb put it, real strength lies in the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.
Step 3: Practice Objectivity
“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” — Epictetus
In our lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to things we don’t control?
Perceptions give us information at the exact moment when it would be better to focus on what is immediately in front of us.
We must question our animalistic impulse to immediately perceive what happens. But this takes strength and is a muscle that must be developed.
Step 4: Practice Contemptuous Expressions
The Stoics used contempt to lay things bare and “strip away the legend that encrusts them.”
Roasted meat is a dead animal. Vintage wine is old, fermented grapes.
We can do this for anything that stands in our way, seeing things as they truly, actually are, not as we’ve made them in our minds.
Step 5: Alter Your Perspective
“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” — Viktor Frankl
Remember: We choose how we’ll look at things.
What we must do is limit and expand our perspective to whatever will keep us calmest and most ready for the task at hand.
Think of it as selective editing—not to deceive others, but to properly orient ourselves.
Step 6: Live in the Present Moment
“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” — Chuck Palahniuk
It doesn’t matter whether this is the worst time to be alive or the best, whether you’re in a good job market or a bad one.
What matters right now is right now.
Focus on the moment, on what you can control right now. Not what may or may not be ahead.
Step 7: Look for the Opportunity
“A good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.” — Seneca
The reality is every situation, no matter how negative, provides us with a positive, exposed benefit we can act on, if only we look for it.
Maybe you were injured recently and are laid up in bed recovering. Now you have the time to start the book or the screenplay you’ve been meaning to write. That business decision that turned out to be a mistake? See it as a hypothesis that was wrong. Like scientist you can learn from it and use it in your next experiment.
Remember: This a complete flip. Seeing through the negative, past its underside, and into its corollary: the positive.
The new way to think…
Does getting emotional about this provide you with more or less options? The Stoics knew the answer to that question and it’s why they worked so hard to see their obstacles with clarity, with optimism and from new angles.
It was with this approach that they turned negatives into positives and thrived amidst unthinkable chaos and turmoil. You can do the same.
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I feel that some obstacles are harder than others. Diet and eating healthy has been one of my main obstacles.
No matter how I try to deconstruct it, alter my behavior, get coaching I always mess up my diet.
When I strip everything I way I know it’s the choices that I make, yet I still fail.
I keep repeating to myself “the obstacle is the way, the obstacle is the way”. What am I doing wrong? What can I do to improve?
The quest is endless. Sometimes I want to give up. Perhaps being lean is not meant to be for me.
The question is…what do you do in that case. When the obstacle is so persistent.
At least I am stubborn and keep trying.
Hi Anonymous –
After struggling with obesity for over 20 years (despite majoring in nutrition and working in the industry) I finally lost over 140 lbs and changed my life. I can totally relate to desperately wanting to make a change but not being able to stick with it so I thought I’d offer my two cents.
1. Start really small and specific. Instead of “eat healthier” or aiming to eat only whole foods, identify one small change that you can make and then practice, practice, practice until it becomes effortless.
2. Embrace the 80/20 rule and find how it works best for you. This universal truth basically explains that we get 80% of our results from 20% of our efforts. For me, my 20% includes eating enough fat and staying away from processed foods. Of course, I didn’t eliminate processed foods over night – I started small and practiced, practiced, practiced until it felt effortless. Only when it felt effortless did I add more.
3. Visualize your success. Research has shown that our brain responds to visualization as though it were real. Visualize your day. Visualize what you will eat. Visualize how you’ll feel and visualize not being tempted by things that tempt you. Every morning I spend 5 minutes visualizing the day ahead, especially how I’ll thrive in difficult situations (parties, dinners out, etc)
4. Focus on things you WILL do, not things you WON’T do. When we say things like “I’m going to avoid xyz” or “I’m not going to eat sugar”, we make that forbidden thing more attractive. It becomes more of an obsession in our head and it makes it harder to avoid. Instead, say things like “I fuel my body with healthy foods”, “I start my day with a clean, healthy breakfast”, etc.
I hope that helps! best wishes 🙂
Thank you for this.
I will act on your list today.
Sometimes it’s more than willpower. Your hormones can prime your brain when it comes to deciding. But, there are ways to go around it.
One way to suppress hunger for example is to keep insulin levels low and do it for a longer term. Name it a low-carb diet, a low-glycemic diet, atkins, ketogenic, whatever you want…
I’d recommend you read as many good books on the subject as possible. Not sure if you Ryan recommends these kinds of books, but I’d say you can start with: Deep Nutrition of Cate Shannahan, Wahls Protocol by Terry Wahls, Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter…
Once you finish these 3, I bet you’ll see things differently and you’ll be armed to tackle your problem from it’s root cause 🙂
I don’t think being emotional is a bad thing in itself, so the steps you mention are fine to me except Step 2: Control your emotions. I think it’s dangerous because emotions fuel creative people’s work. Thus in my view it’s better to just be aware of them. Instead of repressing, we could just recognize. This way we are not controlled by unacknowledged emotions.
What you mean by being emotional is reacting to things without awareness, because an unaware person can also be rational. Rationality can keep people in endless loops that go nowhere. So if we could go beyond this dichotomy we can find the answer. We could find what’s important is thinking (or feeling) out of the conceptual/emotional cage we are in. As long as we are aware of our limiting beliefs/feelings, it’s ok.
Have a nice day.
Miguel, I think you’ve made the fundamental error a lot of people make when hearing the works “control your emotions”. It’s not about repressing anything but about building up personal strength.
Imagine you had to be able to lift something heavy. You could pretend you are capable of it and start carrying it, eventually you will hurt yourself. This is repressing.
Or you can train yourself to become stronger such that carrying the weight is no longer a burden at all and that strength becomes an extremely valuable tool to you.
To summarise, it’s about strength not repression.
All great stuff. Love the book and think everyone, especially people in our age group need to read and re-read it. I’ve applied this framework to my own life for years after going through some tough situations and it’s helped me immensely.
However, I’ve come to realize that most people just love to freak out about stuff. No matter what you tell some people facing a challenge, they will agree that your advice is sound and proceed with their freak out session.
Anyway, keep it up man
Thank you for this awesome summary. I have many of these quotes on my wall in my office – along with another practical one: “We must learn to stop listening to ourselves and start talking to ourselves”. That habitual tape that runs in our head – worrying about x/y/z and feeling frustrated that we haven’t tackled all the things we know we need to – I’m working to quickly identify those thought patterns and then replace them with useful thoughts – thoughts of gratitude, thoughts of achievement. Though whatever tape playing in my head might be TRUE, if its not useful then I am better served to replace it. I used to think I was just along for the ride when it comes to my thoughts. I’m now learning (and practicing) that I am 100% in control – and that makes all the difference. Thanks again for this.
Hey Ryan, I just finished reading your book — The Obstacle is The Way — Loved it!
I love your thoughts on being objective. Too often do we take things too personally. I try to be objective and take a step back. Getting emotional over everything is never worth it.
Would love to see a couple high res photos of your library so we can zoom in and read all the titles. Just throwing that out there!
Really enjoy your work!
I have someone I really care about that has a serious obstacle freak out problem. What is a good way to ease into talking about it and helping him without upsetting him. Also, what would be a good way to go about suggesting the book. I want him to want to work with me on it. Not feel forced.