How To Overcome Obstacles: A Lesson From Stoicism

January 31, 2016

by Ravi Raman

“The best way out is always through.” – Robert Frost

Everyone runs into a barrier at some point in life.

The car gets a flat tire. The co-worker throws a fit. The internet is slow. A loved one passes away. There is nothing to watch on Netflix. The cookies didn’t turn out as planned. The flight is canceled. The dream job didn’t turn out as expected.

The obstacle might be significant. The obstacle might be more appropriately considered a nuisance. Or somewhere in between.

Regardless of the size, obstacles exist and are inevitable.

Call it Murphy’s Law or just the nature of life.

Setbacks will happen, the only questions are:
1) When will they happen?
2) How will you react when they appear?

This blog post addresses this inevitability.

“To see an obstacle as a challenge, to make the best of it anyway, that is also a choice—a choice that is up to us.”Ryan Holiday

We have the power to see the obstacles we face as being the very things that can help us evolve, progress and live greater lives.

We can learn a lot from Stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC, that exemplified this.

The Stoic philosophy can be summarized in the following maxims (as summarized in Ryan Holiday’s excellent book, The Obstacle Is The Way):

1) Perceive the world objectively
2) Engage with the world through correct action
3) Endure, even in the face of adversity

This is not a philosophy of struggle, putting up with challenges just to be a martyr or pretending that challenges are merely illusory.

On the contrary, Stoics see challenges as very real and use their inherent energy to create greater possibilities, growth and mastery of the very problem they face.

Like Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic said:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

Obstacles inherently contain the ingredients to their own dissolution. They provoke the best of our abilities to get over, around and through them. Without the obstacle, we would atrophy.

I recall a stark learning from my grade-school science class. We visited a farm where we saw chickens being raised from the egg. As we watched a few of them hatch, we were warned not to help the little chicks, for if you did, they would die.

It’s as if the struggle for freedom and life taught the baby chicken something that helped it survive in the real world.

The fight to live was a gift.

Being able to see any challenge as a hidden opportunity is the magic of the Stoic mindset. It takes practice to cultivate, and is best learned when things are going relatively well.

“It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.” – Seneca

Practice seeing small obstacles as opportunities to learn (e.g. a flat tire becomes an opportunity learn how to change a flat and prepare for inevitable vehicle breakdowns). Over time, bigger things (e.g. the loss of a loved one, or a terrible argument at work, a health scare) will become easier to deal with objectively and with a clear head.

Life is our greatest teacher. It’s up to us whether we choose to learn the lesson and move on, or stay stuck in our ways, forced to repeat the lesson again and again.

The attitude of seeing obstacles as holding the very key to their own disarmament is a powerful way of looking at problems.

To help you carry this way of being into your daily life, I invite you to consider a question I ask myself whenever I face hardship.

Next time you are stuck in the middle of terrible situation, ask yourself:

What am I being taught right now?

Over time, you will begin to see the hidden joy in overcoming challenges. What once seemed to throw you off-center will soon more strongly fortify your capacity to solve problems, grow as a person and engage more confidently with the world.

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