obstacle is the way - ryan holiday

“We give up too easily.”

And doesn’t that ring true?

“With a simple change of attitude, what seem like insurmountable obstacles become once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

I got these words off Amazon’s intro to the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. They are also a dead ringer for anyone’s first experience with obstacle racing. Although I don’t believe Ryan Holiday has completed an obstacle race, he did make himself a keen runner. Both activities are primarily a mental game, where your performance doesn’t rely on training but on your mindset. Training is just a way to strengthen the body-mind connection so that you don’t let up at the first sign of struggle.

In a way, The Obstacle Is The Way is the philosophical equivalent to ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’, a maxim often used by organisers of obstacle races and chanted by many of us during training. It is is about being optimistic in the face of difficulty – seeing an obstacle not as a problem, but as an opportunity to advance yourself further.

As Ryan writes, “Whatever we face, we have a choice: Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?” In an obstacle race, the choice we make is pretty obvious, but what about our daily lives?

Ryan himself relies on the stoic philosophy, the practical philosophy behind this book, to deal with personal challenges. What he’s now done with this book is give the rest of us this same toolkit of mental strategies to overcome any problem in life. This book is the how-to guide to bring that just-go-at-it attitude we have on the adrenaline-filled race course to all areas of our life.

The best thing about Ryan’s book is that it isn’t a read you will cross off a list and forget about. It’s a reference book which you can come to whenever you’re grappling with something in your path. At less than 200 pages, The Obstacle Is The Way has more insights than books four times its size. After all, at its core is ancient, straight-to-the-point but punchy philosophy. Ryan has made it even more approachable by presenting it through the lens of the many biographies he has read as examples.

So what’s the idea behind it?

Ryan’s claim is that we’re all armed with 3 incredible powers, which we should leverage to overcome any obstacle. These powers are perception, action and will. Each power is dedicated a section of the book, and for each power Ryan reveals various strategies you can turn to when you’re tempted to feel helpless or to resign yourself.

“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.”

Last Monday I tried to climb a rope for the first time. I wasn’t at the gym to climb a rope and my confidence in my upper body strength is still weak even though I can see a difference. When I tried, I couldn’t even pull myself up onto the rope. The whole attempt felt futile.

A few days later, when I returned I could jump up on the rope and secure it without any trouble. So what changed in these few days? Certainly not my strength, but my perception had. When I thought about Monday’s attempts, I recognised that I hadn’t really tried as hard as I could. But more so, after months of training with kettlebells, I knew I should be able to hack this. And I did.

The fixed vs. growth mindset

The stoic approach is similar to the fixed vs. growth mindset theory from Carol Dweck. Children with a fixed mindset give up on a problem as soon as they realise it’s too difficult for them, that it’s a challenge. This is a debilitating mindset. Other children will thrive on that same challenge – they have what is called a growth mindset. The strategies contained in The Obstacle Is the Way can help you cultivate this growth mindset as an adult.

By regularly exercising those 3 powers of perception, action and will, you create a positive loop that, as Ryan explains, becomes easier over time. Similar obstacles may take less perseverance the next time around or you’ll at least waste less time feeling crippled.

I know that as an obstacle racer, the title of this book might make you go ‘pshaw’, since overcoming an obstacle is the only way to complete the challenge of a race. However, I also know that if you’ve done more than one race, you enjoy that act of overcoming an obstacle. Through centuries of wisdom, this book at the very least affirms what we learn about ourselves on the course and at its brilliant best, it can help you thrive in the trenches of your day-to-day life as well. If you’ve struggled with quitting, you can use the tools in this book to break those patterns and perhaps even kick off a winner’s effect momentum.

I’ve been familiar with Ryan’s work for a while, including stoic philosophy. Yet I didn’t expect a book of practical philosophy would make me feel empowered. It was a much needed reminder that my life really is in my own hands. Even if you don’t need this reminder right now, investing in a copy of The Obstacle Is The Way and training your mind for adversity can help you get further both on and off the course.

So, over to you – what’s going to be your next feat of victory?

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