Whether it’s a rival business competitor or an overbearing boss at work, the answer to what is holding us back often lies within the obstacle itself.
Instead of despairing at what stands in our way of achieving our goals, we should change our perspective and see the problem with a ready solution. These solutions can be found in an ageless set of philosophical principles that great men and women have followed.
An opponent is nothing more than a guide that will show us the way to defeat our obstacles—or go around them. Here are seven ways to turn those that stand in our way into the way:
Instead of giving in to frustration, we can put it to good use. It can power our actions, which, unlike our disposition, become stronger and better when loose and bold. We can respond by resisting, or we can channel our energy in a way that empowers and strengthens us.
To survive segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, Arthur Ashe learned from his father to mask his emotions and feelings on the court. No reacting, no getting upset at missed shots, and no challenging bad calls.
All the energy and emotion he had to suppress was channeled into a bold and graceful playing form. While his face was controlled, his body was alive—fluid, brilliant, and all over the court.
Feelings need an outlet, of course, but Ashe deployed them to fuel his explosive speed, in his slams and chips and dives.
Adversity can harden you. Or it can loosen you up and make you better—if you let it. Rename it and claim it—that’s what Ashe did.
It’s a power that drives our opponents and competitors nuts. They think we’re toying with them. It’s maddening—like we aren’t even trying, like we’ve tuned out the world. Like we’re immune to external stressors and limitations on the march toward our goals.
When we discard our expectations and accept what happens to us, understanding that certain things—particularly bad things—are outside our control, we are left with this: loving whatever happens to us and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness.
It is the act of turning what we must do into what we get to do.
Instead of fighting what we can’t control, we can put our energy and emotions and exertions where they will have real impact. This is that place. We will tell ourselves: This is what I’ve got to do or put up with? Well, I might as well be happy about it.
It’s a little unnatural to feel gratitude for things we never wanted to happen in the first place. But the opportunities and benefits lie within adversity. In overcoming them, we can emerge stronger, sharper, and empowered. There is little reason to delay these feelings. To begrudgingly acknowledge later that it was for the best, when we could have felt that in advance because it was inevitable.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how things are supposed to be, or what the rules say we should do, trying to get it all perfect. We tell ourselves that we’ll get started once the conditions are right, or once we’re sure we can trust this or that. When, really, it’d be better to focus on making due with what we’ve got—on focusing on results instead of pretty methods.
Sometimes you do it this way, sometimes that way, not deploying the tactics you learned in school but adapting them to fit each and every situation. Any way that works—that’s the motto.
As they say in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it doesn’t matter how you get your opponents to the ground, after all, only that you take them down.
You’ve got your mission, whatever it is. Like the rest of us you’re in the pinch between the way you wish things were and the way they actually are (which always seem to be a disaster). How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to do about it?
Scratch the complaining: No waffling. No submitting to powerlessness or fear. How are you going to solve this problem? How are you going to get around the rules that hold you back?
Wise men are able to make a fitting use even of their enemies.—Plutarch
Sometimes you overcome obstacles not by attacking them but by withdrawing and letting them attack you. You can use the actions of others against themselves instead of acting yourself.
We get so consumed with moving forward that we forget that there are other ways to get where we are heading. It doesn’t naturally occur to us that standing still—or in some cases, even going backward—might be the best way to advance.
There is a certain humility required in this approach. It means accepting that the way you originally wanted to do things is not possible. You just haven’t got it in you to do it the "traditional" way. But so what?
We should find solace in this. It means that very few obstacles are ever too big for us. Because that bigness might in fact be an advantage. Because we can use that bigness against the obstacle itself. Remember, 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.
We can use the things that block us to our advantage, letting them do the difficult work for us. Sometimes this means leaving the obstacle as is, instead of trying so hard to change it.
In a study of some 30 conflicts comprising more than 280 campaigns from ancient to modern history, the brilliant strategist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart came to a stunning conclusion: In only six of the 280 campaigns was the decisive victory a result of a direct attack on the enemy’s main army.
Only six. That’s 2%.
If not from pitched battles, where do we find victory?
From everywhere else: From the flanks. From the unexpected. From the psychological. From drawing opponents out from their defenses. From the untraditional. From anything.
The way that works isn’t always the most impressive. Sometimes it even feels like you’re taking a shortcut or fighting unfairly. There’s a lot of pressure to try to match people move for move, as if sticking with what works for you is somehow cheating. Let me save you the guilt and self-flagellation: It’s not.
Remember, sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.
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.
In many battles, as in life, the two opposing forces will often reach a point of mutual exhaustion. It’s the one who rises the next morning after a long day of fighting and rallies, instead of retreating—the one who says, I intend to attack and whip them right here and now—who will carry victory home.
Life can be frustrating. Oftentimes we know what our problems are. We may even know what to do about them. But we fear that taking action is too risky, that we don’t have the experience or that it’s not how we pictured it or because it’s too expensive, because it’s too soon, because we think something better might come along, because it might not work.
And you know what happens as a result? Nothing. We do nothing.
Tell yourself: The time for that has passed. The wind is rising. The bell’s been rung. Get started, get moving.
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.
[Image: Flickr user Charlie Cowins]