The Obstacle is the Way: Stoic Lessons for Modern Life [Book Review]

Why Should You Read the Obstacle is the Way?

Ancient stoic philosophy might seem a bit outdated for modern times, but there are many reasons why it applies to modern life, business, and entrepreneurship, including:

  • How to change your mindset
  • Allocating your energy to the most productive purposes
  • Taking initiative and being proactive
  • How to be persistent when solving challenges
  • Being resilient in the face of difficulties
  • Developing discipline in all areas of life

The Stoics may not have coined the term, but they are the original masters of the concept “keep calm and carry on.” Stoicism teaches the development of self-control, rationality, and virtue as a means to a successful and happy life. Stoic techniques have been adopted by countless men and women throughout history to masterful effect – from Alexander the Great to Gandhi to Amelia Earheart – and it is this philosophy that is at the heart of The Obstacle is the Way. 

Using the Stoic philosophies of ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius as a guide, author Ryan Holiday shows us how to overcome obstacles by discarding expectations, accepting whatever happens to us that is outside our control, and learning to love what life brings. If that sounds impossible, if you feel stuck, frustrated, or just plain bummed when you face inevitable trials in your business or personal life, The Obstacle is the Way may have the formula you need to learn the timeless art of turning trials into triumph.

Business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders navigating the challenges of the business world can find an abundance of invaluable wisdom in The Obstacle is the Way. The book covers innumerable useful skills for successful entrepreneurs as well as in all walks of life, including:

    • Changing your mindset, crucial for entrepreneurs in the volatile business environment.
    • Focusing on what is in your control, ensuring that your entrepreneurial energy is invested effectively where it matters most.
    • Taking initiative and navigating through business storms proactively.
    • Being persistent, learning how to approach challenges with relentless determination and unwavering effort.
    • Displaying resilience with the mental fortitude required to bounce back from business setbacks.
    • Developing the inner strength and discipline necessary for the long haul whether you are becoming an entrepreneur or you are a seasoned business owner.

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Turning Adversity into Advantage: A Business Application

The Obstacle is the Way offers a pragmatic interpretation of Marcus Aurelius’ stoic philosophy, providing actionable strategies for overcoming life’s inevitable hurdles. Ryan Holiday masterfully demonstrates, with a myriad of historical examples, how the ancient art of transforming obstacles into opportunities is not only timeless but a crucial practice for leaders, entrepreneurs and business professionals navigating modern challenges. His actionable strategies are practical tools that can be successfully applied to business challenges. Every hurdle presents a unique learning opportunity, and Holiday’s narrative provides a framework for identifying and leveraging these opportunities.

Why Business Owners and Entrepreneurs Should Read This: It Was Written for You!

This book touches on universal concepts applicable for anyone navigating through life’s challenges. It has proven particularly useful for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and freelancers grappling with business challenges, as well as leaders and those seeking to cultivate resilience, calm, efficient time management and an action-oriented mindset in their personal or professional lives.

Ryan Holiday: Modern-day Philosopher

Ryan Holiday author of The Obstacle is the Way

Renowned media strategist and bestselling author Ryan Holiday brings ancient wisdom to present day concerns that resonate with the business community. His philosophical approach and deep understanding of the human psyche have positioned him as a capable thought leader and a trusted voice in personal development and business and media strategy. With a long track record of advising successful individuals and crafting marketing campaigns for corporate giants, Holiday brings to the table a wealth of experience and insight invaluable to leaders, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

The Art of Turning Obstacles Upside Down

At the heart of this compelling read is a transformative concept: obstacles can be changed into invaluable opportunities with the right mindset and approach. As articulated by the timeless wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This approach is a game-changer for business owners and entrepreneurs navigating the uncertain world of business.

Holiday eloquently advocates the belief that every situation contains the potential for good, and even seemingly insurmountable challenges are in fact unique opportunities for fostering growth, learning, and personal development. The author introduces three interdependent disciplines essential for conquering obstacles: Perception, Action, and the Will. Mastering these critical steps will empower readers to genuinely embrace and leverage life’s obstacles, and to turn every business challenge into a stepping stone for success.

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Discipline 1. Perception: Objective Judgment

Turning adversity into advantage starts with our attitude and approach. Holiday stresses that nothing is inherently good or bad; it’s our perception that shapes reality. Drawing on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wisdom, “there is good in everything if only we look for it,” Holiday cautions this does not mean wearing rose-colored glasses, but viewing even difficult situations as potential opportunities, turning life’s challenges into invaluable lessons.

Control Emotions

The journey begins by mastering our emotions. Holiday advocates for a disciplined approach to directing our perception, calling for emotional steadiness and self-rule. He urges readers to channel their energy towards resolution rather than reaction.

Training Perception

Developing a disciplined perception requires training, a process that results from self-discipline and logical thinking. Holiday encourages the reader to overcome emotions by asking probing questions and making statements that get to the root or the problem, maintaining objectivity in the process. For example, keeping an objective mind, focusing on the customer and the market when thinking about your small business vision statement or mapping out your value proposition.

Understanding Control

Holiday emphasizes the critical distinction between controllable and uncontrollable elements in a situation, highlighting that our power lies in the choices we make regarding uncontrollable factors. Our emotions, judgments, creativity, attitudes, perspectives, desires, decisions, and determination are the elements within our control.

Living in the Moment

Focusing on the present is crucial for perception. Living in the now, and avoiding future anxieties or past regrets, allows for a clearer view of obstacles, providing a fresh perspective to think differently about our situation. It’s about flipping the script, seeing past the negative, and uncovering hidden opportunities within obstacles.

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Discipline 2. Action: Proactive Endeavors

The next step in overcoming obstacles is about right action. Emphasizing the need for disciplined, directed, selfless action, Holiday insists that energy expelled must be focused, deliberate, bold and persistent.

Initiate Action

Initiating movement is crucial, which Holiday highlights using the journey of Amelia Earhart. Despite imperfect beginnings, she took a step, paving her way to be the first woman to solo traverse the Atlantic. This reflects the essence of those who defy odds: initiate and maintain momentum. Earhart’s airplane mantra, “Always think with your stick forward,” encapsulates this spirit of perpetually moving forward.

Persistence is Key

Following initiation, Holiday says persistent effort is imperative. Holiday exemplifies Thomas Edison’s relentless experimentation with six thousand different filaments during the invention of the commercial light bulb. The slow, steady pressure and the desire to stay at it are essential ingredients to success. The iterative process of trial, feedback, learning, and adjustment translates failures into stepping stones towards progress. Failure is not a setback but constructive feedback illuminating the path.

Practical and Process-Driven Action

Holiday advocates for a practical, systematic approach, breaking down difficult tasks into manageable steps. This structured process fosters calm by bringing focus and order, and compels us to take responsibility and ownership of our actions. Holiday warns that every action matters, and every job demands attention and a craftsmanship mindset, regardless of its significance.

Beyond the Rules

Holiday suggests that right action isn’t always what is in the rule book; rather, it’s what works. Effective action often transcends conventional rules. According to Holiday, right action is defined as the strategic measures that yield results, emphasizing pragmatism over strict adherence to rules. Such a pragmatic approach often necessitates a degree of creative thinking, flexibility, and a willingness to take calculated risks. By adopting this perspective, individuals and businesses alike can navigate through complex, challenging situations more adeptly.

Non-Action and Indirect Action

Sometimes, non-action or indirect action yield the most successful results. Holiday shares the example of Mahatma Gandhi’s strategic opposition against the British Empire. Gandhi leaned into his weakness, exposing his vulnerability and compelling the British to act, effectively neutralizing their power. This practice of restraint and patience is sometimes the most potent form of action when facing obstacles.

Channeling the Energy of Adversity

Holiday illuminates the practice of using adversity’s energy positively, referencing boxer Joe Louis who masked his emotions to navigate the racial prejudice of white fans, maintaining a composed demeanor that intimidated his opponents. This tactic of harnessing adversity’s energy allows one not just to withstand but also to launch a counter-offensive, using the obstacle as a catapult to seize opportunities.

Preparing to Fail

The final element to action here is to prepare for none of it work. While we can manage our perceptions and direct our actions rightly, failures still happen, and Holiday argues that is okay. Accepting that some things are truly insurmountable is essential. At the end of the day, facing failure in our goals, shrinking margins, and situations such as dealing with difficult customers or handling customer rejection is essential; we must handle them the best we can, and then move on to whatever is next when things don’t go our way.

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Discipline 3. Will: The Internal Citadel

While perception and action are crucial when navigating life’s unpredictable challenges, Holiday brings our attention to the final component of the equation for turning obstacles into opportunities: Will. Will is the internal power that is not affected by the outside world, the inner reservoir of strength and resilience that allows us to withstand trials.

Inward Discipline: A Silent Reservoir of Strength

Will is the “discipline of the heart and soul”, and allows us to weather the inevitable storms of life. Holiday argues it is more about surrender than brute strength – it involves quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility. Will allows us to adjust, to deal with our fate with cheerfulness and compassion, and to make the best of a terrible situation by thinking of others.

Crafting the Inner Citadel

Will is a discipline we must cultivate ourselves, like forging an inner citadel. We build our inner, spiritual strength through mental practice and physical exercise. Holiday tells the story of Abraham Lincoln, who transcended great difficulties and crippling depression in his life, enduring with a “prodding, gracious ambition, and smiling, tender endurance.” Lincoln saw his challenges as unique experiences that prepared him for greater things, and his life exemplifies the resilient strength which Holiday advocates. The strong inner fortress that Lincoln developed ultimately helped him to lead the nation through one of its most challenging trials: the U.S. Civil War.

Preparing for the Unexpected

The realm of will also includes anticipation and preparation for potential pitfalls – always being prepared for disruption, and working that disruption into our plans. Crafting contingency plans and strategies to navigate pitfalls ensures we are well-equipped and prepared for either failure or success. A good example of this is thinking about customer retention; that is, you might have earned a customer’s business, but what will you do to keep them coming back?

The Art of Acceptance

Holiday highlights the importance of the art of acceptance – a proactive acknowledgment and the necessary precondition for effectively responding to reality. Accepting the situation doesn’t mean resignation but rather acknowledging reality as it is. This conscious acknowledgment and acceptance of fate allows us to work with, rather than against, the circumstances, epitomized by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes words: “The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them.”

Embracing Life

Acquiescence leads to Amor Fati, or “love of fate.” This is about truly embracing life as it comes, loving each moment, and taking everything in stride, whether it feels positive or negative. Rather than bearing what is necessary, if we can learn to truly accept and even love it – because we know we can find good in all things – then we can use life’s obstacles as fuel and make the best of what we are given. We can roll with the punches, and find, as the Stoics encourage, cheerfulness in all situations, especially the bad ones.

Staying Power

Holiday emphasizes the importance of endurance and perseverance in facing life’s adversities. Enduring hardship is often the first step to overcoming it, and the strength of the will is tested and cultivated through the very act of bearing through difficult situations. Holiday reinforces the idea that our actions can be hampered, but our will, our determination, is entirely within our own power – encouraging the reader to “hold on and hold steady.”

Seeing Beyond the Self

In instances where we can find no benefit to ourselves, Holiday advises a broader perspective. Stepping back and looking at the broader picture, we can keep in mind that compassion and camaraderie are always an option. Seeing something bigger than ourselves helps us to understand that current trials are but a small thread in the grand scheme of things. We find strength through shared purpose, so Holiday recommends we focus on others when confronting a seemingly impossible obstacle. From a business perspective, even a momentary setback may be an opportunity to reimagine a faltering strategy, or identify creative ways to get more customers that you may not have considered before.

Memento Mori: A Stoic Reflection on Mortality

Holiday introduces readers to the Stoic practice of meditating on one’s mortality, encapsulated in the phrase ‘memento mori’ – ‘remember that you will die.’ This idea emphasizes the importance of perspective and urgency in one’s life. Acknowledging the finite nature of life can instill a sense of responsibility, urgency and focus, prompting us to act decisively and live life fully and authentically.

Preparing to Begin Again

Holiday ends the part on Will with a call to prepare to start again. Holiday believes the journey doesn’t end with utopia. He encourages readers to conserve their energy, and understand that life is a marathon and not a sprint, but to remember that each new battle can be used to prepare for the next challenge.

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Words to Live by From Ryan Holiday

    • “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
    • “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
    • “There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.”
    • “Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power.”
    • “Action is the solution and cure to our predicaments.”
    • “Failure is the preceding feature of nearly all successes.”

A Compass for Entrepreneurs and Business Owners

The Obstacle is the Way is a philosophical guide that asks readers to flip the script, illuminating the path of embracing challenges. Its practical wisdom, grounded in the timeless principles of Stoic philosophy, offers readers a blueprint for navigating life’s hurdles with grace, courage, and resilience. Whether you’re launching a startup, running a small business, or standing at a personal or professional crossroad, this book is your compass for success, providing the tools and mindset needed to effectively turn trials into triumphs.

You can find out more about the book and read other reviews, or purchase your own copy on Amazon, or listen on Audible.

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A special high five to Faith Dickens for her outstanding research and contributions to this article. We love working with and supporting like-minded entrepreneurs. Thank you Faith! ❤️

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