The Obstacle Is The Way is a book based in the stoic branch of philosophy. The title comes from a passage in Meditations by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who stated that “what stands in the way, becomes the way.”
Written by the excellent, Ryan Holiday, who also wrote Ego Is The Enemy, this book looks at how you should approach the obstacles you face in your life.
One way this is done is to show you how various figures throughout history overcame obstacles that they faced. Whether it was John Rockefeller trying to build his oil fortune or Ulysees Grant during the American Civil War, these examples show us that even the most successful people in history faced numerous obstacles.
In essence, The Obstacle Is The Way is a book about taking control of your life and turning events that appear unfortunate to your advantage.
Events happen, there’s not much we can do about them. The only thing that we control is how we respond.
If you want to find how to turn obstacles to your, advantage, this is the book for you!
The Obstacle is the Way summary
Takeaway 1 – Struggling is a part of life
At some stage in our lives, we will face a struggle. It’s as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning. Life is not all sunshine and rainbows, there are days that will test us and break us if we let them.
If we treat struggle as inevitable then it allows us to focus our minds on how to overcome those struggles.
Think of Viktor Frankl, who wrote the incredible book, Man’s Search For Meaning, about his time in Auschwitz concentration camp.
Frankl witnessed suffering that is unimaginable to us today. However, he didn’t let it break him. He noted that although the Nazi guards could strip away his dignity, his freedom, they could strip away what he thought.
The last bastion he had was his mind. No matter what he saw, how much he suffered, he was still able to control his own thoughts.
This is the way we should look at events. Instead of bemoaning the struggle, we go through, we should embrace it. Somewhere, someone else is going through or has suffered, something much worse.
If you want to change your circumstances, first, you have to change your mindset.
Takeaway 2 – We only control so much
Following on from the above, what Frankl’s story shows us is that we only control so much in life. What happens, happens, it’s how you respond that matters.
Think of the Coronavirus pandemic. None of us knew it was going to happen. Maybe when we saw the news in China, we assumed it would be contained.
The virus spread to all corners of the globe. It changed our way of life in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a few months prior.
None of us could have controlled what happened, the only option available to us was to control how we responded.
In life, there is much that is beyond our control. Because we like to think that we control everything, we mistakenly believe that we can shape the world around us and dictate what happens.
This is an illusion. It’s much better to focus on what you can control and work on that, then worry about things that will, or will not happen regardless of whether we want them to or not.
Takeaway 3 – Events happen, our perspective shapes them
If events happen whether we like it or not, only one thing is available to us, how we respond.
A story from The Obstacle Is the Way that illustrates this, involves the famous inventor Thomas Edison.
At the age of 67, Edison was awoken at night of news of a fire at his laboratory. Once he got there, he realised that the whole thing was going to be burned to the ground.
Inside where all of his experiments, prototypes and lab notes. Everything that he had worked on was inside of that building.
For most of us, this experience would have broken us. To see all of our work go up in flames would have been heartbreaking.
However, Edison looked at it in a different way. He declared that he’d just “gotten rid of a lot of old rubbish.” He even told his son to “go get your mother and all her friends, they’ll never see a fire like this again.”
It’s an incredible reaction to an event that would have devastated many, but when you think about it, what other reaction was there?
The fire had happened. There was no going back. It was inevitable that everything inside would be lost. Edison acknowledged this and accepted this.
His focus shifted from what he had lost to what could happen afterwards. This is the essence of the book. When we are presented with an obstacle we have a choice.
Do we bemoan it and wilt in the face of it, or do accept the cards we have been dealt and find a way to overcome them?
- “The obstacle is the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
- “Outward appearances are deceptive. What’s within them, beneath them, is what matters.”
- “They can throw us in jail, label us, deprive us of our possessions, but they’ll never control our thoughts, our beliefs, our reactions.”
- “Remember that this morning is not your life, it’s just a moment in your life. Focus on what is in front of you, right now.”
- “Problems are rarely as bad as we think – or rather, they are precisely as bad as we think.”
- “Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared. Placed in some situation that seems unchangeable and undeniably negative, we can turn it into a learning experience, a humbling experience, a chance to provide comfort to others.”
The Obstacle Is The Way review
It may seem like the book is another one of those self-help books that say the same old crap, but The Obstacle Is The Way isn’t like that.
This book is really, really good.
My The Obstacle Is The Way summary has hinted how stoicism is the cornerstone of the book, but Holiday delves into stoic philosophy in much more detail.
The key lesson he imprints is that instead of viewing obstacles as insurmountable you should view them as a necessary part of life.
This book is invaluable if you suffer from mental health problems. It will help you frame them in a positive way and give you the inspiration to tackle them head-on.
Likewise, if you’re starting out at university, a new job, or going through a rough patch in your life, the advice Ryan Holiday offers will help.
This is one of his best books along with Stillness Is The Key, and one you’ll learn a lot from that will help you lead a better life.
All in all, if you want to gain control over your thought process and live a more purposeful and fulfilling life, you should read The Obstacle Is The Way!