The Obstacle is the Way

In the winters of 1944, at height of World War II, Hitler ordered a massive attack on the Russian capital, Moscow. Instead of fighting the Nazis head on the Russians simply let the winter defeat the army. The Russians ordered massive evacuation of the Moscow. The winter took its toll and whatever army that arrived captured the empty city. Seldom did Hitler realize that he was letting history repeat itself. In a similar turn of events, Napoleon did the same mistake in the winters of 1812 letting his army to defeat itself on their war with Russia.

I liked the cleverness of the Russians. They converted their weakness into strength and eventually marched to Berlin, the capital of Germany to proclaim the victory of Allies in the World War II.

I recently read the book by Ryan Holiday of the same name, ‘The Obstacle is the Way’. One of the interesting tenets I learnt is that greatness is achieved NOT in the absence of adversity, but in spite of it. In fact, the more I read, I realized, obstacle is an important pre-requisite for greatness.

One of the neat tricks I found in the book personally inspiring is turning one’s weakness into strength.

Let me explain.

Before the invention of the steam power, boat captains had an ingenious way of travelling the notorious hard upstream of the Mississippi river. Their idea was simple. A boat going upriver would be pulled alongside a boat about to head downriver. This they did by wrapping a rope around a tree or a rock and tying the boats to each other. They let the river take the second boat downstream, slingshotting the other boat upstream.

Brilliant, isn’t it?

I found the above a great example of how we can convert the very thing that prevents us from achieving our goal (in this case, the strong upstream stopping the boat travel) into an advantage to achieve the same.

Just ask the Russians, who defeated Napoleon and the Nazis not by rigidly protecting their borders but by retreating into the interior and leaving the winter to do their work on the enemy, bogged down in battles far from home.

It is a brilliant strategy to turning an obstacle into victory, an adversity into an advantage and a weakness into strength.

As Ryan continues to argue, the great men and women of this world didn’t have exceptional luck, talent or experience. All they did was live by a single maxim: ‘What stands in the way becomes the way.’ There is in fact a possibility for us to take advantage of our worst moments in life; in fact convert the very adversity into an opportunity for our best victory.

“Wise men are able to make a fitting use even of their enmities.”

– Plutarch

Reminiscing upon the above insight I remember how one of the worst moments in my life helped me learn and grow into a better man. It seems that my greatest failures turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Now I want you to take the next few minutes of your life to introspect on your life; consider your insurmountable obstacle that is blocking your success, or an adversity spoiling your growth or a weakness you are currently experiencing. Now think of the many possible ways that you can see yourself converting those obstacles into opportunities, your adversities into advantages and your weakness into a strength. You might very well be on your way in converting the worst moments of your life into one of your best.

Remember, as Ryan says, that Gandhi didn’t fight for independence for India. The British Empire did all of the fighting – and, as it happens, all of the losing. Like Martin Luther King Jr., who followed his lead, he simply chose to meet, ‘physical force with soul force,’ to respond violence with ahimsa, to answer hate with love.

I would want to end this article with the quote from Marcus Aurelius that inspired Ryan Holiday to write this book.

“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.

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

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