The Obstacle Is the Way – Ryan Holiday (Book Summary)

For many centuries, people were guided by the teachings of the Stoics, which helped them courageously overcome difficulties.

In addition to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the followers of this philosophy were Frederick the Great, Michel de Montaigne, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Former US President Bill Clinton annually re-reads the texts of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher, and the Roman emperor. Immortal “Reflections” by Marcus Aurelius, former head of the Chinese government, Wen Jiabao read “over a hundred times”.

Media strategy expert Ryan Holiday tells how a modern person can use some of the principles of stoicism to turn any difficulties into his own good. Thanks to a lively and clear language, the author manages to transfer this ancient teaching to the present.

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Stoic Method

In 170 AD e. the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Our actions may come up against a barrier … but there are no barriers to our intentions or aspirations.

Because we are able to adapt. Our mind adapts to the obstacles that stand in the way, and turns them to their advantage. ” The conclusion to which he comes: “And he advances the very obstacle to the cause and leads along the way the difficulty of the way.”

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. The teachings of other famous Stoics – Chrysippus, Zeno, Cleanthus, Ariston, Apollonius, Junius Rustik, Epictetus, Seneca, were reflected in his thoughts.

“You can benefit from everything that happens to us.”

Marcus Aurelius was well acquainted with obstacles and tribulations.

Over the 19 years of his tenure on the throne, the empire was often shaken by wars; a monstrous plague epidemic swept through it. Difficulties such as the devastated treasury, the attempted coup, the insatiable greed of the half-brother, and the journey throughout the Roman Empire — from Asia Minor to Syria, Egypt, Greece and Austria, fell to him.

No matter what the circumstances, he never lost his composure, tact and courage. People of that time admired Marcus Aurelius, considering him a great man and a just emperor.

“All the great victories in politics, business, art, or gender relations were made possible by solving painful problems with … creativity, concentration, and fearlessness.”

The stoicism and wisdom of Marcus Aurelius was guided by many people for many centuries.

This thinker contributed to the formation of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the human rights movement in the United States, as well as the success of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. The Stoics talked about the problems of everyday life that everyone can face.

“Are you a worthy person?”;

“Are you able to accept the inevitable?”;

“Can you get the courage and show … what are you?”

“Focus on what is happening to you at this very moment. Get out of your head thoughts about what this symbolizes, what it means and “why it happens to me.”

The need to overcome obstacles can yield certain benefits.

To do this, first of all, you need to rise above your usual reaction to adversity, over feelings of fear, disappointment, hopelessness, depression and anger.

Thanks to his courage and self-knowledge, Marcus Aurelius managed to turn his misfortunes and tragic events into a triumph. To achieve the same significant results, learn the main lesson of stoic wisdom: “Obstruction on the path is the path itself.”

“The crisis destroys bad companies. Good companies outlive him. Outstanding companies are only getting stronger thanks to the crisis ”(former Intel CEO Andy Grove).

Marcus Aurelius described the method of overcoming difficulties as follows: “An impartial judgment is now, at this very moment. Selfless deed – now, at this very moment. Willingness to accept – now, at this very moment – any external events. That’s all you need. ”

Complementary Disciplines

To act wisely, you must learn to consider your life in three ways.

1. The discipline of perception

The way we perceive the world gives meaning to the events of our lives. These events should not be perceived through the prism of “good/bad”.

Having cast aside fears and prejudices, try to see things as they really are.

Accept the truth, not its subjective interpretation. We list several principles and give some examples of how powerful perception is.

  • “Change the angle of view.” American industrialist John Rockefeller once worked as an accountant in Cleveland, Ohio, for just 50 cents a day. Having become an investor, he successfully survived the largest financial crises in the American economy of 1857, 1873, 1907 and 1920. What others perceived as a catastrophe and the reign of chaos, impartial and unflappable Rockefeller perceived as a valuable lesson and an opportunity. The habit of looking at what was happening in this way, as well as iron exposure,  helped him gain control of 90% of the oil market.
  • “Realize your strength.” In the 1960s, boxer Rubin Carter, nicknamed Hurricane, the main contender for the middleweight title, was the victim of a false accusation of killing three people. Once in prison, he retained independence and individuality. Reason and fortitude remained subject to him, and not to prison leaders. All the time he devoted to the study of his case. After 19 years, Carter got a review of the verdict and, having gone free, never once looked back at what had happened.
  • “Keep your nerves in your fist.” General Ulysses Grant, who participated in the Civil War, gave the impression of a man without nerves. Once, a shell exploded next to Grant, killing a horse a few steps away. Grant, as if nothing had happened, continued to look at the battlefield with binoculars. In another case, in the presence of the general, the soldiers unloaded the ship, which suddenly exploded. Everyone fell to the ground, and only Grant rushed to the wreckage of the ship to save the survivors.
  • “Learn to control emotions.” The first American astronauts, NASA employees taught how to stay calm in a stressful situation and not panic. Astronauts had to work out every detail of the flight hundreds of times in order to bring their actions to automatism. Comprehensive training helped them cope with the absolute novelty of space flight.
  • “Can I do this?” Tommy John played at the Major League Baseball games for 26 seasons – an amazing period. When playing, Tommy always asked himself: “Is there a chance for luck?”; “What can I do in such a situation?” When he turned 45, the Yankees club tore up his contract. At the beginning of the next season, Tommy, as if nothing had happened, came to the training of his team as a free player. Having done his best, he achieved inclusion in the team and became a server in the first game of the season, in which his team beat Minnesota.
  • Important lessons. Maintain impartiality. If necessary, rethink what you see. Stop worrying about the past and worry about the future. Let all your thoughts and actions be focused on the present. Even in the worst, look for something good. Do not lose courage.

2. Discipline of Action

Purposefulness, courage, and perseverance are qualities that ensure the adoption of correct and effective measures. Act creatively, overcoming obstacles, as the great ones acted in the following examples.

  • “Act!” In childhood, the life prospects of Demosthenes were not bright. A weak, sickly child, also with a speech impediment. His inheritance was appropriated by the guardians. Nevertheless, Demosthenes wanted to become the most famous speaker of Athens, and nothing could stop him on this path. He began to continuously practice oratory while collecting sea pebbles in his mouth. He did this far from prying eyes. Feeling that the moment had come, he filed a lawsuit against his guardians for the return of the stolen money and, thanks to his brilliant oratory, won in this lawsuit. Having become the “voice of Athens”, Demosthenes always advocated the approach “Act, act, act!”
  • “Get the ball rolling.” Amelia Earhart dreamed of becoming a professional pilot. But in her time (1920s), a woman was considered a gentle, physically weak creature. Once Amelia was invited to participate in the first flight of a woman across the Atlantic, and at the helm she was not supposed to be sitting, but a man. Although she had strong doubts, she agreed to this proposal, and a few years later became the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic alone.
  • “Train your perseverance.” Inventing the first incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison tried 6,000 options for filament materials. Nikola Tesla sneered at Edison’s persistence: it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, he said, and sorting through each blade of grass in turn. And Edison believed that in some situations, persistence of this kind is necessary.
  • “Focus on the process.” The coach of the outstanding football team of the University of Alabama strongly believes that the main thing is to follow the process. He tells his players: “Forget about the national championship. Just think about what needs to be done in this workout, in this game, at this particular moment. This is the process: to think only about what can be done now, about the things that are before our eyes. ” Focus on the process: after solving one problem, move on to another.
  • “Let the obstacles fight each other.” The struggle waged by Gandhi for the independence of India was not a struggle in the usual sense of the word. Both victories and defeats in it fell on the British Empire. Having resorted to peaceful civil disobedience, Gandhi demonstrated that the struggle does not always mean violent confrontation. Sometimes it manifests itself in the persistent upholding of a position that you think is right.
  • Important lessons. If you are an entrepreneur, start by creating a “minimum viable product,” which, according to the philosophy of Silicon Valley companies, will need to be further developed. Remember the engineering saying: “Failure is a built-in characteristic.” Learn to look at what you are doing as the most important thing in the world. Never forget that in some cases, approaching from the flank works better than an attack on the forehead. Like great athletes, learn to work with maximum focus. But even so, you will not always succeed in winning. Having failed, be courageous and proceed to the next task.

3. The Discipline of Will

Life can inflict a crushing blow on you, cause psychological trauma.

But no blow can lead a man who has gathered his will into a fist out of his way. It is you, and not someone else, that is the pillar on which your life and your success rest. Real willpower acts constantly, without sharp impulses.

The will is strengthened without external manifestations; the development of willpower is best accompanied by restraint, resistance to external influences and psychological flexibility. Consider the components of willpower.

  • Train your will. What a person with a strong will is capable of, Abraham Lincoln showed. He grew up in poverty and for many years was a loser politician for whom no one wanted to vote. All his life he suffered from severe depression. Nevertheless, it was Lincoln who was destined to lead the army of the North in the Civil War. Being a man with an incredibly strong will, he did not allow personal problems to lead him astray or deprive him of hope. Whatever the trials that fell to his lot, Lincoln withstood them, eventually becoming the president of the United States in the most stressful period in the country’s history.
  • “Build an internal fortress.” As a child, Theodore Roosevelt suffered from severe asthma. Night attacks almost brought him to the grave. To temper character, Theodore was engaged in his own gym, which his father equipped at home. Sports eventually brought fruit: at the age of 20, Roosevelt not only had a physically strong body, but also managed to prevail in the battle against asthma. He called his desperate struggle against the disease “life under stress”. Roosevelt said: “We work for wear or rust – there are no exceptions. I choose the first. ”
  • “Love everything that falls out.” When Thomas Edison was near seventy, a fire destroyed his research and production laboratory. Fire exterminated priceless archives, prototypes and research records. Upon learning of this, Edison only remarked with startling composure: “Well, okay. But they got rid of a pile of garbage. ” In this situation, there was no point in sobbing, exclaiming or throwing objects on the floor in anger. Edison took the blow of fate with dignity and ease. When the fire started, he said to his son: “Call your mother and all her friends. They will never see such a fire again. ”
  • “Think of your mortality.” In 1569, the French nobleman Michel de Montaigne nearly died, having fallen off a horse with a horse. At this moment he was visited by a mystical experience: he felt how life was slipping away from the body. This experience gave Montaigne strength. He became one of the most famous writers of Europe, statesman, and confidant of the king. A sharp interest arose in him in the study of death, in what others think about it, how it is perceived in other cultures. Death treacherously overtakes everyone. Until this happens, use the time allotted to you in the best way, as Montaigne did.
  • “Get ready to start all over again.” The Haitian proverb says: “Beyond these mountains are other mountains.” You may be able to overcome many difficult obstacles, but there will be no end to these obstacles: new ones will arise all the time on your way. That is life.
  • Important lessons. Preliminary conclusions, an understanding of what may go wrong, are no less valuable than conclusions made after the fact. Sometimes, if things go contrary to expectations, it is necessary to take this fact for granted and reconcile. Tell yourself: “C’est la vie. Everything is good”. You are part of the universe, so try to make its tiny corner as perfect as possible.

Stoicism: Instructions for Use

In different centuries, cabinet scientists have tried to appropriate the authorship of the philosophical doctrine of Stoicism, wishing to secure exclusive rights to these concepts.

But the philosophy of the Stoics, which was developed by Seneca, Zeno, and other thinkers, did not imply isolation from life in the form of dry theory. These philosophers disseminated stoic teaching as a system of instructions for overcoming life’s difficulties and tribulations – that is how it should remain.

“An obstacle on the path becomes the path itself … Each obstacle is an opportunity to fix something in one’s life” (Zen Buddhist parable).

The immortal Epictetus, who survived the hardships of slavery and became a renowned Stoic philosopher, entitled his famous collection of moral teachings Enchiridion.

Translated from ancient Greek, this word means “improvised tool” or “manual”. Epictetus and other Stoics of antiquity regarded stoicism as “something in our hands, a continuation of the hand.”

Marcus Aurelius put it differently on this score: the teaching of the Stoics do not make fencers out of people, but fisticuffs who courageously fight life’s hardships and obstacles.


  • Stoicism is a practical guide to the art of living, a pragmatic philosophy that tells you how to overcome life’s difficulties.
  • This ancient teaching was an inspiration for Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, as well as many modern leaders.
  • The teachings of the Stoics are based on three main disciplines: perception, action, and will.
  • Perception is our inherent way of seeing the world. It can be realistic or subjective; help or, conversely, create difficulties.
  • The correct action is always directed at the goal, thought out, carried out decisively and persistently.
  • Life can crush a person’s body, but willpower will not allow his spirit and mind to triumph. You control the will yourself, and not some external force.
  • Obstacles to progress are actually contributing to progress.
  • Man is improving, faced with difficulties.
  • Overcoming difficulties opens up opportunities for you, unattainable in any other way.
  • Your character is determined by how you relate to difficulties and whether, in responding to them, you are able to maintain composure.

 Why You Should Read “The Obstacle Is the Way”

  • To accept problems and learn how to solve them
  • To face serious difficulties with a clear mind and plan to act
  • To get acquainted with Stoic philosophy

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