Melissa Brown

Melissa Brown

There’s a Zen parable about a king who was saddened to see his once mighty empire become weak. Years of having a comfortable life had turned his people apathetic and complacent. Hoping to inspire them to something greater, he placed a huge boulder in the middle of the main road, so no one could get in or out. Then the king hid in a bush close by and watched to see what his people would do. He wondered if they might band together to move the rock. The wealthy merchants needed a clear path to trade goods, so certainly one of them would figure it out.

But he watched in disappointment as one subject after another tried half-heartedly to move the boulder and turned away. Many cursed the king for being inconvenienced and were angry he hadn’t kept the road cleared for them. Then, several days later, a peasant boy approached the town and saw the boulder. Like the others, he tried pushing it but quickly realized the task required more than brute strength. So he went into the woods to find a branch to use as leverage. He wedged it under the boulder and after much strain and effort, it lifted and rolled it away. Where the rock had been, the boy found a purse of gold coins and a note from the king that read, “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

In his book, “The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph,” Ryan Holiday draws upon ancient ideas and examples of stoic leaders to show his readers that only by overcoming massive challenges can we become the best version of ourselves. Success rests on three primary disciplines: “perception, action and the will.” 

The discipline of perception

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment.” Viktor Frankl

Fear and prejudice often lead us to label events as either good or bad. Rarely do we just see a situation for what it is. We often forget we can choose how to look at things. Where one person sees catastrophe, another sees opportunity. According to Former Intel CEO Andy Grove, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.”

While others became desperate whenever there was a financial crisis, John D. Rockefeller stayed calm and rode them out with unwavering nerve. He went from making 50 cents a day as a bookkeeper to acquiring 90% of the oil market. Holiday states that the beginning of our downfall is not the crisis itself, but our tendency to brood about the past or agonize about the future. Only by focusing on the present moment with a cool head can we move in a positive direction. No person or situation can make us feel powerless, fearful or disheartened. We choose to give in to those feelings. Or, we can choose not to. Holiday states, “Just because your mind tells you that something is awful or evil or unplanned or otherwise negative doesn’t mean you have to agree.”

During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was watching his troops unloading a steamship when it exploded. While everyone ducked and covered their heads, he ran towards the explosion to help his troops. Holiday asserts, “Like Grant, we must prepare ourselves for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it.”

Stay focused on what you can do in the present moment, rather than ruminating on all the negative things that may or may not happen. How you perceive a situation tends to determine the reality of it. If you believe an obstacle is insurmountable, it’s unlikely you will find the path around, over or through it. Perspective is everything and having the right one can cut any obstacle down to size. Holiday reminds his readers, “There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up. No one said it would be easy and, of course, the stakes are high, but the path is there for those ready to take it.” It just takes the right perspective to see it.

The discipline of action

“Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments. Action requires courage, not brashness — creative application and not brute force.”

During my final years with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I can remember countless meetings where very little was accomplished and there was rarely a call to action. In prior years however, even when budget cuts were harsh, conversations still focused on what we needed to do in order to best serve students. And if there was no money, we managed to do it anyway. Over 15 years ago, my dean at the time, Jake Poole came to me and said, “I’m fed up that we’re losing so many students to the University of Phoenix’s online programs. Our students need to be able finish our degrees from any location, at times that work for them.” I completely believed in this as well, so when he asked if I could get our business program online, I jumped at the opportunity. When you have a clear reason why you’re doing something, the how comes into focus and the hurdles don’t seem so high.

Of course, it also helps to have momentum to clear the hurdles, so if you have an idea to act on, get moving! Amelia Earhart painted the following on the side of her plane, “Always think with your stick forward.” In other words, don’t slow down or you’ll crash.

Holiday also stresses the importance of persistence when moving toward your objectives. After spending a frustrating year working with Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla said that if he needed to find a needle in a haystack Edison would “proceed at once to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.” While everyone knows that Edison invented the incandescent lightbulb, a lesser known fact is that he tested 6,000 different filaments before finding one that worked. Nothing can take the place of persistence.

The discipline of the will

“Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card.”

No matter how hard or how often you get knocked down, nothing can deter you if you hold firmly to your willpower. Holiday discusses how we should not mistake will for ambition or bluster. Instead, true will is “quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility.” You see will power in those who can endure a truly awful and dark situation and still manage to learn from the experience and provide comfort to others despite their own suffering.

Abraham Lincoln exemplified this. He grew up in poverty, suffered from severe bouts of depression, lost his mother as a child, lost numerous elections, and lost three of his children. He came to believe that he was destined to endure such personal loss so it would prepare him for greater things. Had he not lived such a difficult life, I question if he could have carried the nation through the Civil War as he did, without losing hope.

Marcus Aurelius’s courage and wisdom also enabled him to turn struggles and tragedy into victory. “Our movements and decisions define us: We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and persistence. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Melissa Brown is a web developer at SimpleDzn.com and former business professor at the University of Alaska. She can be reached at melissa@simpledzn.com. This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Department of Applied Business.