How to turn an obstacle into your advantage

In the year 170 AD which saw intense fighting between the empire of Rome led by emperor Marcus Aurelius, and various Germanic and nomadic tribes (known as the Marcomannic wars). Marcus Aurelius sat down during some much-needed time to himself and began transcribing his thoughts.

The exact place that he wrote or even the intention for the scripture at the time are of little importance to us now. Some scholars claim that these would be works that his sons could reference long after his passing. Others claim they were merely an exercise in self-reflection. With the intention to simply remind him of the philosophical beliefs that he held onto and needed to be reminded of when sailing through turbulent waters.

Today we know these as The Meditations. Our best resource for understanding the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism.

Held within these pages of personal writings and private notes is the following quote:

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

What Marcus is describing here is a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy called Object Reversal. Essentially, what Stoics recognise is that we don’t control what happens to us. But we control how we respond to the action.

And within how we respond, there is always an opportunity to do something different. Learn from the experience and better ourselves, all because we choose to.

Now I realise this all may sound fluffy and obvious to anyone who has read a psychology book. But not only is this idea key to multiple disciplines such as leading a happy life, becoming an entrepreneur or succeeding in your career. Knowing how to see a disadvantage as an opportunity for personal growth is a powerful technique that will allow you to be a more successful person with increased levels of mental resilience and confidence. But it will also enable you to be a highly sought after professional who understands what is within your circle of control and the techniques you need to use to be effective at overcoming the challenges that you will inevitably face.

History is full of people who overcame their obstacles

During World War II, the German Blitzkrieg became legendary not only for the destruction that it caused. But also how opposing generals would surrender rather than going through the terrifying monster that would inevitably bear down on them.

That is, except general Dwight D. Eisenhower. Who after the invasion of Normandy, told his generals:

“The present situation is to be regarded as an opportunity for us and not a disaster.”

Eisenhower’s strategy was to not allow himself to become overwhelmed by the situation that was staring him in the face. But to study it. Observe its workings and realise the opportunity hidden within.

This method finally paid off after coming to the realisation that the Blitzkrieg strategy in use by the German forces had one weakness. The enemy flanks were left exposed, meaning the opportunity for flanking the Germans and attacking them from the exposed rear.

This is one example of a person finding opportunity in an obstacle. But there are many others. From Alexander the Great’s ability to tame Bucephalus. Steve Jobs who was able to be re-hired at Apple after proving his strategy of selling to consumers at high prices was a success. Or even Hollywood actor George Clooney. Who when he arrived on the acting scene took a different path to attracting casting managers’ attention.

Instead of marketing himself as being able to perform like the hundreds of other actors that he competed with daily. He instead highlighted how he was different. How he could solve their problems and be the solution they were looking for.

To overcome obstacles, start with yourself

As the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet reminds us:

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so

When something happens to us, the story we tell ourselves makes up a large part of what value we attach to it. But at it’s core, it’s just a new event that no doubt you know how to overcome.

If we tell ourselves that something is unfair, unjust or insurmountable. It will be those things.

Our perception of the problem describes not only how we see it but also our likelihood of overcoming it.

Be Persistent

Problems are best tackled in one go. Instead, it is recommended to break down the end goal and decide what you can do today, with the resources you have. To best start your attack and begin your assault.

Action is key here. If you do nothing. You won’t achieve anything.

So take action today. Be persistent. And stay with the problem until you get the job done.

Remain humble

Success and humbleness are not opposite sides of the same coin. They can in fact coexist and be a teacher for others to learn from.

Near the end of his time as emperor. Marcus Aurelius was usurped by his friend and general Avidius Cassius. Who on hearing rumours of Marcus’s death. Declared himself emperor and causing a short-lived uprising against his former friend.

Instead of taking it personally, or getting angry. Marcus used this as an opportunity to teach the Roman people a lesson. That good-will and forgiveness is the way to ongoing peace. Showing that when obstacles appear. There is always a way.

I hope this blog post was useful to you.

Reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter if you have any questions. Or contact me using my contact form.

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Posted by Kevin Tuck

Kevin Tuck is an ISTQB qualified software tester with nearly a decade of professional experience. Well versed in creating versatile and effective testing strategies. He offers a variety of collaborative software testing services. From managing your testing strategy, creating valuable automation assets, or serving as an additional resource.

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