BOOK REVIEW: How to turn adversity into advantage

The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage, by Ryan Holiday

NO DOUBT, you are trying to get ahead in whatever ‘getting ahead’ means to you. But so often an obstacle seems to stand in your way. Yes, there are a few people who report having planned their charmed life or their business success and had it unfold almost exactly as planned, and with style and elegance.

Amazing, but never true. Most people - blocked by the obstacles of time, money, connections, opportunity and more - do nothing. 

This book has a fascinating take on ‘being stuck’ – it is a primer on how to turn adversity to advantage, as the subtitle explains.

Let me state upfront: I am bored by motivational talks and books. I find very little about them interesting or useful 12 hours later. This book is not a motivational text, though it is motivating as many good books are.

The “Ancient Art” of the subtitle is referring to the wisdom and insight of the Stoic philosophers. These writings or thoughts influenced all the people Holiday uses as examples of this approach to obstacles of life. The circumstances of these people would leave most disorientated, reactive, torn and even paralysed. As Holiday shows, “some seem to turn those very obstacles, which stymie us, into launching pads for themselves”.

Knowing that there are heroes doesn’t help us to become heroes, but knowing how they became heroes, does. The value of this book is that it offers an ancient and profound method and framework for understanding, appreciating, and acting in the face of the obstacles life throws at us.

Turning obstacles into the way forward takes many forms. For the great Athenian orator, Demosthenes, it was a relentless drive to improve himself through action and practice. For Abraham Lincoln it was humility, endurance and compassionate will. 

In each case, all the people cited in this book were not born with the attributes it took to succeed, and many faced unimaginable horrors, from imprisonment to debilitating illnesses, and of course the day-to-day frustrations we all endure.

So, what did they do? “They had the ability to see obstacles for what they were, the ingenuity to tackle them, and the will to endure a world mostly beyond their comprehension and control,” Holiday explains.

The perspective is not a self-delusional, positive and happy one, ‘this is not so bad’, but rather, ‘I can make this good’.

The starting point is maintaining a state of mind that one of Holiday’s examples, the extraordinary businessman John D. Rockefeller, had perfected: cool-headedness and self-discipline.

When America sent the first astronauts into space, they trained them in one skill more than any other: the art of not panicking. When people panic, they make mistakes. They just react - not to what they need to react to, but to their survival hormones. At 150 miles above Earth, panic is suicide. Panic had to be trained out of the astronauts and it does not go easily. It must be trained away through persistent, repeated attempts at not panicking, until you don’t.

Talent isn’t the most important characteristic for success - grace and poise are, because these precede the opportunity to deploy your talent.

The action after the panic allows for a change of perception that is a prerequisite for right action. George Clooney spent his first years in Hollywood getting rejected at every audition. He desperately wanted the producers and directors to like him, and they didn’t.

He blamed them for not seeing how good he was. His life changed when he changed perspective, from self-centredness to that of other-centeredness, not possible in panic mode.  

Producers need to find the right actor to cast in their film, and they all hope that the next person to walk into the room is the right actor. When Clooney realised that he was the answer to their prayers, not the other way around, his performance improved and so did his career.

Consider the refusal to fund your company. It could be an obstacle, or a call for a change of action. Getting the person to fund you isn’t up to you, but the decision to refine and improve your presentation is.

Consider the number of exceptional businesses started during depressions or economic crises. 

Fortune magazine was founded soon after the crash of 1929. Hewlett-Packard and Revlon in the Great Depression. General Motors in the panic of 1907. Microsoft in the recession in 1973-75. LinkedIn during the burst of the dot-com bubble. Half the companies in the Fortune 500 were started under adverse conditions.  

Rather than focus on the difficulties of an economy in free-fall, they focused on what they needed to do to succeed, and that produced the difference. This difference requires presence of mind.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, said: “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” In like fashion, great individuals find a way to transform weakness into strength. 

This is essentially a very practical book which will introduce you to a wealth of important ideas beyond what I have introduced in this column. They will be of extraordinary value as you try to face down business crises.

Readability:  Light --+- Serious
Insights:      High +---- Low
Practical:      High -+--- Low 

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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