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Your Obstacles Are Not Holding You Back

Commonsense wisdom: Obstacles are what hold us back from extraordinary achievement.

This seems to be fairly self-evident. If you’ve found a person who failed to achieve their goals, you’ve also found a person who failed to overcome an obstacle of some kind. So it makes perfect sense to say obstacles are what holds us back.

But I think it’s a little more tricky than that.

Our greatest enemy isn’t the obstacle. It’s the ordinary.

Obstacles are inspiring. They force us to react with resilience and urgency. We may not feel good when we have them, but we tend to be at our best when the fire us under our seats. The lizard brain loves obstacles. The reactive self gets its whole sense of purpose from obstacles. Obstacles motivate us to be productive and creative without us having to change our overall worldview.

Case in point:

Imagine that things are going well at your job. Then one day your boss says “I need more results from you. Your recent performance has been unsatisfactory. In fact, if you don’t double your outcomes by the end of this month, we’re going to have to terminate your position.”

What would you feel if you heard those words being spoken to you? You’d probably be a little sad, or angry, or resentful, or scared. But what would you actually do? The odds are high that you would do one of the following two things regardless of how upset you felt: 1) You would find a way to double your outcomes in order to save your job or 2) You would use your anger or fear to motivate you to look for a job that’s a better fit for your working style. Either way, you would increase your productivity or creativity.

That’s what most people tend to do when faced with a crisis. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think we fail because we’re bad at reacting to obstacles. I think we fail because we’re too good at reacting to obstacles. If you only focus on how people feel when they face obstacles, you’ll think people are bad at dealing with challenges. If you watch what people do, however, you’ll realize that we’re usually at our best during these times.

Hang on though. This isn’t a typical motivational rant about how you should appreciate your obstacles because of their ability to make you a better person. This is an invitation to make a shift from the reactive orientation to the creative orientation. You make that shift when you realize that your real enemy isn’t your belief that you’re surrounded by obstacles, but it’s your belief that you’re surrounded by ordinariness.

When you look around you, what do you see? You see three things: 1) opportunities 2) obstacles and 3) ordinariness. That is, you see situations that look promising, you see situations that look challenging, and you see situations that look neutral. That third category, however, is an illusion. Nothing is neutral. Nothing is ordinary. And this is the secret that extraordinary achievers have figured out: ordinary situations are just opportunities that most people haven’t learned to see. While most people live in the reactive orientation where hard work and productivity are driven by fear, innovators live in the creative orientation where hard work and productivity are driven by an uncommon sense of possibility.

Innovation is tricky because we have to see opportunities without the assistance of obstacles.

The average person shows up to work, goes through their routine, and only ramps things up when they have something to react to. Namely, an obstacle. The innovator shows up to work and goes through their routine, but they also study their environment in search of some opportunity that everyone else mistakes for an ordinary thing.

I once challenged a student to make $50 in a week. At first, she thought this would be an impossible task. After our Skype session, however, she started to look around her room for things she could sell. She immediately recognized several items that weren’t even very useful to her, but that might sell on Ebay. It worked. She made $100. How did she do it? She overcame the ordinary. She wasn’t motivated by crisis. She was motivated by the desire to see deeply. She was motivated by a vision of what she wanted. And for the first time, she saw past the illusion of everyday things and she converted the commonplace into capital.

We can all do this. The best part is that we all have plenty of material to work with. Everyone doesn’t have lots of money. Everyone doesn’t have a huge network. Everyone doesn’t have stunning good looks, charm, or whatever the world says you’re supposed to have. But everyone has plenty of circumstances and conditions that they regard as ordinary.

Have you ever read the story about the Acres of Diamonds? There are a few different versions, but the jist is this: A man hears reports about diamonds being discovered in Palestine and Europe. He sells his farm so he can go chase after diamonds too. He searches and searches to no avail. Meanwhile the guy who acquires the farm decides to do some digging. He finds diamonds on the farm. Ain’t that a kick in the head? The poor farmer would have been rich beyond his wildest dreams had he only did a little digging in his own backyard. He wasn’t defeated by his obstacles. He was defeated by the ordinary. He was overcome by his failure to see, to truly see, what was already there.

In the Usual Suspects, the character Verbal says “the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world he didn’t exist.” Ordinary experiences are the devil in disguise. While you’re busy fighting your obstacles and treating your challenges as if they are the main thing, the real devil that’s eating away at your life is the specter of ordinariness. If you dig a little deeper…. nah, I won’t go easy on this because I’m a little tired of people treating the good things in life as if they’re easy. If you dig a *lot* deeper, you’ll find underestimated talents and things that are waiting to be transformed into treasures.

Do you have obstacles that seem to hold you back? Step back for a moment and realize that obstacles only appear to be big when your options appear to be small. Your real problem is not what you can see, it’s what you don’t see. Your real problem isn’t the mountain that’s in front of your face. It’s the goldmine that’s right under your nose.  Stop overcoming your problems and start obsessing over your possibilities. Instead of trying so hard to eliminate your obstacles, try harder to eliminate the perceptual experience of seeing ordinary objects, ordinary people, and ordinary moments whenever you observe the world around you.

In The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live in,  John Lubbock wrote:

What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. … In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.

Take note of how Lubbock did not appeal to mystical powers and possibilities here. This superior ability to see what others mistook for mere ordinariness was the direct result of people’s dedication to investigating their surroundings at a level of detail that others disregard.

This is what education is really about. To learn is to initiate yourself into the world of the possible by meticulously cultivating novel insights, fresh perspectives, and unconventional ways of looking and listening.

Crack open those ordinary books you’re taking for granted. Converse with those ordinary people you’re taking for granted. Ask those ordinary questions you’re taking for granted. Act on those ordinary ideas you’re taking for granted. Sharpen those ordinary skills you’re taking for granted. Deeply explore all the ordinary elements in your life you’re taking for granted.

Lift the veil and see the world for what it truly is: a place that continues to remind us over and over again that the next big thing is most likely to stem from a special way of seeing something that seems so-so on the surface.


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