Prepare to Start Again

This is the final chapter in my The Obstacle is the Way project! It’s a little hard for me to believe I made it.


This chapter is two pages long. To be pedantic about it, it’s less than two pages long, as neither page is completely covered with text. It’s a short chapter.

And, nonetheless, I have a few gripes. Not with the overall message: after one obstacle comes the next. In fact, I like this two-line paragraph:

Elysium is a myth. One does not overcome an obstacle to enter the land of no obstacles.

Who can argue with that? And who isn’t guilty of secretly thinking “if I just get these things here lined up…. I’ll never have to worry again” even though any degree of human observation tells us that’s not the case? I know I’m guilty.

It’s a solid ending to a book about overcoming obstacles: we learn to overcome obstacles, not because we want to live free of obstacles, but to become good at overcoming them.

A tangent and a rant

But then, there’s a phrase on the chapter’s second page that makes me crazy:

Passing one obstacle simply says you’re worthy of more. The world seems to keep throwing them at you once it knows you can take it.

I am available for a conversation about ‘the world’ as a sentient being that can somehow care for us in a quasi-spiritual way. However, I think it’s ridiculous to think of the world knowing anything about me, or first checking whether I can ‘take’ an obstacle before throwing it at me.

The idea makes me think of two beneficial gut bacteria, fading quickly under the onslaught of an antibiotic regimen.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” The one says to the other.

“Come now!” The other answers. “I’ve heard the human say he values his microbiome. He wouldn’t do this if he didn’t know we can handle it. Be strong!”

Returning from my brief venture into the ridiculous, I feel like this is something of a dangerous mindset. Not because it pretends to know the unknowable (the mind of ‘the world’), but instead because it handicaps our empathy.

I want to get better at overcoming obstacles. And, the book was a great inspiration and provided tools. But, for every example of people beating obstacles, a good google search for celebrity suicides would give a counter-example of people being beaten by obstacles.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of all the tools we may be able to develop, anyone can need a hand up in a desperate moment. The idea that “the world wouldn’t give you this challenge if you couldn’t handle it” has the unspoken corollary that “the world chose this experience for you for a reason and I would be robbing you of it if I helped.” And that’s never true.

Winding up

This project has dominated the blog for more than a year. It’s probably the thing I write about the most. And now it’s over.

But that probably just means it’s time for me to find a new mountain to climb.

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Follow the Process

This chapter of The Obstacle is the Way inspired me a little, but then I got a bit more… critical, I suppose. It starts off describing ‘the process’ in a sports metaphor. That’s not my thing, so I’ll use an example from later in the chapter.

After describing ‘the process’ as breaking tasks down into manageable chunks and focusing on them, the story of James Pollard Epsy is presented.

Unable to read and write until he was eighteen, Espy attended a rousing speech by the famous orator Henry Clay. After the talk, a spellbound Epsy tried to make his way toward Clay, but he couldn’t form the words to speak to his idol. One of his friends shouted out for him: “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”

Clay grabbed one of his posters, which had the word CLAY written in big letters. He looked at Espy and said, “You see that, boy?” pointing to a letter. “That’s an A. Now youve only got twenty-five more letters to go.”

Espy had just been gifted the process. Within a year, he started college.

I don’t care how hard Espy worked, I can’t help but think that college admissions were easier back then.

Still, the idea is simple: if you know the steps to do, a project seems pretty basic. And, in his way Ryan Holiday mentions projects we can work on: a book, a novel, a new skill or an instrument. Each of them, he says, are about understanding the process and doing what needs to be done today.

And I get that. You won’t make progress if you only spend your time being overwhelmed.

However, if your process is simply to break a 50,000 word manuscript into 500 words per day, after a hundred days you’ll have your 50,000 words, but that’s not to say that you’ll have a novel. I think that the idea of ‘trusting the process’ only makes sense if you’re constantly re-evaluating the process (possibly that’s a process step that’s so self-explanatory that it needn’t be mentioned).

If, for example, you want to get good at making “things” online (as I do), how much should I focus on finishing up the one website I have working, and how much should I focus on the next thing? Either one of them presents enough work to fill all my free time.

I try to navigate this unknown territory by committing to having Dynamic-EFL.com finished, if only so that I know that I can finish things. But, the more I think “it’s almost finished,” the more I realize how much more could be added to it. So, I have one more review activity I want to add, and some polishing I want to do to the interface, and I’ll declare it done.

Then, I rationalize I can work on trying to attract users (something I’ve started doing) and get that extra experience and (hopefully) skillset while I work on the next thing.

Still, the idea of “a process” seems best suited to things like playing basketball or learning an instrument, where a lot of people have gone before you and signposted some best practices. When it comes to just getting the most out of my life, the “process” only tells me not to sit on my hands.

And, really, I knew to do that.