Recently, I was talking with a client – let’s call him Kevin – about an unexpected obstacle he’s encountered.
‘What I want to get out of this situation,’ he explained, ‘is to see it not as a roadblock but as a bridge.’
We can’t control what happens to us: we can control how we respond
This reminded me of a story I’d read about the inventor Thomas Edison. In December 1914, ten of the buildings at his works were destroyed by fire. On arrival at the plant, Edison called to his son ‘Where’s your mother? Get her over here, and her friends too. They’ll never see a fire like this again.’ Whilst directing the firefighters, Edison was also making notes – plans for rebuilding of the works which began the morning after the fire.
Edison and the Stoics
Thomas Edison’s approach echoes one advocated by the Stoics built upon three pillars: perception, action and will.
Have you ever noticed that it’s much easier to give advice and see a solution when you are not personally involved in the situation? When faced with adversity, we can help ourselves by choosing to view it objectively.
The fire at Edison’s plant was out of his control and everything that could be done to fight it was being done. He chose to stand back and ‘watch the show’.
In the same way, Kevin and I talked about how he could change his perception of the obstacle he faced. I asked him to describe it as if he were a reporter, sticking to the facts of the situation. Then I asked him to come up with several different responses to the obstacle: they ranged from ‘it’s a disaster’ to ‘it’s an opportunity to go a different way’. Perception asks us to consider what story we are telling ourselves about any given situation.
Here, we are talking about deliberate, disciplined action where we break down the solution to the issue into small steps. Mustering all our creativity, energy, pragmatism and resilience, we work our way through those steps with determination until we have overcome the obstacle.
Not only did Edison begin rebuilding straight away and have part of his plant up and running again within three weeks, he also solved another problem. During the fire, he noticed that the firefighters were hampered by a lack of visibility through the smoke so within the week, he devised an extremely powerful portable searchlight for them.
Kevin and I talked through his action plan, breaking down into what needed to happen over the next few days, the following month and into the longer term. We worked out how he would stay on track, whose help he needed, what impact this plan had on others.
In his book, ‘The obstacle is the way’, Ryan Holliday writes:
”If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared.”
‘Will’ is one of those difficult-to-define abstract qualities – perhaps we could refer to it as our strength of character. We are able to accept those elements of our lives over which we have no control and to carry on regardless. Sometimes this involves us taking the long view: when we look back over our lives, how much significance will this obstacle have? Sometimes it is about accepting the situation as it is, deciding on a plan of action and following it through.
Edison could have seen the fire as a disaster and as the end of all his hard work. As we know, he didn’t: he rebuilt. The following year, his company made $10 million in revenue.
Kevin’s plan to work around his obstacle is a long process and no doubt other issues will occur along his route. However, Kevin is resilient and determined and I along with others will be supporting him along the way.
Like Edison and the Stoics, Kevin has considered and is using his perception, action and will to deal with this obstacle.
Today’s pebble for your consideration: is there an obstacle which you need to overcome? Can this approach help you?
Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.
If you’d like someone to help you overcome obstacles in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?