Book: The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday
Concept: “nerve” is a developed skill

How can we turn our obstacles into advantages? Or problems into solutions?

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday says that the change must begin with our perception.

First, we must develop our nerve. Any time that we “aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride… The risk of being overwhelmed is always there” Holiday writes.

The Importance of Nerve

What is nerve exactly? Nerve is about staying calm and in control when everything is going sideways.

If our nerve fails, our ability to use our skills is greatly diminished. Nerve allows us to “focus our energy exclusively on solving problems rather than reacting to them” according to Holiday.

It’s not that we should stop feeling emotion, this is impossible. But, Holiday says we must “domesticate” our feelings, which I think is an appropriate metaphor.

How often does getting upset offer an advantage? Almost never. It clouds our minds and makes us act rashly. Rarely does this lead to better outcomes.

Defiance sticks out as the key attribute to develop in regard to our emotions – I won’t let this emotion control me. I am in charge, not my “lower self”. 

Cultivating Calm

Nerve is not something we are born with, it is developed. Holiday tells us about astronaut John Glenn whose heart rate never went above 100 during a shuttle launch.

Was Glenn superhuman? No, he trained and mentally prepared for that launch for months, going through simulations & mental exercises. In a shuttle launch, losing nerve for even a few seconds can cause a critical mistake resulting in catastrophe.

We should prepare and fortify our nerves for our daily challenges and for those critical moments when our actions mean so much. If Glenn could learn to control his heart while hurtling into outer space, we can learn to control ours while facing competitors, clients, our children, our spouses, and our family members.

Glenn shows us that building nerve is not a matter of a one-time decision and is not something that can be done in an “in the moment” situation. Glenn invested time and sustained effort into building his.

“The observing eye sees what is there. The perceiving eye sees more than what is there.” – Ryan Holiday

So, how to cultivate nerve? It starts at the foundation of all our emotion – our perception.

Holiday writes that it is our perceptions, not events themselves, that are often our biggest problem. We decide an event is “good” or “bad”. And, sometimes, when we take a perception that an event is “bad” for us, our perception can lead to a chain reaction as our emotions spiral out of control.

Events simply “are”, they are not inherently good or bad. It’s our thinking that decides they are one or the another. To control your emotions, seek to first change the foundation of your emotions – your perception itself.

Ever notice that when your friend shares his or her problems with you, the answers seem crystal clear? We never have this clarity about our own problems. What’s missing when you talk about someone else’s problems? “The baggage”, writes Holiday, “with other people we can be objective”.

Consider backing up from your problem and pretending it isn’t happening to you. What if this were happening to your friend? What advice would you give if you weren’t so emotionally involved? Consider alternative ways to interpret and reframe your current problem.

Our Perceptions Are the Basis of All Our Actions

We can’t change the obstacle we face, but, we can change how we look at it. The “worst case” explanation that we jump to usually isn’t the right one. Consider the  the news paths that have maybe now opened up. Backup and look at this problem from someone else’s point of view. Look for alternate ways to attack the problem (click here for more).

Always remember – the first step to remaining calm is to change our perception. In the words of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been”. Our perception is a domino falling that will cause a chain of thoughts & actions that can either make matters worse or better.

Practice daily so that you are ready when you need it. Remember John Glenn. Change your perception, control your emotions, find your nerve.

Want to read more great books but don’t have the time to spend hours on a single book? Click here to join the Five Minute Book Club Mailing List for 5-minute summaries of the most valuable concepts from the best books delivered right to your inbox. No spam, 1-click unsubscribe at any time.

This post summarizes some concepts from The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Check out the full book, The Obstacle is the Way on Amazon by clicking here.