14. The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Your Obstacles

The most important thing you need to know about your obstacles is that all of them can be overcome.

Get it? Not some or most of them: all of them.

It doesn’t matter who you are, how you were raised, what race or nationality or sex you are or how much money you have. All of your obstacles can be overcome.

Overcoming an obstacle may not be easy. It may not be fun. It may take months, years or even decades. It may take more money than you can easily put together. But it can be done.

Your Perfectionism, Negativity and Hypersensitivity can be overcome.

Your Logistical Obstacles—lack of preparation, information, support—can be overcome.

Your Situational Obstacles—bad job, bad relationships, disability or chronic illness—can be overcome, at least in part.

I’ll say it again: ALL of your obstacles can be overcome.

By “overcome,” I mean eliminated, minimized or compensated for. You may have a disability that you must live with, or have experienced a terrible loss from which the hurt will never entirely go away. But you can still work to at least minimize the negative effect of your misfortune on your future success. One of my heroes in this regard is Christopher Reeve, the late actor who was paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback-riding accident. Suicidal immediately after the accident, and later unable even to breathe without the help of a mechanical respirator, he rallied to become a celebrated activist and author who provided hope and inspiration to millions around the globe.

True, Reeve was a movie star, so he had certain advantages. How about Victor Frankl, an ordinary, non-celebrity doctor who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II? He wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he reported that, even in the concentration camps, “It was possible for spiritual life to deepen. . . . The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation, and spiritual poverty of his existence.” In one incredible scene, Frankl describes how, in the midst of a terrifying nighttime forced march, he called up the memory of his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in years, and how her memory brought him peace.

I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist of enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.4

Frankl may or may not have been an extraordinary man, but we can all learn this from his experience: that, regardless of external circumstance, we can still maintain a large degree of control over our thoughts and move them in a positive direction—and that, once you do this, even the most horrific barriers to success (or, to life itself, in Frankl’s case) become much more manageable.

Did I say that all of your obstacles can be overcome? What I really meant to say is this: All of your obstacles must be overcome. Because what other choice, really, do you have? Failure to overcome your obstacles leads to a life of bitterness and wasted potential.

The process of overcoming your obstacles is the very essence of the human journey. If you’ve been procrastinating a long time, you are probably demoralized and have lost sight of your strengths, talents and virtues. Once you stop running from your obstacles and start working to overcome them, you will reclaim those positive qualities and also probably discover some new ones. This process of reclamation and growth—which, incidentally, often goes pretty quickly once you stop dithering and really start working to solve the problem—is one of life’s most awesome and joyful experiences.

Remember: all of your obstacles must be overcome.

Non-Obstacles

Often, my students raise points such as these to explain their inability to succeed:

• A person who wants to pursue activism full-time says she can’t because she doesn’t have enough money.

• Someone else says he can’t because he doesn’t have transportation.

• Finally, someone else says she’s so busy running her household and watching her kids that she doesn’t have the time.

Guess what: not having something you need to succeed, such as money, transportation or time, is not an obstacle; it’s a problem, a solvable problem.

So start solving it.

When pressed, my student “without” money comes up with a plan for minimizing her living expenses so that she can live off an activist’s salary. . . .

My student “without” transportation recalls that there is public transportation that can cover his route, a friend who can lend him a car or that he can take the occasional taxi without breaking the bank. . . .

And my student “without” time . . . well, she should read Parts I and II of this book.

Two things to note, from these examples:

1. The solutions are quite simple. Solutions usually are, once you stop dithering and start solving. Remember: focus on the solution, not the problem.

2. Many of the solutions are, as my technical friends say, “sub-optimal.” Few people like having to cut back on their lifestyle or commit to a long bus ride every day. But what’s the alternative? You can sit around hoping that you’ll win the lottery or that grandma will give you her Mustang, but as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy.

The above compromises and sacrifices are, in fact, highly typical of those that ambitious people of all kinds make to achieve their goals. All around you, people are making them, and without that much of a fuss, in the hopes of one day living a more self-actualized life. A key difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the former often view barriers to success as petty inconveniences or exciting challenges, while the latter often view those same barriers as huge and insurmountable.

How you view your own barriers and limitations will go a long way toward determining how successful you will be. It’s glib, but true: your attitude really does determine your altitude.

Myths that Promote and Excuse Failure

Another set of barriers that activists face are the many condescending and undermining myths out there that promote and excuse their dysfunction and unhappiness. (Only artists are more condescended to and undermined.) For instance:

• “Activists should be serious and work-focused at all times.”

• “You must cut all ties with your bourgeois roots to succeed.”

• “Any time and energy that doesn’t go to the cause is wasted.”

• “If I’m not sacrificing my all for my cause, I’m a bad activist.”

• “If I’m happy, I must be a shallow person or a bad activist.”

If you believe one or more of these myths, your belief is probably standing in the way of both your success as an activist and your ability to lead a happy, self-actualized life. Try writing out your thoughts and feelings around the myth—you will probably discover that it doesn’t survive the light of close scrutiny and objective, dispassionate analysis.