Part 3 of the groundbreaking series on The Storytelling Matrix: a subtle field of energy at the heart of all business matters. You may also enjoy the first post in the series, Problem and Paradox, or the second, The Power of Personal Disclosure.
Obstacles suck. They are what you try to avoid or work around. Obstacles are where the flow of things gets bottled up; where things break down, or where you feel most out of alignment. Yet they play an important role in the progression of any story.
What are you trying to create in the world? Are you are a change agent, the leader of an organization, an entrepreneur? In nearly every organization or business, the language and experience of obstacles is playing out, no matter how carefully you plan, who you hire, or what you’re selling.
Obstacles are Critical to the Hero’s Journey
Your first response to obstacles is often to demonize them.
The language we use is often militaristic (e.g. attack that problem, conquer the challenge). It’s easy to have negative emotion toward what’s going wrong. So much so that it makes you want to avoid dealing with it. Often times, people know the bottleneck, constraint, or problem is there but no one wants to deal with it. Obstacles then turn into gremlins who’ve been fed after midnight.
Despite the furry devils, obstacles can be a tremendous gift on your path. You can’t discover, reveal, or embrace the full nature of your character without them. In fact, obstacles are the places where character is forged and revealed; they offer the perfect opportunities for you and your business to grow and become better aligned and more smoothly flowing. When you can embrace your obstacles, you invite the process of growth and transformation.
Sometimes the sheer number of obstacles you face can seem overwhelming, to the point of obscuring the path forward. Which ones really matter? How do you choose which obstacles to face and which ones to ignore? These are difficult choices.
Here are three strategies to consider. The sooner you begin to see your obstacles as a gift that will help you move forward, the sooner you’ll graduate the next level of your game.
1. Embrace the Discomfort
Transformation in any story comes from stepping out of your comfort zone. Imagine if Frodo never left the Shire. Or if King George of Britain never confronted his stutter. In hero’s journey terms, the protagonist at first often ignores the call to adventure. Yet eventually you reach a point where you must leave the place of comfort and step out into the wilderness.
Rarely do we opt into a place of discomfort. We have to be nudged there by either yearning or frustration. Typically we wince away from something that hurts, but the first step in seeing obstacles as a gift is to lean into the discomfort. In storytelling terms, you want heat. Look for the heat. The best stories emerge out of the smoking cauldron of creative tension.
The key to look for is “emotional overhead.” What are issues, subjects, or topics that are hard for you to discuss? What’s considered taboo or off-limits within your organization? What are the biggest areas of frustration or bottleneck? Those are the smoke signals for you to pay attention to.
You can’t be afraid to get close to this fire. Accept the fact that you will likely get burned. Pain is in fact a powerful motivator for change. You need to feel a little burn. In fact, when you reach the point of burning desire, there’s no fire that can stand in your way.
When you can say “This is important,” you’re actually saying yes to the obstacle. Everything starts to self-organize once you start to elevate something in importance. Just remember, it’s a gift calling you to step forward in a bigger way. Without it, you’d have no puzzle to solve.
You have to want it. Or least surrender to the reality that it must be faced. You must walk through the fire. Gold is often waiting for you on the other side. Your greatest source of untapped power is in the parts of your story that remain unreconciled.
2. Create Bounded Containment
It’s natural to want more freedom, options and choices. In particular, creatives and entrepreneurs love the feeling of open possibility. We live for it! Most of our decisions are biased towards freedom and flow and away from constraints and protocols. Which is why it’s so easy to avoid the difficult stuff.
Even if you’re on a path of freedom, your transformational story needs structure. Just as every canvas has an edge and every map needs a border. You want a boundary to work within and push against. Without a border you can’t focus or harness your full energy. You need a container.
That’s why it’s always easier for people to respond when you present them with a straw-model plan or a beta product. Not vague ruminations or vaporware. You’ve taken the world of abstract possibilities, and you’ve reduced it to something specific. You made choices about what matters most and it’s reflected in how you organize your story. This choice-making is key to the storytelling process.
Obstacles force you to delineate new boundaries and behaviors. They introduce a natural constraint that you must face or ignore at your peril. This demands that you to create structure! Obstacles are the alchemical fire that will help you make the difficult choices. In the best of circumstances, you feel you have no choice but to respond. It’s the ultimate motivational kick in the pants.
3. Find Mentors and Allies
It’s impossible to solve most major obstacles all by yourself. That’s why you need mentors and allies to help you walk through the fire. The very notion of an obstacle implies something out of your sight and awareness. You can’t see it clearly. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know what to do about it.
By definition, an obstacle lives outside your sphere of understanding. That’s why you want to find your Yoda, your Dumbledore, or even just a gym partner. They’ll introduce a fresh perspective and added support, often without the emotional attachments that you bring to the conversation. Remember that your emotions are often what are blurring your vision and ability to confront the obstacle.
As you begin to tackle your problems you may discover an entire constellation of mentors and allies who can help you down the path. Commit to studying the subject you need to solve. Then you’ll start to see who you want to model yourself after, who you resonate with, and the mentors will begin to show themselves to you. The old wisdom is true: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Finding your mentors or teachers doesn’t mean you won’t be working hard and making your own decisions. In fact, the most important thing you cultivate on the hero’s journey is self-knowledge. That’s the difference between a mentor and a false prophet — one strengthens your self-confidence, the other reinforces their own status and power. A false prophet will dictate to you what the answer should be. A mentor will help you see your options more clearly and empower you to make a more considered and conscious decision.
Seeing the Obstacle as a Gift from the Universe
Obstacles can be our greatest opportunities for character development and business transformation. Often it seems the universe conspires to create a challenging environment, a set of constraints that call on our core essence, our higher purpose, our innate strengths to propel us and our organizations towards a greater destiny.
From a personal health crisis, financial turmoil, losing relevance with your customer base, or questions about who you are as a brand, you’re facing your shadow. The obstacles you confront are just antagonistic characters playing their part in the story. They’re there working in service to you, advancing the plot, and supporting your transformation. It’s all in how you look at it.
How Do You Confront Your Obstacles? Share Your Voice.
Learning to see your obstacles as a gift is a path forward through even the most challenging of situations. Tell us how you confront the obstacles in your story.
- What are the biggest obstacles that you’re facing?
- What carries the greatest emotional overhead for you?
- How do you turn adversity into an ally?
Please add a comment or a question below.