14. Seeing past, or through, the daunting obstacles before us

Obstacles are everywhere. The ways of doing anything — from making civic change happen, to launching a successful business, to the age-old and private task of knowing oneself — rarely come without frequent frustrations and occasional furies.

This is true in ordinary times. It feels much more urgent now, in a world reeling from a year in a global pandemic and increasingly run on new technology that can make us all feel like novices.

How are we to approach, or even think about, the obstacles that lie before us? Perhaps, if we’re looking for workarounds or hacks or marginal gains, the clues to the answer lie not in finding a way around the edges, but within the meaty, unavoidable reality of the obstacle itself.

To back this up — and, to be honest, to help myself try to think differently about the long list of daunting obstacles I see before me (hands up if you’re a default pessimist too…) — let me refer to a handful of resources and comments that have simmered to the surface within the past few weeks.

Ryan Holiday is a writer who curates the ancient wisdom of Stoic philosophers such as Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and repackages it in books and tweets for the Internet generation. He published a bestselling book a couple of years back titled The Obstacle is the Way. Subtitled (because the formula for every bestselling book includes a pithy subtitle) “The ancient art of turning adversity into opportunity”, it includes the following back cover blurb:

We give up too easily. With a simple change of attitude, what seem like insurmountable obstacles become once-in-a-lifetime opportunities … What blocks our path actually opens one that is new and better. The Stoic philosophy — that what is in the way, is the way — can be applied to any problem: it’s a formula invented more than 2,000 years ago, whose effectiveness has been proven in battles and board rooms ever since.

Lunch with the FT last weekend was with Sherry Turkle, the psychologist who has spent her working life researching the impact of technology on people. She recalled a story about a university demonstration she once attended about some of the possibilities presented by the “Internet of Things”.

The demo went as follows:

Sensors and mobile devices allowed academics to get from class to Starbucks “without meeting anyone they’d ever had a fight with — no ex-wife, no department chair. It was like in Harry Potter, you know, the Marauder’s Map. Everyone in the room loved it. I thought, ‘who said human relationships are better if you never have any troubles?'”

For many of us, the pandemic perhaps resembles one extended spell of troubles, one such seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Millions of people the world over were already stressed, burnt out or depressed from the perpetual uncertainty of the world before coronavirus arrived. (Although while the problem is clear, the data on mental health and substance abuse issues suggests it hasn’t actually gotten worse over the past 30 years — it’s a pretty constant ~15% of the population affected by mental health or substance abuse disorders).

Whether we’re suffering from a disorder or not, the flux of the past 15 years or so presents new obstacles and challenges. Since about 2005, Facebook arrived and quickly became one of the biggest companies in the world, spreading its various tentacles into so much of our daily lives; the iPhone and then the iPad changed our relationship with technology forever; Uber, Airbnb and Google Maps changed how we travel; Twitter powered everything from the Arab Spring to #MeToo to cancel culture.

And these billion-dollar companies are only the tip of the iceberg, the small visible part of a world where the way to do everything is turned on its head. The Internet, and all the technologies built on top of it, has changed everything utterly, giving birth to a terrible beauty of creativity and destruction everywhere we look.

Everything from 500-hundred-year-old institutions to the nation state itself to financial currencies and exchange, to the way we check out books from the library or order from McDonald’s (driving through the local town at 10am the other morning I saw an Uber Eats driver pick up a brown paper bag of McMuffins) — technology, software and hardware, is taking over the world.

This is neither intrinsically bad or good. Optimistically, I think the upsides outweigh the downsides, but both sides tend towards infinity and there will be a lot of pain for those who are unable or unwilling to change with it. Whether technology liberates or enslaves might be down to not much more than a mindset or point of view.

Arriving on the back of these crashing tidal waves of change came the pandemic, fast-tracking the adoption of software and the online world, which had been progressing on an exponential curve in any case.

Long before the pandemic, Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian (and futurist) and author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, wrote that the most essential skills for anyone living and hoping to thrive in the 21st century were personal resilience and awareness and intelligence of one’s own emotions.

In the valuable Tim Ferriss-curated 2017 book Tribe of Mentors, in answer to the question, “What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the ‘real world’? What advice should they ignore?”, Harari wrote:

The world of 2040 will be a very different world from today, and an extremely hectic world. The pace of change is likely to accelerate even further. So people will need the ability to learn all the time and to reinvent themselves repeatedly — even at age 60. Yet change is usually stressful, and after a certain age, most people don’t like to change. When you are 16, your entire life is change, whether you like it or not. Your body is changing, your mind is changing, your relationships are changing — everything is in flux. You are busy inventing yourself. By the time you are 40, you don’t want change. You want stability. But in the twenty-first century, you won’t be able to enjoy that luxury.

If you try to hold on to some stable identity, some stable job, some stable worldview, you will be left behind, and the world will fly by you. So people will need to be extremely resilient and emotionally balanced to sail through this never-ending storm, and to deal with very high levels of stress.

As those flat-line data on mental health disorders seem to show, humans in general appear to be extraordinarily adaptable. (I once — pre-pandemic — had a short conversation with an urban planning university lecturer here in Ireland, when we chatted about the ever-widening commuter belt and the amount of time people were spending in transit each day. “People,” he said, “are like rats; they get used to anything.”)

Are we to get used to the pandemic, to living with Covid? Or are we to push through the obstacles and create a new and slightly better corner of the world on the other side?

Also in Tribe of Mentors, Janna Levin, an American theoretical cosmologist and a professor of physics and astronomy, puts it well.

I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. Our role here is to get better at navigating those obstacles. I strive to find calm, measured responses and to see hindrances as a chance to problem-solve. Often I fall back into old frustrations, but if I remind myself, this is a chance to step up, I can reframe conflicts as a chance to experiment with solutions.

Experimenting with solutions is, maybe, easier for a tenured university professor than a single parent working multiple freelance projects to try to make ends meet.

But the sentiment — life is the obstacles — seems valid. There is no path without challenges to overcome. There is only how we think about and approach obstacles. Maybe, on good days, we can clamber over one or two, and hopefully we have as many of those good days as bad.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.