Overcoming Obstacles at Oxford

Throughout the year, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how to motivate myself, stay motivated, and when faced with obstacles, overcome them. I’ve seen this lesson in almost every book I’ve read and I’ve seen it play over and over again throughout my lessons in and out of the MBA program. When I graduate from the Oxford MBA program I’ll have learned about Finance, Leadership, Responsible Business, Marketing Analytics, and so many more core academic lessons. I’ll have spent a year working as an elected representative of my class pushing for various changes and improvements to the school. I’ll have met amazing people who have become some of my best friends and one of my most influential networks moving forward in life. And I’ll have explored the magical place that is Oxford. I’m sad to see it go. However, the greatest lesson I’ll have learned has been the practice and ability to look at my challenge and know that there is a way around, through, over, or under it.

To that effect, here are 9 books I’ve read this year and the top-line quotes or lessons about using the obstacles life gives you to propel yourself forward. (10-min read time)

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday (90 Seconds)
Watching the English by Kate Fox (30 Seconds)
Drive by Daniel Pink (50 Seconds)
Give and Take by Adam M. Grant (60 Seconds)
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder By Nicholas Taleb (40 Seconds)
Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry (40 Seconds)
Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card (30 Seconds)
Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card (10 Seconds)
The Road to Character by David Brooks (130 Seconds)

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday (90 Seconds)
This book is the Number 1 book I read this year as it has had a profound impact on how I examined the world and challenges I faced. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but if you only have time for a few nuggets, here they are”

– “As it turns out, this is one thing all great men and women of history have in common. Like oxygen to a fire, obstacles became fuel for the blaze that was their ambition. Nothing could stop them, they were (and continue to be) impossible to discourage or contain. Every impediment only served to make the inferno within them burn with greater ferocity.”

– “Psychologists call it adversarial growth and post-traumatic growth. ‘That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ is not a cliché but fact.
The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.”

– “No one is saying you can’t take a minute to think, Dammit, this sucks. By all means, vent. Exhale. Take stock. Just don’t take too long. Because you have to get back to work. Because each obstacle we overcome makes us stronger for the next one.”

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox (30 Seconds)
Kate Fox’s comprehensive guide is a critical read for anyone moving to the UK. The life lessons here have been instrumental in helping me remove my foot from my mouth on several occasions. This conversational point is especially poignant to remember:

“Participants in moaning rituals [people complaining about things] do not want to be given reasonable advice on how to solve their problems: they want to enjoy moaning about them. Reasonable advice is therefore, quite reasonably, forbidden.”

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink (50 Seconds)
Dan Pink’s book about self-motivation is a great read for those who need a swift kick in the butt to motivate you to preserver, to learn how to have grit and find your purpose. This bit from Part 3 was especially helpful as I prepared for my Oxford MBA.

– “As you contemplate your purpose, begin with the big question: What’s your sentence? … then keep asking a small question.”

– “Here’s something you can do to keep yourself motivated. At the end of each day, ask yourself whether you were better today than you were yesterday. Did you do more? Did you do it well? … Reminding yourself that you don’t need to be a master by day three is the best way of ensuring you will be one by day three thousand. So before you go to sleep each night, ask yourself the small question: Was I a little better today than yesterday?

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant (60 Seconds)
Adam Grant’s book was a good read as I tried to focus on managing my energy. This section in Chapter 6 resonated with work my managers had done at Google.

“Seeing impact can reduce the burnout of givers and motivate others to give, some organizations have designed initiatives to connect employees to the impact of their products and services. … At Medtronic, employees across the company— from engineers to salespeople— pay visits to hospitals to see their medical technologies benefiting patients. “When they’re exhausted,” former Medtronic CEO Bill George told me, “it’s very important that they get out there and see procedures. They can see their impact on patients, which reminds them that they’re here to restore people to full life and health.” Medtronic also holds an annual party for the entire company, more than thirty thousand employees, at which six patients are invited to share their stories about how the company’s products have changed their lives. When they see for the first time how much their work can matter, many employees break down into tears.”

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder By Nicholas Taleb (40 Seconds)
This book by Nicholas Taleb works off the principle that there are three classifications of things. Fragile (things that break when pressure is applied), Resilient (Things that survive and adapt to pressure), Antifragile (Things that, when pressure is applied, grow). He uses the myth of the Hydra to explain AntiFragile because when a Hydra’s head is cut off – two grow back. Humans have the ability to be AntiFragile and this book relates back to The Obstacle is the Way discussed earlier. In a snippet, here is a key point.

“Consider how people train in weightlifting: the body overshoots in response to exposures and overprepares (up to the point of biological limit, of course). This is how bodies get stronger.”

Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry (40 Seconds)
This book by Sensei Dave Lowry details his training as a Samurai starting as an American kid in the 70’s while explaining the warrior culture of feudal Japan. One main theme throughout the book is that a true warrior dedicates himself to both taking live and giving life.

“The transformation of the sword in the bugeisha’s hands from a weapon that takes life to one that grants it is a long and arduous process. The process cannot even be attempted without an immersion into the fundamentals of swordsmanship that force an exponent to come face to face with an opponent often enough so that eventually, it is hoped by his sensei, he will come to face himself.”

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card (30 Seconds)
Great lessons can be learned from fiction and this lesson on leadership from the main character Bean is key to high-level management of teams.

“If you give orders and explain nothing, you might get obedience, but you’ll get no creativity. If you tell them your purpose, then when your original plan is shown to be faulty, they’ll find another way to achieve your goal. Explaining to your men doesn’t weaken their respect for you, it proves your respect for them.”

Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card (10 Seconds)
Another great fiction example from Orson Scott Card that lends itself well to the philosophy of Stoicism learned from The Obstacle is the Way.

“Obstacles? Men like you don’t have obstacles. Just stepping stones.”

The Road to Character by David Brooks (130 Seconds)
David Brook’s book is a profound anthologies of moral character that is worth a much deeper dive and is probably the number two book I’d recommend. The book ends with the final passage here which is a constant reminder to be better each day.

“The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is. Sin and limitation are woven through our lives. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling— in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature— the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

The stumbler is made whole by this struggle. Each weakness becomes a chance to wage a campaign that organizes and gives meaning to life and makes you a better person. We lean on each other as we struggle against sin. We depend on each other for the forgiveness of sin. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer care. He is vulnerable enough to need affection and is generous enough to give affection at full volume. If we were without sin, we could be solitary Atlases, but the stumbler requires a community. His friends are there with conversation and advice. His ancestors have left him diverse models that he can emulate and measure himself by.

From the smallness of her own life, the stumbler commits herself to ideas and faiths that are nobler than any individual ever could be. She doesn’t always live up to her convictions or follow her resolutions. But she repents and is redeemed and tries again, a process that gives dignity to her failing. The victories follow the same arc: from defeat to recognition to redemption. Down into the valley of vision and then up into the highlands of attachment. The humble path to the beautiful life.

Each struggle leaves a residue. A person who has gone through these struggles seems more substantial and deep. And by a magic alchemy these victories turn weakness into joy. The stumbler doesn’t aim for joy. Joy is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes.”