Wise men are able to make a fitting use even of their enmities.
Gandhi didn’t fight for independence for India. The British Empire did all of the fighting—and,
as it happens, all of the losing.
That was deliberate, of course. Gandhi’s extensive satyagraha campaign and civil disobedience
show that action has many definitions. It’s not always moving forward or even obliquely. It can also
be a matter of positions. It can be a matter of taking a stand.
Sometimes you overcome obstacles not by attacking them but by withdrawing and letting them
attack you. You can use the actions of others against themselves instead of acting yourself.
Weak compared to the forces he hoped to change, Gandhi leaned into that weakness,
exaggerated it, exposed himself. He said to the most powerful occupying military in the world, I’m
marching to the ocean to collect salt in direct violation of your laws. He was provoking them—What
are you going to do about it? There is nothing wrong with what we’re doing—knowing that it placed
authorities in an impossible dilemma: Enforce a bankrupt policy or abdicate. Within that
framework, the military’s enormous strength is neutralized. Its very usage is counterproductive.
Martin Luther King Jr., taking Gandhi’s lead, told his followers that they would meet “physical
force with soul force.” In other words, they would use the power of opposites. In the face of violence
they would be peaceful, to hate they would answer with love—and in the process, they would
expose those attributes as indefensible and evil.
Opposites work. Nonaction can be action. It uses the power of others and allows us to absorb
their power as our own. Letting them—or the obstacle—do the work for us.
Just ask the Russians, who defeated Napoléon and the Nazis not by rigidly protecting their
borders but by retreating into the interior and leaving the winter to do their work on the enemy,
bogged down in battles far from home.
Is this an action? You bet it is.
Perhaps your enemy or obstacle really is insurmountable—as it was for many of these groups.
Perhaps in this case, you haven’t got the ability to win through attrition (persistence) or you don’t
want to risk learning on the job (iterate). Okay. You’re still a long way from needing to give up.
It is, however, time to acknowledge that some adversity might be impossible for you to defeat—no
matter how hard you try. Instead, you must find some way to use the adversity, its energy, to help
Before the invention of steam power, boat captains had an ingenious way of defeating the
wickedly strong current of the Mississippi River. A boat going upriver would pull alongside a boat
about to head downriver, and after wrapping a rope around a tree or a rock, the boats would tie
themselves to each other. The second boat would let go and let the river take it downstream,
slingshotting the other vessel upstream.
So instead of fighting obstacles, find a means of making them defeat themselves.
There is a famous story of Alexander the Great doing just that—and it was Alexander’s masterful
use of an obstacle against itself that gave observers their first hint that the ambitious teenager
might one day conquer the world. As a young man, he trained his famous horse Bucephalus—the
horse that even his father, King Philip II of Macedon, could not break—by tiring him out. While
others had tried sheer force and whips and ropes, only to be bucked off, Alexander succeeded by
lightly mounting and simply hanging on until the horse was calm. Having exhausted himself,
Bucephalus had no choice but to submit to his rider’s influence. Alexander would ride into battle on
this faithful horse for the next twenty years.
Now what of your obstacles?
Yes, sometimes we need to learn from Amelia Earhart and just take action. But we also have to be
ready to see that restraint might be the best action for us to take. Sometimes in your life you need
to have patience—wait for temporary obstacles to fizzle out. Let two jousting egos sort themselves
out instead of jumping immediately into the fray. Sometimes a problem needs less of you—fewer
people period—and not more.
When we want things too badly we can be our own worst enemy. In our eagerness, we strip the
very screw we want to turn and make it impossible to ever get what we want. We spin our tires in
the snow or mud and dig a deeper rut—one that we’ll never get out of.
We get so consumed with moving forward that we forget that there are other ways to get where
we are heading. It doesn’t naturally occur to us that standing still—or in some cases, even going
backward—might be the best way to advance. Don’t just do something, stand there!
We push and push—to get a raise, a new client, to prevent some exigency from happening. In
fact, the best way to get what we want might be to reexamine those desires in the first place. Or it
might be to aim for something else entirely, and use the impediment as an opportunity to explore a
new direction. In doing so, we might end up creating a new venture that replaces our insufficient
income entirely. Or we might discover that in ignoring clients, we attract more—finding that they
want to work with someone who does not so badly want to work with them. Or we rethink that
disaster we feared (along with everyone else) and come up with a way to profit from it when and if
We wrongly assume that moving forward is the only way to progress, the only way we can win.
Sometimes, staying put, going sideways, or moving backward is actually the best way to eliminate
what blocks or impedes your path.
There is a certain humility required in the approach. It means accepting that the way you
originally wanted to do things is not possible. You just haven’t got it in you to do it the “traditional”
way. But so what?
What matters is whether a certain approach gets you to where you want to go. And let’s be clear,
using obstacles against themselves is very different from doing nothing. Passive resistance is, in
fact, incredibly active. But those actions come in the form of discipline, self-control, fearlessness,
determination, and grand strategy.
The great strategist Saul Alinsky believed that if you “push a negative hard enough and deep
enough it will break through into its counterside.” Every positive has its negative. Every negative
has its positive. The action is in the pushing through—all the way through to the other side. Making
a negative into a positive.
This should be great solace. It means that very few obstacles are ever too big for us. Because that
bigness might in fact be an advantage. Because we can use that bigness against the obstacle itself.
Remember, a castle can be an intimidating, impenetrable fortress, or it can be turned into a prison
when surrounded. The difference is simply a shift in action and approach.
We can use the things that block us to our advantage, letting them do the difficult work for us.
Sometimes this means leaving the obstacle as is, instead of trying so hard to change it.
The harder Bucephalus ran, the sooner he got tired out. The more vicious the police response to
civil disobedience, the more sympathetic the cause becomes. The more they fight, the easier it
becomes. The harder you fight, the less you’ll achieve (other than exhaustion).
So it goes with our problems.
When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance revert at once to yourself and don’t lose the
rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of harmony if you keep going
back to it.
As a tennis player, Arthur Ashe was a beautiful contradiction. To survive segregation in the
1950s and 1960s, he learned from his father to mask his emotions and feelings on the court.
No reacting, no getting upset at missed shots, and no challenging bad calls. Certainly, as a black
player he could not afford to show off, celebrate, or be seen as trying too hard.
But his actual form and playing style was something quite different. All the energy and emotion
he had to suppress was channeled into a bold and graceful playing form. While his face was
controlled, his body was alive—fluid, brilliant, and all over the court. His style is best described in
the epithet he created for himself: “physically loose and mentally tight.”
For Arthur Ashe, this combination created a nearly unbeatable tennis game. As a person he’d
control his emotions, but as a player he was swashbuckling, bold, and cool. He dove for balls and
took—and made—the kind of shots that made other players gasp. He was able to do this because he
was free. He was free where it mattered: inside.
Other players, free to celebrate, free to throw tantrums or glower at refs and opponents, never
seemed to be able to handle the pressure of high-stakes matches the way Ashe could. They often
mistook Ashe as inhuman, as bottled up. Feelings need an outlet, of course, but Ashe deployed them
to fuel his explosive speed, in his slams and chips and dives. In the abandon with which he played,
there was none of the quiet prudence with which he composed himself.
Adversity can harden you. Or it can loosen you up and make you better—if you let it.
Rename it and claim it, that’s what Ashe did—as have many other black athletes. The boxer Joe
Louis, for example, knew that racist white boxing fans would not tolerate an emotional black
fighter, so he sublimated all displays behind a steely, blank face. Known as the Ring Robot, he
greatly intimidated opponents by seeming almost inhuman. He took a disadvantage and turned it
into an unexpected asset in the ring.
We all have our own constraints to deal with—rules and social norms we’re required to observe
that we’d rather not. Dress codes, protocols, procedures, legal obligations, and company
hierarchies that are all telling us how we have to behave. Think about it too much and it can start to
feel oppressive, even suffocating. If we’re not careful, this is likely to throw us off our game.
Instead of giving in to frustration, we can put it to good use. It can power our actions, which,
unlike our disposition, become stronger and better when loose and bold. While others obsess with
observing the rules, we’re subtly undermining them and subverting them to our advantage. Think
water. When dammed by a man-made obstacle, it does not simply sit stagnant. Instead, its energy is
stored and deployed, fueling the power plants that run entire cities.
Toussaint Louverture, the former Haitian slave turned general, so exasperated his French
enemies that they once remarked: “Cet homme fait donc l’ouverture partout” (“This man makes an
opening everywhere”). He was so fluid, so uncontainable, he was actually given the surname
Louverture, meaning “the opening.” It makes sense. Everything in his life had been an obstacle, and
he turned as many of his experiences as he could into openings. Why should troops or politics or
mountains or Napoléon himself have been any different?
And yet we feel like going to pieces when the PowerPoint projector won’t work (instead of
throwing it aside and delivering an exciting talk without notes). We stir up gossip with our
coworkers (instead of pounding something productive out on our keyboards). We act out, instead of
act.But think of an athlete “in the pocket,” “in the zone,” “on a streak,” and the seemingly
insurmountable obstacles that fall in the face of that effortless state. Enormous deficits collapse,
every pass or shot hits its intended target, fatigue melts away. Those athletes might be stopped
from carrying out this or that action, but not from their goal. External factors influence the path,
but not the direction: forward.
What setbacks in our lives could resist that elegant, fluid, and powerful mastery?
To be physically and mentally loose takes no talent. That’s just recklessness. (We want right
action, not action period.) To be physically and mentally tight? That’s called anxiety. It doesn’t work,
either. Eventually we snap. But physical looseness combined with mental restraint? That is
It’s a power that drives our opponents and competitors nuts. They think we’re toying with them.
It’s maddening—like we aren’t even trying, like we’ve tuned out the world. Like we’re immune to
external stressors and limitations on the march toward our goals.
Because we are.