Using Obstacles To Become Great

There are days I stumble through life, cursing the obstacles I face. The truck not starting, trouble fixing a computer, or a struggling friendship.

They seem like they’re an obstacle in my way that I could do without.

I’m learning instead of seeing these situations as trouble, I need to use these obstacles to become great. And so do you.

Michael Phelps recently made history by winning the most medals in the Olympics. He, as of 2012, is the most decorated Olympian in history.

He achieved this through hard work and overcoming obstacles. Some of those obstacles were intentionally placed by his swim coach Bob Bowman.

Bob would intentionally put obstacles in the way of Michael Phelps.

Could you imagine this happening to you as a swimmer?

  • Your goggles fill up with water: Bob had stepped on Michael’s goggles and cracked them.  This caused the goggles to leak during a practice. He had to swim with the water filler goggles. This prepared him for Beijing 2008 when his goggles malfunctioned and he had to swim “blind.” He was prepared and still won the gold medal.
  • Being late for a meet and having to miss dinner: Going into a major race hungry is not fun. You’re focused on the missed meal and how hungry you are. When this happened, he had to push through the hunger and focus on the race. It take him to ignore the physical pain and push through.

While these challenges were not fun for Michael, they helped him prepare and overcome them when they appeared in the real world. Imagine if he had never swam blind before? Would he have freaked out? I think he would have had a much harder time completing the swim if he had not experienced the situation in training.

Last year two friends, my wife, and I attempted a backpacking trip in Maine. We had prepared in Michigan for the trip. Nothing out of the ordinary happened during our training. We thought we were prepared for the trip.

Oh no!

We arrive in Maine and it’s raining, hardcore. The tent our friends were using leaked. They were practically swimming with the water in their tent.

The decision was made to head towards home and find another spot to backpack. We chose the beautiful Mt. Kearsarge in New Hampshire.


Image by Tom Morgan

We thought we were in luck but the rain continued. The temperature dropped. And daylight faded. We had to make a choice. Were we prepared or not?

Facing reality, we chose that we weren’t prepared for the situation and turned around. Our lack of obstacles during preparation caused us to quit.

There will be a day that we go back and conquer Mount Kearsarge. Until that day, we’ll be praying and looking for ways to use obstacles to ascend that mountain.

Now, in your leadership you’ll face many obstacles:

  • Team members and volunteers that won’t show up
  • Speaking engagements that go bad
  • Power outages
  • Delayed flights
  • A vehicle breakdown
  • And much more

Begin to look for ways to experience these obstacles during your preparation time.

You’ll be able to think straighter and figure out a solution if you do this before showtime. When it does happen, and it will happen at some point, you’ll be able to have a cool head on your shoulders and go through the obstacle like it wasn’t there.

These obstacles will be your stepping stone to becoming a great leader.

Question: How do you respond to obstacles in your way? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great stuff!

    • Thanks Brandon! How can you apply this to your life?

  • I punch obstacles right in the face and boldly declare “Ouch, my hand hurts!”
    That’s how.

    • Haha, that sounds like a painful way to do things.

      • I never said I recommend following my example.

        • Yeah, I know. How would you recommend dealing with obstacles instead?

          • HEAD BUTT! or, you know, prayer and stuff.

            • I’ve head butted a few things. That can be more painful than hitting things.

  • I always use a positive outlook on things. Whatever journey you are going on obstacles will happen and you will have to decide if you are going to take the worst or best of the situation. Its truly up to the individual. Great post.

    • That’s right Lincoln. It’s all up to the individual on how they handle the situation. Sounds like you’ve got a great grasp on it.

  • Great points Joe! Anyone can grow and learn through obstacles if they are teachable and take the time to learn from them. I think preparing for the unexpected is key. Have you read Jim Collins book Great by Choice? It talks a lot about this same topic.

    • Being teachable is the key to growth and coming through obstacles.

      I haven’t read Great By Choice yet. It’s on my list. We did get to hear Jim Collins speak last year at Catalyst and he made some amazing points.

  • I usually don’t respond well 🙁 I’m learning to stop and take a deep breath and calm down. I realize that things aren’t always going to go right, so I just pray and deal with them as they come.

    • There’s always something we’ve got to work on. At least you’re recognizing it and working towards solving the problem.

  • Donationcan

    I deal with things with a smile. In a previous job of mine, any malfunction was unacceptable. Which is hard when I’m the coordinator for 30 other people. Which means 30 other people have to be perfect, nearly impossible to do. I don’t like the stress from leaders that don’t allow malfunctions. It’s too much pressure and the nervousness would cause me to make mistakes.

    • Working at a job that didn’t allow for any malfunctions must have been extremely difficult. When we have problems and make mistakes is when we grow. Did you find another position that allowed you to take chances and make mistakes?

  • Joe, first off, you had to know I’d comment on a blog that included something about competitive swimming:

    Second, dealing with obstacles is a critical skill to develop if we want to be successful in anything. I have found that the difference between success and failure is usually a slight shift in perception. I think I’ve mentioned the “E+R=O” idea here before that I picked up from W. Clement Stone and Jack Canfield. It’s not the EVENTS that occur in our lives that determine our OUTCOME, it’s our RESPONSE to those events. Our response is the only thing we control 100 percent, and it’s this slight shift of focusing on our responses instead of the events that determine how successful we are when facing obstacles.

    • Haha, yeah! That’s right. You helped coach a swimming team. Is the team you coach a competitive team?

      I like the equation of E+R=O. Our Response… That’s what everything hangs on.

      • The swim team I coach is a summer league team (this year I had 180 swimmers). It is a competitive team. Love it!

        • Whoa! That’s a lot of swimmers to keep track of. I’m sure those kids are blessed to have a coach as dedicated as you.

  • Pingback: Top Posts and Commenters For August 2012 | Joseph Lalonde()

  • Very good post Joe. I whole heartedly agree with overcoming obstacles. It seems that’s where we are able to grow the most…even though at the time it’s likely the last thing we want. Love @kentjulian:disqus ‘s formula for this too!