❝We are not worried by real problems so much as by imagined anxieties about real problems.❞ -Epictetus
We pull up to the trailhead, and as we are getting our backpacks on and making sure we have water, I decide I don't need my hiking poles because everything we've read about this hike says it's a pretty well-traveled path. The story I tell myself is that this means it's going to be a relatively easy hike.
As we get started along the path, we notice it's pretty wide and flat, following a river upstream. So far, it's even easier than I thought. The only problem I am having is with these tree roots that I keep tripping over.
Fifteen minutes down the trail, I start to step on a tree root only to discover it's a gigantic snake! For a second or two, I feel relatively paralyzed as I did my best not to step on it. Luckily, I avoided the snake and didn't agitate it, so it didn't want anything to do with me. It took a few minutes for my heart rate to get back down to normal, though.
Thirty minutes later, we realize the trail is starting to narrow. In fact, it's getting pretty tricky to navigate. The trail is narrower, and we're starting to do steep switchbacks up the side of the mountain. The incline is quite intense. My legs are starting to burn, and my breaths are getting shorter. Combine that with the fact that it's hot and humid out, and I'm working up quite a sweat.
We arrive at the beautiful waterfall and decide we want to climb to the top. So we keep going on the trail. This part of the trail is far more complicated. It's hard to even call it a “trail.” I would call it rock climbing. We are quite literally climbing up jagged rocks with our dog. After several more stretches of rock climbing and a series of wrong turns, we make it to the overlook. We spend some time taking in the views before heading back.
The way down turns out to be more challenging than the way up. This is true for my wife and me, but it's definitely true for our dog. There were several places where she simply refused to climb down, so we had to pick her up and carry her down ourselves, which is no easy feat.
Reflecting back on the hike, a couple of things come to mind. The first is the steep inclines coupled with the heat and humidity. This was a challenge, but this was something that we should have expected. It was a summer day, and we were hiking to the summit of a waterfall. What else would we expect? Additionally, we needed those challenges in order to make this hike worthwhile. If there were no steep inclines to climb, we would never have made it to the top of the mountain. Those challenges were part of the reward.
The second thing that comes to mind is that we encountered some things that were possible but not anything that felt probable. It's not every day you almost step on a gigantic snake. Most of our hikes don't include a rock climbing section so intense that our dog is afraid to do it. Yet, these challenges presented themselves, and we did what we had to do.
When we think about challenges, there are challenges that we know for a fact are going to happen. These are obstacles, and we can, and should, plan for these obstacles because we know they will happen. Other challenges seem to come out of nowhere. These are the challenges that aren't guaranteed but are possible and sometimes happen. We can think of these as setbacks.
When we think about designing our life, it's helpful to differentiate between obstacles and setbacks. Too often, we treat obstacles as if they are setbacks.
BAD THINGS HAPPEN
Bad things happen. That may sound like one of the more obvious statements you've ever heard, but people tend not to act as though they expected bad things to happen. It's a typical response for people to become upset and frustrated when things don't work out exactly as planned. The expectation tends to be a world without any challenges, and any challenges that arise ought to be upsetting because they are an impediment to the challenge-free world that was expected. But a world without challenges is impossible. Author Sam Harris says life is a never-ending series of challenges, yet we seem to always be surprised at the arrival of the next one. It's helpful to go about our lives expecting challenges to occur.
Not only is a world without challenge impossible, but it's also not a world we would want to live in. As humans, we are very good at getting used to our surroundings. In other words, if there were no challenges and we were happy all the time, what we feel as happiness now would become the new baseline, and we would need to experience an extra shot of joy to feel good. We tend to take our lives for granted, and the fewer problems we have, the more likely it is that we will take the good things in our lives for granted. The occasional challenge helps us appreciate the good times more easily.
All challenges are not created equal. There are some challenges that we ought to expect. We know with certainty they will happen. It makes little sense to get upset at something we knew was going to happen. But we do it all the time. We know somebody will drive like a maniac on our commute. That is expected. Yet how many of you get irritated when you see a person driving like a maniac? Challenges that we know will happen can be thought of as obstacles. They get in our way, but we know they will be there.
Other challenges are not guaranteed but are possible. There is some probability that these challenges will arise. For example, there is a chance that I could blow a tire while driving my car. That's not guaranteed, but it's possible. Challenges that are possible but not guaranteed can be thought of as setbacks.
OBSTACLES: BAD THINGS THAT ARE GUARANTEED
Obstacles are challenges that we know will happen. It makes no sense to be surprised or upset at the arrival of obstacles. You would never run in an obstacle course expecting no obstacles. You wouldn't play a video game that had nothing to overcome.
As you go about your day, see if you can start to think about the obstacles you will encounter. Put some thought in ahead of time about how you will get around those obstacles.
This simple change in mindset helps you stay calm in the face of the things you need to navigate to get to where you want to go.
SETBACKS: BAD THINGS THAT GET IN OUR WAY
Setbacks, on the other hand, are not guaranteed and seem to come out of nowhere. Technically, these were possible all along, but it still sets us back from getting to where we want to go.
Some setbacks, although not guaranteed, have a higher chance of happening. The higher the chance of a setback happening, the more it should be on your radar. It's something you may have to deal with. For example, it's not guaranteed that I will have to stop at most of the stoplights on my way to the gym, but it's possible and even likely. That's a scenario that I can mentally prepare for. On the other hand, getting into an accident on the way to the gym is possible, but it's far less likely.
Knowing that anything can happen and being prepared for whatever might happen shifts your expectations away from hoping everything works out perfectly. It helps you see that you will have a problem that needs your attention.
SETBACK AND OBSTACLE NUANCES
We can get into the weeds pretty quickly when it comes to setbacks and obstacles. One perspective on this is that setbacks are guaranteed to happen. That sounds like a contradiction because setbacks, as I defined them earlier, are challenges that could happen but aren't guaranteed to happen. Obstacles are those things that are guaranteed to happen.
However, if we take a bigger picture view at this, we could say that one obstacle we face is that there will be setbacks. In other words, we know that some setbacks will happen in our life. We don't know which setbacks they will be, but there will be setbacks.
If we take a specific challenge that's not guaranteed to happen, we can call that a setback. If we add up all the setbacks, we know one or more of them will happen. Therefore, one obstacle you face is that there will be setbacks; you just don't know which setback.
HANDLING OBSTACLES AND SETBACKS
No matter what challenge you face, once it happens, it is in the present moment. You cannot go into the past and change it. The minute you have a challenge in your lap, whether a setback or an obstacle, you now have a problem to solve.
You might even think of this as a challenge. You can imagine the universe testing you, asking you how you might get out of this situation. This little reframe helps because it changes your focus away from the problem and towards the solution.
Complaining about the challenges you face and the problems in your lap won't help you solve the problem. Focusing on the solution, even if it's inconvenient, will help you remain calm.
The difference between setbacks and obstacles is that obstacles are guaranteed, and setbacks are not. The similarities between them are that once they happen, you now have a problem to solve. Being upset over obstacles is of no value to you because you knew those were going to happen. Going forward, you can plan for them. You can navigate around them. Being upset over setbacks is of little value to you because, although you didn't know that specific setback would happen, you knew that some setback would happen. You knew this specific setback was possible. Your job, once a challenge, setback, or obstacle lands in your life, is to solve the problem.
So the next time a challenge occurs, take a deep breath and say to the universe, "challenge accepted!"
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happiness Studies
Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient
Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology
Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge
Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon & Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology
Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are
Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.