Adversity is your ally (and so are obstacles)

At my workshops with universities and research organisations, we tend to spend quite a lot of time on an exercise called “Jumping Obstacles” (based on the card deck “75 tools for creative thinking” by Cordoba Rubino/Hazenberg/Huisman, by the way). This has proven to be very helpful; and if you’re interested in the science behind this, you might want to read about Gabrielle Oettingen’s research: it shows that plain positive thinking is actually harmful, but having a vision and combining this with developing a strategy to deal with upcoming obstacles will help enormously with reaching one’s goals.

Yet obstacles are much more than just a hindrance to deal with, something to get over. Actually the obstacles are what can make your work good, more than just solid – remarkable. This may sound ridiculous at first, but there is a reason to it.

Obstacles, constraints, and why they are not as negative as you might think

An obstacle is anything that stands in your way and hinders progress; a constraint is any limitation or restriction that forces you into a particular course. Both keep you from being free to choose any way of tackling your problem. Constraints don’t just constrain you, obstacles don’t just block you: they have the power to make people more creative in a lot of ways. If you really want to know, read psychologist Pat Stokes’s book “Creativity from Constraints” for example; if you are more interested in how to make use of that, try “A beautiful Constraint” by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden. Most importantly: realise that there is a lot of potential in any kind of constraint or obstacle. So instead of complaining or even whining, you might want to look at things from a different angle, find a new perspective, and start to ask questions to propel your work. If you don’t act, nothing will come of this; if you do, you might profit greatly.

Why obstacles are even more helpful in science and academe

That is true in general. Yet it truly becomes essential when you are pursuing any kind of work that deserves to be called scientific or academic: for any problem that you can sail through smoothly most probably really wasn’t one, and will not help you come up with new insights. The obstacles and constraints are what forces to you to think harder, to dig deeper, to reconsider, to attack things from a different angle, to come up with surprising solutions – they are what makes you grow into a scholar. So don’t fear them, don’t try to avoid them but rather embrace them for what they are: an opportunity. Adversity really is your ally because it sets free energy (even if that comes in the form of anger or frustration).

Look for the unknown!

“Look for the unknown!” That’s the advice Stanford mathematician George (György) Pólya gave in his great little book “How to solve it”. Take this to heart, and enjoy your obstacles.

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