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Setbacks and Obstacles



❝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