We all face personal and professional obstacles throughout our lives, whether the obstacles are financial, physical or emotional, or based in gender, class or race. Sometimes, when you allow your fears and self-doubt to stand in the way of your success, you can even be your own biggest obstacle.

Obstacles are like mountains: they’re not going to move themselves. You have to scale the mountain or go around it, reduce it to a molehill with dynamite, or dig a tunnel straight through it. In any case, you have to take action; sitting at the foot of the mountain passively hoping it will suddenly vanish so you can get on your way won’t get you anywhere.

Obstacles are more than just giant problems. Problems occur, whereas obstacles are simply there. A problem is more finite than an obstacle. Rarely does a problem last forever. You seek to solve problems to achieve the best possible outcome—but even if you take no action at all, a problem will reach some resolution eventually, even if it’s not the outcome you’d like.

An obstacle, however, won’t change itself or go away unless you do something about it.

No one has a magical formula to deal with obstacles (there’s no dynamite except in metaphors), but you can adopt and implement some good practices when you’re faced with obstacles that can help reduce a daunting mountain into stepping stones to success.

1) Believe in Yourself

The great Norman Vincent Peale said it best:

“Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture…Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.”

The first step to conquering obstacles is to realize that the answer lies within you. Maturity and experience will give you the confidence that you can overcome any impediment. In the same way, when you and your team encounter an obstacle, you must lead the team to believe in its ability to overcome it.

2) Seek Help

Ask for guidance and support from a mentor, team, classmate or teacher. You don’t have to overcome any obstacle solo. If a key executive leaves your organization at a crucial time, even if the loss is devastating, realize that you still have many resources, within and outside the organization. If you are a member or leader of a team, seek the help of appropriate experts on that team, or bring together everyone you can think of and form a sort of task force to overcome the obstacle together.

3) Be Like Mike

Remove the emotion from the situation as soon as possible and remain rational. Basketball great Michael Jordan said, “If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Use your rational mind to “figure out” what you’re up against.

If a competitor beats you to market with a new product, a short period of rage and confusion may be appropriate. When “disaster” initially hits, it may seem larger than life, but if you can step back and look at it realistically, often the solution becomes apparent to you. In this case, you need to remove your emotion and set your team in motion to quickly and creatively differentiate why your product is better than the competition’s.

4) Setback or Catastrophe?

When you encounter an obstacle, seek perspective and stability. How big is the obstacle, really? When you calmly and thoroughly examine the problem, you may find you are imagining the obstacle is larger than it actually is. It may only seem immovable.

For example, if an important, long-term customer is dissatisfied with your organiza-

tion and making noises that they might defect to the competition, you may have a lot of work to do to keep them, but it’s not a catastrophe unless you do nothing and you lose that valuable customer.

On the other hand, you may assess the magnitude of the obstacle and determine that it is exactly as overwhelming as it first seemed, and it may tempt you to turn tail and run. But consider the obstacle’s potential impact. What’s the worst case scenario? Over what time frame? Take whatever steps you deem necessary to firm up the situation until you and your team can determine how to deal with it.

5) Break It Down

When you know the real dimensions of the obstacle, begin looking for ways to break it down, dividing it into parts or steps that you can do one at a time. Assign those steps to different people on your team or different groups in your organization so each can work to solve a part of it. If you’ve been brought on as a new CEO in an organization with an entrenched and possibly resistant culture, you know that the people and problems you’ve inherited are not going to fix themselves, no matter how long you wait. You’ll need to retrain, reorient and reengage your people, one step at a time.

The Other Side of the Mountain

Thomas Paine said, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”

In the thick of the fight to overcome an obstacle, you may not believe it, but the more obstacles you conquer, the easier the process becomes. Your confidence will be self-perpetuating, and you may come to believe you can conquer a whole range of mountains.

WINSTON SCOTT is a retired astronaut who has logged a total
of twenty-four days in space and who shares his knowledge of motivation,
teamwork and leadership with organizations. He is author of
Reflections from Earth Orbit; he currently serves as Research
Professor of Aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology
and Executive Director of the Florida Space Authority
at Cape Canaveral.