Treat Obstacles Like Red Lights


When we pull up to a red light, we don’t question why the light is red. We simply accept the color for what it is and immediately behave accordingly. We don’t complain about how it’s unfair, about how the traffic lights of the world are out to get us.

We don’t waste time contemplating how this great misfortune could have occurred – because it’s not a great misfortune at all. Millions of people around the world stop at red lights everyday. It is a temporary inconvenience and a minor hindrance on our journey, but we know exactly how to respond if we do encounter a red light.

What if we treated each obstacle in life like a red light?

What if we learned to accept the obstacle for what it is, vow to not waste precious time complaining about it, realize that it happens to everyone, and recognize that we can be mentally prepared for it in advance?

Using this approach we can save ourselves from a significant amount of stress, anxiety, jealousy, and anger. We can be more accepting of our obstacles and think more clearly about how to push through them. We can spend less time worrying, fretting, complaining, and more time moving on and living our lives.

Accept the Obstacle

When an obstacle unexpectedly comes our way, our visceral reaction is to ask why. We look for meaning, an explanation, a reason for why it occurred. This attempt to understand why an obstacle materialized in our life can be useful to a certain extent – it’s possible that we actually brought the obstacle upon ourselves. But more often than not, there is no action we could have taken to prevent it.

Cancer happens. Natural disasters happen. Car accidents happen. House fires happen.  Economic crashes happen. Crimes happen. 

We get passed up on promotions, betrayed by friends, lied to by business partners, disappointed by family members. We get a flat tire, our car breaks down, we get a new shitty coworker, an angry boss. 

And while none of these obstacles are fun to deal with, they only become more problematic when we fail to accept them for what they are.

By looking for a reason behind the obstacle, we are wasting time trying to explain the past while we could instead be looking for ways to prepare for the future. We could be looking immediately for ways to make the best of the situation, to develop a strategy to overcome the obstacle, to find a path around the adversity.

Accepting obstacles is hard. This doesn’t come naturally. We want an explanation for why shit happens. We want answers. But often there are no answers, no explanation, no good reason. 

This is why it’s vital that we practice acceptance. We can’t always control what obstacles come our way. But we can always control our response. By immediately accepting the obstacle for what it is, we put ourselves in a better position to overcome it.

Stop Wasting Time Complaining

When difficulty comes our way, the easiest, most elementary, most childish, instinctive way to react is through complaining.

Why did this happen to me? I don’t deserve this. This isn’t fair, I don’t accept this. This is too hard, I can’t handle this. This should not be this way.

Complaining is easy. It doesn’t require any effort, any preparation, any hard work. It comes naturally to us. But every second we spend complaining is a second we could be using to defeat the obstacle.

Each time we choose to tweet about our problems instead of take action against them, we lose. Each time we choose to complain to our coworkers about a difficult project or an impossible deadline, we lose. Complaining brings about more complaining. The more we complain, the more habitual it becomes, and the harder it becomes to focus on what we need to do to push through the obstacle.

The best way to make an obstacle more difficult, scary, intimidating, and empowering is to complain about it. This gives the obstacle strength, makes it more real, makes it bigger than it really is. Each time we complain, we take energy from ourselves and transfer it into the obstacle. 

So we must stop complaining. We must stop making the obstacles in our lives bigger than they really are.

You Are Not Alone

For some odd reason we like to assume that the world mischievously crafts hardships uniquely for us. We think Why Me? Why did this happen to me? Why do I have to deal with this?

Me, Me, Me.

But the truth is: everyone deals with hardships. Everyone has their own unique struggles they must face on a regular basis. We are not alone in our battle. Obstacles are a basic element of the human experience. 

But it’s immensely important to recognize that if you have an internet connection and you’re reading this paragraph right now, there are much harder obstacles you could be facing in life. If your biggest obstacles on a daily basis are an annoying commute, office politics, and drama with your neighbor about your dog pooping in their yard, you’re living the good life. 

We need to keep our “obstacles” in perspective. While we act like the sky is falling over traffic jams, there are people who have no access to clean water. While we lose our heads over a broken iPhone, there are people who die of malnutrition every single day.

Everyone deals with obstacles. We should feel blessed that most of ours aren’t really obstacles at all.

Mental Preparation

The philosophy of stoicism teaches a principle called Negative Visualization. This is an exercise in which you imagine the worst possible scenario you could face today. This could be a best friend passing away, losing your house, losing a family member, a pet, etc. By doing so, you can become more appreciative of what you have in your life now. This helps you to not take what you currently have for granted. 

We can use this technique to mentally prepare for obstacles we may face on a daily basis.

What if there is a traffic jam? What if my boss is in a horrible mood today? What if the printer is broken again? What if I get into an argument with my best friend?

By thinking about these negative situations, we can mentally prepare ourselves for how we would handle them. And if none of these situations do arise, we can be even more grateful.

The truth is that obstacles will enter our path at some point. They might not today, or tomorrow, or even this week, but at some point they will. They’re unavoidable. If we can learn to mentally prepare for them, we will be better equipped when they do materialize.


By treating obstacles like red lights, we can:

  • Become more accepting
  • Avoid wasting time complaining unnecessarily
  • Recognize that we are not alone in our struggle with hardships 
  • Become mentally prepared for adversity when it comes our way

By using these tactics we can better equip ourselves to overcome daily obstacles.

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14 Replies to “Treat Obstacles Like Red Lights”

  1. Zach, I love the way you think, and the way you write. Comparing obstacles to red lights is a fascinating perspective to add to life.

    For me, I focus on contentment. Sometimes you may not like an obstacle that’s in your path, but you CAN choose the mental attitude you use to approach the problem.

    Choose contentment. Your life will be better for it.

    Eventually, that red light will turn green.

  2. Nice analogy. Luckily we are very resilient, and can adjust to misfortune just as easily as we can adjust to having excess. It’s important to maintain the mental strength to get up and back on the road when we hit obstacles.

    1. That’s a great point! As humans we naturally adapt to our situations. If we’re surrounded by luxury, we find ways to take it for granted. If we’re surrounded by obstacles, we find ways to push through to the other side. It’s like we’re in a constant state of reverting to a baseline level of happiness. Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  3. I really like this idea. When you’re driving you anticipate red lights as a natural part of driving, so we should anticipate obstacles as a natural part of living. This is why it’s important to pay off debt and build savings during good times. Always be prepared for the red lights! They won’t last forever, but they don’t have to suck, either.

  4. When I was a program manager, I would say “don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.”

    And you are right, that we need to put our problems into perspective. Usually they are ‘first world’ problems. I’d rather see people use their energy practicing inner peace for a better world overall.

  5. I was wondering why the comparison to traffic lights though, haha 🙂

    Is it because traffic light signals are also transient in nature? Red, orange, green, red, orange and green….keeps on repeating after an unknown and unfixed timing. If you are patient and recognise the transient nature of things, you either wait till the obstacles move away or you develop a plan to circumvent it.

    Is it because after red light it’s green? So after the obstacles, you’ll be able to ‘move on’ and get ahead? So obstacles are not road blocks, but more like a strategic pause to allow you to refocus your energy so that you can move ahead with clarity?

    1. Yes, I agree with all the points you made about obstacles being transient in nature, and they are more of a temporary pause than a road block. In this post I was attempting to show how we could benefit by treating obstacles like red lights: 1 – We accept the red light for what it is, we don’t look fret excessively over the cause behind it; we should accept obstacles and stop obsessing over their underlying cause because it’s often out of our control. 2 – We don’t waste time complaining about a red light; we should stop complaining about our obstacles because that hinders us taking action against them. 3 – Red lights happen to everyone; everyone runs into obstacles, not just us 4. We are aware that we could encounter a red obstacle while driving; we should be aware that we might encounter obstacles on our path each day.

      I think in terms of metaphors 🙂

  6. Another great post. I am really enjoying what you’re publishing these days, so just wanted to let you know, and urge you to keep up the great work!

    As someone who is analytically inclined, combined with a, umh, let’s call it a “rich inner life”, acceptance without reason or rhyme is exceptionally difficult for me. It’s definitely something I have to be conscious about whenever I face rejection, obstacles or even red lights 🙂 This was a good reminder to keep working on that skill, because it really is an advantage in life to the point I would call it a skill.

    1. I would also call this ability to react to obstacles in an effective manner a ‘skill’, and one that takes much practice to cultivate. Acceptance is the hardest part for me as well. I have a tendency to over-analyze why certain obstacles materialized, which can be helpful to an extent, but excessively wondering why obstacles occur can be crippling. Thanks for the kind words about the posts, I really appreciate it 🙂

  7. I needed this article. Thank you! It’s hard sometimes to take a step back from an obstable while you’re sill in the middle of it but this article is helping me tremendously. Your blog is packed with little gems of freedom like this one! I’ve recommended it to some of my friends 😉

    1. Thanks so much, Noemie! I really appreciate that…I’m glad you’re making your way through the archives haha I can always tell when someone is exploring older posts when I receive a comment on a post that’s several months old. Hopefully you keep finding useful articles on the site and thanks for the kind words 🙂

      Also – agreed, it can be tough to take a step back and look at your situation from a third-person point of view when you’re in the middle of the obstacle itself. I always like to remember the phrase “This too shall pass”. Oddly enough, nightly journals have been a huge help for me whenever I’m in the midst of an obstacle in life. It helps me sort out my thoughts and allow me to realize that the obstacle almost always isn’t as serious or long-lasting as I had thought.

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