The Truth About Vision, Obstacles and Mastery

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A few decades back, well known psychology professor and then head of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, began to champion a novel approach to treating patients.

Rather than focusing all of your energy on fixing what’s wrong with your life, he asked:

What might happen if you focused instead on the sole quest to identify, then grow what was right?

From this simple question evolved an approach to therapy termed Positive Psychology. And, now the entire approach has many more champions, often arguing it’s more effective than classical approaches with a focus on identifying what’s wrong, deconstructing the pain, getting to the root, modifying behavior, then rebuilding (not my domain to decide).

I’ve done a fair bit of investigating into this approach and, for me, it resonates with the way I move past obstacles and emotional trials.

Not, just emotional/psychological roadblocks, though. It seems to work in the physical environment, too.

In fact, there’s an interesting analogy to mountain biking here. As a newbie rider, when you see an obstacle on the trail, most people focus entirely on the obstacle in an effort to avoid hitting it. Problem is, when you do that, you’ve got about 100% chance of hitting it dead on, even though that’s the last thing you want to do.

Your actions conspire to make your body track your vision.

Even if you don’t want it to. You may have experienced this phenomenon driving at night. The car in front of you starts to veer out of lane and you find yourself following it, even though you know it’s not your intended path.

So, let’s get back on the trail and try a different approach…

When you’re riding, if you see the obstacle, acknowledge it’s there, keep it in your vision, but then re-shift your focus past it, an odd thing happens. Your body and neural pathways take over and somehow intuitively find a way through. Not always (as my scratched helmet evidences), but far more often than if you’d focused on the obstacle.

I can’t explain how or why it works. And, it takes a big leap of faith to be able to draw your attention down the path and trust you’ll get through. But, when you buy into the method, you find yourself able to ride through so much that would have stifled you before.

There is a big but, though (that’s “but,” not “butt” btw!)…

This rarely happens in the early days of learning to ride. Even if you do develop the habit of identifying, acknowledging, then looking past.


Because, in order to get to the place where your body, intuition, neural training and subconscious problem-solving abilities can take over and guide you through, they need to have been developed the skills, control and physical mastery needed to carve your way through. And, that’s something that only happens with extensive, deliberate practice over time.

So, in the end…

It’s not enough to look past the obstacles and shoot for the ultimate goal.

You also have to invest in the time to build a level of skills, experiences and mastery that can be accessed on an often less-than-conscious level when the tough stuff comes flying at you down the road.

That’s the point where your ability to focus past the obstacles and have faith takes on real value and serves as a more effective guide to move closer to what you want.

Vision, intention and desire, alone, won’t get you there.

They matter, but there’s simply no alternative to time in the game.

So, what do YOU think?

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51 responses

51 responses to “The Truth About Vision, Obstacles and Mastery”

  1. J,

    Great one… have dealt, experienced, studied and taught on this subject as well. Great one.

    I often use the analogy of car racing… I learned early on in racing a road course (all courses really) that where your eyes go and stick, you end up. Focus on the light pole ahead and it will be in your bumper before you can avert your eyes.

    In the physical, goal setting I use it often to keep a soft focus on the whole of a training session and an intense focus on the REP, the movement you are in NOW. I tell people for strength trianing, do ONE rep, TEN times, not TEN reps.

    Any hooo… love it!

    As always, J-riffic!


  2. You make s good point here Jonathan about putting our focus in the right place. The solution won’t usually come from looking at the obstacle. It will come from looking beyond it and trying to imagine the steps which will take us to our destination. It’s a bit of out of the box thinking.

  3. ami says:

    Yes. Time in the game is critical. But where to focus that time? I think the best results come from focusing our limited time on the areas where things are going right, rather than fixing what’s wrong. So keep looking past that root, rock or obstacle. Eventually we’ll get it!

  4. Mark Silver says:

    Indeed. There’s a reason that you’re technically not supposed to study Kabbalah until you’re 40 years old. Time in the game. Maturity. Experience.

    And, besides, it’s just plain hubris to think you know the destination when you’re just starting out. Who the hell knows where the heck you’re really going?

    One of the interesting bits I find is that you can bring the positive approach even to looking at the negative. All kinds of hidden gems in the negative stuff. Sometimes I realize I want to be in the “problems” because there’s actually really good shutff there.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Man, I so agree with that. It’s one of the reason I always think it’s kind of funny when I see folks offering universal formulas to instantly tease out your life purpose without reference to age or seasoning. Like you said, there is no substitute for time in the game. I’m working on finding the lessons in the stuff I wished had gone differently and getting a lot better at it, too.

      • Sandi says:

        When I do a “review” of a situation where something (or I) haven’t been what I’d hoped for, I do a “re-do.” I imagine exactly what it would have looked like, felt like, been like had it gone really, really well. This trains my brain for the next time I’m in a similar situation so I am more likely to get the outcomes I want. The more “time in the game” and positive memories/experiences I can come up with, the better 🙂 Thanks for the great post.

    • Suzi Craig says:

      Mark — I have just recently stumbled onto this gem of an approach: getting my hands dirty with the problems because there is, as you say, “good stuff in there.”

      I find that I work best when I invite problems in, give them a comfy place to sit and a cool drink, and have a chat. Ignoring them and refocusing to just the positive things feels like denial and tunnel vision.

      I feel like the best way to grow and change is to not fight what is perceived as wrong, but instead rethink where the “wrong” has a place in your head. It’s not a matter of completely shifting focus from what is perceived as bad/needs to be fixed to “positive” thinking.

      We are all are a mix of good, bad and ugly. So, have empathy and understanding for all of those parts and look at what you can learn from each of those parts. Have the confidence to charge ahead and the positive thinking will follow closely behind.

  5. Ivan Walsh says:

    What’s the hardest thing in the world to do? Forgive others.

    At least that’s what Psychology Today said recently.

    If that is true, then using the method JF outlined above may help to achieve this.

    There is also an element of ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ about this. If you believe you can do it, then you’re framing yourself to succeed, either in business, sports or relationships.

  6. Topi says:

    A friend (who’s very wise) often reminds me not to ask myself what’s the worst that could happen, but instead to ask what’s the best that could happen. If you accept that energy flows where attention goes (and energy leads to action, which leads to outcomes), then by focusing attention on the positives, you attract the positives.
    Great post, thanks.

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      All that makes sense.

      Can I ask something? How do you maintain that state?

      E.g. of staying positively focused and not backsliding, which is what happens to me.

      I know I *should* stay positive but lose the thread.

      • Topi says:

        Hi Ivan,
        Great question! So, where to begin? The way I see it is, it’s a bit like when you decide to get fit – you make a commitment to exercise, for whatever reason. At first it’s exciting and you do it regularly and consciously. After a little while the gloss wears off, but if you’re committed you stick to it because you can see the benefits slowly starting to appear. Then suddenly, one day, you realise it’s become a habit and you don’t have to think about it all the time. You still have to exercise each day, but it’s now part of your life. Staying positive is the same thing – you have to work at it every day, but I think it gradually becomes easier. Your thoughts write your story, and your thoughts are words; so, change your words, to change your thougts, to change your story. When sneaky negative thoughts creep in, you have to recognise them and reframe them – so instead of saying “I know I *should* stay positive but lose the thread.”, you might say “I choose to be positive, and sometimes it’s hard, but if negative thoughts creep in I choose to turn them into positive thoughts.” Also, just as it’s easier to stick with exercise if you’re part of a group, so it’s easier to stay positive if you surround yourself with positive people (they can help you keep watch for negative thoughts). You’re already at a fantastic blog for getting and staying in a positive frame of mind. If you search for other blogs about positivity, you’ll find a community of people who keep each other on the right track. So, that’s my personal experience. I’d love to hear from others. Thanks for asking what I think!

        • Ivan Walsh says:

          Thanks Topi,

          Someone said to me ages ago – and it’s only now at 45 that I get it – never take your friends for granted. And while we all get complacent (I know I certainly do) I try to find little ways to re-connect with those who help me along the way. Sometimes it doesn’t take much…

          Like you said, surrounding oneself with like-minded people and those that share the same values really does help.
          ‘one day, you realise it’s become a habit and you don’t have to think about it all the time.’
          I used to read Plato and one thing that stuck with me was his point that success in life is based on forming good habits. Training oneself to form little habits has a cumulative effect.

          For me, I don’t always see the results at first, but then look back (say after training for a 5k cross-country) and can see/feel the progress I’ve made. Baby steps, I guess.

          Great to have found this site! Some great comments here.

          Thanks again.


  7. Haider says:

    Great article, Jonathan.

    The issue I have with psychology is that it looks at mental diseases without having a “healthy” benchmark in mind. There is no explanation of why it’s considered a disease, and what the alternative is.

    It’s: how do you feel? Then how do you feel about your feelings? Then how do you feel about your mother? And so on…

    When you see your feelings as the benchmark, you will struggle to adjust them to serve your life. When you see the quality of your life as the benchmark, you summon the right emotions to achieve your goals.

    When you see your goal as the benchmark, you know how to respond to obstacles. When you see obstacles as the benchmark, you lose sight of your goal.

    It should always be: this is an obstacle in relation to what? Then focus on getting there.

  8. Jenna Ann says:

    What a wonderful article! I’m doing some “spring cleaning” of my attitude and the way I’m living my life. This is very helpful with that endeavor.

  9. Joe Jacobi says:

    Great post, Jonathan – I see the same “mountain bike/obstacle on trail” concept in whitewater kayaking – students who see the rock instead of the water moving past it.

    I believe success in these activities as well as more broadly life stems from a simple idea – like a kayaking a river or mountain biking a trail, we absorb obstacles through mastery of basic and fundamental skills. Even better, we become fascinated with the process of developing them and are hungry to understand how and why they work. Finally we accept that seeing the rock or the path around it is a CHOICE we are constantly making.

    Great stuff. And when you are getting into kayaking???

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Joe,

      Great to see you playing in the comments! 🙂 Yeah, I remember talking to you about this. I haven’t been on the river, but it seems like it would be the exact same thing. Man, would love to jump in the kayak this summer, but some big plans (t/b/a) will likely make that a bit tough…at least in the U.S. (this is where I leave ya guessing, lol)

  10. Julie Roads says:

    I love this…and actually just got home from a run where I used it. It was my 4th run in a row where I felt like my feet and ankles were cement blocks…the more I thought about that, the worse it got. So, I started thinking about what was going right – the gorgeous ocean I was running next to, the fact that even though I was uncomfortable – I hadn’t stopped, that I know things change in a run if you just give them time, the permission I could give myself to stop if I needed to…and before I knew it, I was running on air.

    And thank you for talking about the fact that positive thinking isn’t THE ANSWER, but practice, hard work and skill are critical components. It’s scary when people make it look so easy – and it’s careless in the ways that it sets others up to fail.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      I’ve had that happen so many times. And, I an constantly amazed at how powerful the somatic connection. It sounds so foofy to say “if you tell yourself your body hurts and feels like lead” it will and vice versa. But, damned if it aint true!

  11. Satu says:

    Have you also taken the test that identifies are your signature strengths? 🙂

    You can find the the questionnaire (and many other questionnaires) at

    I just happened to be reading Carol Dweck’s book on Mindset, which perhaps sheds light on why some people decide to invest on learning some skill while others focus on the obstacle…

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Satu,

      Yes, I have taken the test, among my top strengths are creativity and knowledge acquisition. And, I love Dweck’s work, too. They mesh nicely together

      • Satu says:

        Ha! My strengths, if I remember correctly, are love of learning and judgment, or something like that. 🙂

  12. Megan says:

    Powerful post, Jonathan!

    I have spent the majority of my life focusing on what is “WRONG” and trying to “FIX” it. These last three years I have been bumping and stumbling my way towards this new way of understanding and approaching challenges and goals, but…

    Your post really brought it home for me.

    LOVE the disclaimer — “vision and positive thinking alone NOT enough” 🙂 Thanks for adding the bit about what else is needed and why. As someone who is always striving to master the essentials, it’s nice to have a little validation that I haven’t been totally wasting my time! LOL

    Thank you once again for the concise, powerful way you write!

    As I struggle to align my vision with my experience, the way you bring the core concepts and issues into clear focus for me really helps, time and time again.

  13. Greg says:


    Great post! The technique of focusing beyond the obstacle has been written about many times. In fact, I think I first read about it in the early 1990’s, in a book by Tony Robbins. You have brought out the missing key to successfully avoiding the obstacles, that being time in the game. Time in the game provides me with experiences, muscle memory, and perspective. These add up to internal references that I can automatically call on when facing an obstacle. These references give me options that I wouldn’t have without time in the game. Facing an obstacle without options leads directly to a head on collision. Options provide me with choices, and choices are freedom. After thirty years as an IT & telecom engineer and 46 years as a musician, I have enough time in the game to make what I do appear easy. In reality, I just have more ways to avoid obstacles. Thanks for another great post filled with insight!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      “These add up to internal references that I can automatically call on when facing an obstacle.” – Well said, man.

  14. Megan says:

    This story from a wise mentor who shared the source of his positive attitude in the face of constant upheaval that was completely outside his control during the dot-com crash….

    He once partnered with a salesperson at IBM who constantly outperformed EVERYONE. He asked the man for the secret of his success.

    Simple, the man said. No matter what happens, I have trained myself to instantly say to myself, “Wow! That’s the best thing that could possibly have happened!” and then I give myself 10 seconds to come up with three reasons WHY it is the best possible thing that could have happened.

    Now, some of my reasons may sound pretty pathetic, but there’s always SOMEthing positive in every situation — and because I look for it, I immediately shift all my attention and energy on how to turn the current situation into the most positive outcome possible.

    I don’t waste any time or energy on regret or complaining or getting caught up in what I feel was “lost.”

    Most of the time this instant shift to making the best of the situation and giving everything my best shot without losing my momentum results in a far better outcome than I could ever have imagined.

    • Megan, Love the story. Love the thought. I’ve got to give it a try. Sounds like it will take a bit to get there but I’ll use writing (personal journey and script) to see if I can.

      OK … in face of the problems/scary things that sometimes occur,I see them as the best thing that could happen! And find three reasons why! Thanks. Have Fun, Jim (it’s a little scary just to write that. Empathy in personal relations always come first (maybe not in business)

    • Megan,

      This is powerful stuff. This amounts to “unlearning” our conditioned response to conditioned perceptions of negative events. What if over time, this became a habit of thinking, then all the things that we perceive as negative in our lives become smaller and smaller. That space must be then taken up with what we perceive as positive. Wow!. Thanks for sharing!


  15. […] Click here for a great article!!  It is taken from a blog I enjoy checking in on from time to time… […]

  16. Great post Jonathan…

    I came to this same revelation not on a mountain bike, but on horseback. Vision becomes so important, especially when in the saddle because you now have an 1100 pound extension of your physical body moving toward the undesired obstacle. In this particular instance, the horse hung in there with my misguided focal point until the last second and when he realized that the guy on his back was not getting it, he made a quick adjustment for his own safety and I ended up on the ground. After dusting myself off I vowed, moving forward, to only look where it was that I WANTED to go…

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Haha, I guess that’s what happens when your “steed” has a mind of its own. 😉

  17. Julie says:

    Jonathan, I was a figure skater all during my childhood. I had to learn to see the whole ice, not just where I was or where I was headed, while at the same time focus on the task at hand, whether it was a jump, spin or footwork. In my experience, things are optimal when I hold both, the entirety of experience and the singular event (or obstacle). We are both particle and wave…

  18. Love the topic.
    If our thoughts determine our feelings which result in our actions, the disruption of “old” thinking makes room for the new, positive based paradigm. Yes, we have to do the work to prepare but when we frame it from the best possible, vs. the worst possible, the spacae opens up almost magically.

  19. Hi Jonathan,
    Got some ideas from your post. Thanks. My two cents (one cent). Your thought is spot on. Seeing the solution instead of the problem and all …

    I believe you can train yourself (the extensive, deliberate practice you speak about) using Moving Forward Writing… Personal Journey to get out the fears and needs and Personal Script to positively state and get the repetition of what you will do. “See it and you will move towards it”

    Of course there are “falls” along the way. I guess that’s where learning and personal forgiveness comes in – to get by them and back on the “bike” Thanks for the energy. Have Fun, Jim

  20. building a level of skill to a high degree is something that a lot of people deny that they have to do. They think new football boots will make them a better player. Ryan Giggs could rip you up on ice skates! Nice post

  21. I think I really needed to read this today. I’m planning on running a half marathon next weekend and I’ve never run further than a 5K. Today, during my run, I kept choking up, getting tight in my chest, almost like I was having a panic attack.

    I have been focusing on NOT being able to run this half marathon and I know I need to shift my thinking, take it one mile at a time, and just let that power greater than me, pull me along.

    I am having such a hard time changing my mind about being able to DO it, that my run today totally sucked. Help!

  22. Hi Jonathan.

    I like that question at the beginning about finding the quest and then building skills that are right in relation to it. If we set a path, we can then walk through it.

    Sometimes I don’t want to set a path because I think that there is some other path that is better to set, and then I don’t end up setting any path. I have always done better when I had set a path. I need to keep that in mind.

  23. To go back to trying to move beyond past problems, it makes much more sense to focus on what’s going good, and leaving the things that wrong before back where they belong – in the past.
    You can think about what you want in the future, but it’s most important to think about NOW. The present is what you have to do – the things in the future may not ever happen. Worrying about things that may happen can stifle you.
    Now is the only thing that really matters.

  24. Jill says:

    I think I’ll find this helpful in avoiding that paralyzing anxiety — the one that invariably leads to either a major collision or (worse) spinning wheels/exacerbating the rut — as I negotiate some unexpected financial difficulties. If I just look a little farther down the road, I am pretty sure I’ll make better decisions in the present. Thanks for this one. Take good care.

  25. Steve Errey says:

    Hey Jonathan

    For me, the bid thing here is when you say “it takes a big leap of faith to be able to draw your attention down the path and trust you’ll get through“.

    It’s that tiny moment in time where you either decide to trust your ability to deal with where you are or you don’t. I think it works as a kind of meta-circuit in the brain – no matter how much practice and time you’ve put in, if that confidence and self-trust isn’t there then it short-circuits everything else.

    The word “confidence” comes from the Latin con fidere – meaning with trust. Confidence is the quality and meta-circuit that supports the mastery you talk about.

  26. William Kerr says:

    This may also involve the fact that the human brain does not process negatives. For example, with small children if you say to them, “don’t run ahead” they most often actually continue to run ahead.

    The brain has to first think of ‘running ahead’ before it can process ‘don’t run ahead.’

    When we realize this quirk of the brain, we can begin to work with it, not only with ourselves, but also with our kids, family, and coworkers.


  27. Ed Gandia says:

    “…in order to get to the place where your body, intuition, neural training and subconscious problem-solving abilities can take over and guide you through, they need to have been developed the skills, control and physical mastery needed to carve your way through. And, that’s something that only happens with extensive, deliberate practice over time.”

    So true! Every skill worth learning has a “Wax on, wax off” period. Not much fun. But worth the price!

  28. […] note:  this post was inspired by a comment by Megan on Jonathan Fields blog – awake@thewheel […]

  29. […] The Truth About Vision, Obstacles and Mastery […]

  30. Jesse says:

    So my son says, “Mom, how come when you are walking with a cup of coffee, if you stare at the cup (to make sure it doesn’t spill) it spills all over. But if you watch where you are going, the coffee doesn’t spill?

    Experience, son, experience.

  31. […] of the content could be categorized as general life inspiration–”The Truth About Vision, Obstacles and Mastery“–but a lot of the ideas apply to career-changing as […]

  32. […] one of his recent posts, Jonathan Fields included a quote from psychology professor Martin Seligman. “Rather […]

  33. seandsweeney says:

    While I agree with focusing on the positive, I do feel strongly that to really, truly live consciously and move forward in life, one must examine those often uncomfortable, difficult situations, patterns and issues that are present in their life. Examining your past and learning from what is “not working” in my opinion is 50% of the puzzle. Focusing on what is working is the other 50%. I know most people disagree with me, but seeing many, many people change through therapy and other methods of examining the past, I stand by my opinion.

  34. […] The Truth About Vision, Obstacles and Mastery […]

  35. Mika says:

    Wow, this article put things into new perspective for me. I have learned about law of attraction and things like Brian Tracy likes to say (you become what you think of most of the time) but focusing is another topic.

    I specially liked Shawns comment “…do ONE rep, TEN times, not TEN reps” I think this will change how I do things from now on