Obstacle or Excuse? Ask, “What stops you?”

By Michael Neill

As a child, my favorite sport to watch on TV (and on very special occasions in the stadium) was American football. After years of playing in my back yard and the school yard, my parents finally let me sign up to play in a “real” league when I was 12. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get into pads and transform myself into a pint-size replica of my gridiron heroes.

However, the first day of practice was more like a military boot camp than my fantasies of football glory. Now if you’ve never thrown on the pads of an American football uniform, the one thing you may not realize is how heavy they are-particularly when you’re 12.

In full uniform, we spent the practice doing pushups and sit-ups and running so many sprints that several of us threw up in the grass by the side of the field. Finally, at the end of that first practice they set up a mini-game to let us show them what we had. Unfortunately for me, what I had left at that point wasn’t really worth having.

On the very first play from scrimmage, our quarterback threw the ball downfield in my general direction, only to have it intercepted right in front me by one of the largest 12 year olds I had ever seen.

Caught between my exhaustion, fear and desire to prove my manhood, I gave chase and was actually closing in on him when one of their players threw himself to the ground in front of me in a last-ditch attempt to trip me up.

At that moment, time stood still. I realized I had a choice-to carry on in the lung-burning, leg-aching pursuit of my prey, or to let myself trip over this would-be blocker and finally get a rest.

In the years since that moment, I have found that this same kind of decision faces us nearly every day in the pursuit of our dreams. Things come up between us and our goals -something we don’t yet know how to do, an unexpected bill, an overprotective gatekeeper, a child who doesn’t sleep or a spouse who somehow doesn’t quite grasp the magnificence of our vision.

What we do in those moments is ultimately what determines our destiny:

• If we treat whatever stands in our way as an obstacle, we can bring the full creative resources of our mind to bear and find ways to get over, around or through it.

• If we choose to use it as an excuse, we allow ourselves to be tripped up or otherwise stopped by it.

While I would love to say I leapt over that kid and carried on to save a touchdown, the truth is I let my foot catch on his shoulder pad and tumbled to the ground. I thought I would feel relief, but what I actually felt was embarrassment and shame.

Now, of course, I know there’s no shame in a 12 year old ‘taking himself out of the game’ when he’s exhausted and frightened. But I’ve also realized as an adult what a shame it is to allow an obstacle to become an excuse. This is what I’ve learned:

If your dream is big enough and your goal is worthwhile, there’s always a way to get there.


1. What do you want? Write down at least one big goal and at least one smaller one.

2. For each goal, answer the question “What stops you?” It will always relate to at least one of nine things-information, skill, belief, well-being, other people, motivation, time, money or fear.

3. Notice whether you’ve been treating that thing as an obstacle or an excuse. In other words, have you been actively brainstorming ways to handle it or have you been telling yourself “oh, well-maybe next time”?

4. If it’s just an obstacle, get yourself into a higher state and brainstorm it again. Bring in friends, bring in a coach, bring in whatever and whoever you need to blast that obstacle into smithereens!

5. If it’s an excuse, you have two choices:

a. Turn it into an obstacle and go back to step 4. You do this by bringing your best self and your full creative resources to bear on how to get past it.

b. Give yourself a break and let go of the goal. When you don’t really want to do something, one excuse is pretty much as good as another.

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy exploring!

With love,


Michael Neill is a life coach and author. Hear him Thursdays at 11am on HayHouse Radio or visit his website, www.geniuscatalyst.com. (c) 2009.

This article was originally published on July 30, 2009.