I like the premise of the quote as being something related to the nature of overcoming challenges and ensuring that focus is present at all times. When focus of the primary goal is lost, I think the quote is saying that is when what lies in front of us becomes challenging and concerns begin to mount. In order to effectively face down that which is in front of us, there has to be a complete sense of focus on the overall and end goal. It is focusing on this end that allows us to better understand how these challenges do not become obstacles, and can be overcoming in the name of the larger goal.
What this quote means is that you only see things as obstacles (as problems) when you take your eye off the goal that you are trying to reach. When you are focused on the goal, you do not worry about what is between you and that goal. Instead, you just concentrate on the goal and take whatever is between you and that goal in your stride.
This is one of those motivational type of quotes -- that is its importance. It is meant to remind us not to get too bogged down worrying about what we have to overcome each day. Instead, we should concentrate on our goals --that will make us more successful.
The quote--"obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals"--has been variously attributed to both Henry James and Henry Ford. Given their relative character, one could logically conclude that the former is the true originator of the quote, although Ford certainly said it in the context of his phenomenal success as an industrialist. Whichever individual said it first, the meaning is the same: Success is achieved when one remains focused on one's goals or objectives and avoids distractions that divert that focus onto extraneous details or problems. An American-born British novelist of considerable repute, Henry James would likely have uttered or written the phrase in the context of succeeding as a writer--an often enormously difficult task. In an 1884 essay titled The Art of Fiction, James wrote the following with respect to the level of commitment and degree of perseverance required to succeed in the world of literature:
"We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded."
While James' focus was, naturally, on literature, Henry Ford's focus was on revolutionizing a still-very-new industry, the mass production of automobiles. As many a motivational speech or essay has emphasized, discipline and commitment are among the essentials for success. One cannot succeed, Ford reiterated, without the force of will necessary to overcome obstacles and without the discipline needed to remain focused on the objective. That was certainly true in Ford's time, and there was no better example of that discipline and commitment. Ford was the innovator of assembly-line production methods that made mass production possible while, many detractors suggested, dehumanizing the individual by making him or her little more than a cog in that assembly line. This, however, detracts from the subject at hand: the quote specified above. The quote is important because it illuminates the importance of focus and perseverance.