2017 & Beyond Pt#2 – Dealing with Adversity

As I write this I’m waiting to board a plane from Los Angeles to New York.  I’m always amazed at the thought of a piece of machinery weighing several hundreds of thousands of pounds and the enourmous obstacles and adversity that come with putting it into the air.

On that thought and sticking with our short series on creating a worthwhile 2017 I wanted to address the topic of adversity.  In my own personal experience and also my experience in working with individuals and teams I’ve witnessed that adversity is usually only experienced from one side of the knife – the side that hurts.

What we need to keep in mind is that adversity also presents and provides an alternative side to the regular painful perception that we associate with it.  In any great endevour that you consider to study you will find nearly 100% of the time success is nearly always associated with a great deal of failure and adversity.  Some of the greatest accomplishments of our time were first met with failure and in many cases multiple failures.

No matter the pursuit, failure in some degree is non-negotiable.  The takeaway is that we need to fail fast, fail often, and most importantly fail forward.  The real obstacle with failure and adversity is that we don’t extract the right information from the occurence. I tend to believe that we most often overestimate the event and underestimate the process.  Success takes a dedication to a process!

Before we discuss the reasons on why we should in fact embrace adversity there are 2 obstacles that should be considered:

  1.  We rely heavily on inertia.  When things are going good we can easily push forward, when things are not in our favor we tend to slow down or withdrawal.  Achievement comes through the repetitive action in the face of adversity.
  2. Most people intellectually understand that setbacks are a part of any success but they fail to emotionally accept and embrace the adversity and obstacles.  If you aren’t experiencing adversity and failure you likely are not progressing.

With the understanding of those obstacles let’s look at why we should embrace adversity.

1.  Embracing Adversity Creates Resiliency – A common misunderstanding is that life enventually gets easier.  The truth is that life is pretty constant with challenges and obstacles.  The perceived ease that eventually shows up is really our own newfound strength and resilience.  A case study about the psychology of individuals who had lost their jobs for a 3rd time in 2 years due to plant closures showed that their adversity had in fact created an advantage for them.  Because the workers had lost jobs  twice before and had successfully found new jobs they were in a much better spirit than those that were losing their jobs for the first time.

2. Embracing Adversity Creates Maturity – If you can frame adversity in the right light and not allow it to make you bitter it can and will make you better.  The truth is that very little wisdom is ever learned when we succeed.  As the saying goes, “when we succeed we tend to party, when we fail we tend to ponder.”  I’m in the midst of creating a project called The Performance Coalition Podcast in which I’ll discuss the elements of improved performance with high functioning individuals, one of the major points of emphasis I want to discuss is some of their greatest failures and what they learned from them.  I am always attempting to learn in every situation I can the “how and why failure occured in myself or others.” I believe this is where the real wisdom and learning comes from.

3.  Embracing Adversity Demands We Examine the Standards of Performance – As I said before when we succeed we tend to party, when we fail we tend to ponder.  Adversity, while unfortunately most often viewed with a negative slope does possess the ability to cause us to question the status quo for the better.  Adversity when leveraged appropriately should provide us with an opportunity to view challenges and setbacks as an oppotunity to learn and simply do better the next time.  It should poke and prod our thoughts to look closely at what worked and what didn’t and then ultimately why. 

This was a lesson I learned in many different ways the first time that I attempted to go to work for myself.  While there were many things that worked as I hoped that they would, the major takeaways from that experience was all of the many things that I did poorly.

4. Adversity Creates Greater Opportunity – In 1978, Bernie Marcus was fired from his job at Handy-Dan, a do-it yourself hardware store in Newark New Jersey.  The sudden spell of adversity drove Marcus into teaming up with Arthur Blank to form their own store in Atlanta, Georgia called Home Depot (you can read the whole story HERE in Marcus and Blank’s book Built From Scratch).  Marcus has been quoted as saying if he had never been faced with the obstacle of being fired there is no telling where he would be today.

5.  Adversity Prompts Innovation – It’s likely you’ve never heard of the device and company Blue Box.  The company and device were created by two individuals that you likely have heard of, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of what would soon be the brains behind Apple.  Blue Box was a device/service that the Steve’s sold on the black market  under the names of Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar.  Blue Box essentially allowed for individuals to make free long distance calls by hacking into the service provider codes that allowed for long distance calls to be made.  That innovation arose out of the high cost of making calls from coast to coast that neither Jobs or Wozniak could afford.  Because of this, the Steve’s took it upon themselves to create a new device and service around this obstacle.

6. Adversity Provides Unexpected Benefits – People too quickly equate mistakes with failure.  Kellogg’s cereal was the result of leaving a batch of boiled wheat  in a baking pan overnight.  Ivory Soap initially known for its famous ability to float was the result of being left in a mixing machine for too long and having extra air whipped into the batch.  Scott’s Towels were the result of a machine mistakenly putting too many pieces of tissue paper together.  Historically if you look throughout science and innovation you will find that mistakes almost always precede truth.

7.   Adversity Motivates – My favorite example of motivation through adversity comes from the time that the QB for the Alabama Crimson Tide playing under the legendary coach Bear Bryant changed the play without consent and threw an interception to the fastest player in the conference.  Miraculously the QB not known for his ability to run chased down the opposing player to save a game winning touchdown.  After the game the other coach said “I just don’t understand how your kid caught mine.”  Bryant in reply said, “you’re kid was running for 6 points, mine was running for his life.”

Adversity should not be taken personally.  It should be stepped away from temporarily and examined for its value.  I just had to practice this principle last week when I was passed over for an opportunity that I was a great fit for.  After stepping away from the situation for a day or two and then directing alot of thought toward it I was able to discover the value and the motivating pieces of it.  A good practice that I always attempt to keep in mind is to measure the obstacle in relation to the size of the goal pursued.

As we approach 2017 it is my hope that you will begin to view adversity in a different light.  It is my hope that in the face of inescapable adversity that you will remember and/or share these principles of embracing adversity and leverage it into an improved performance.

Stay tuned!!




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