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How the Worst of Times Are the Best of Times When You Run Towards Adversity

Life is full of paradoxical truths. Some examples: If you want to lead others, you need to serve others. If you give, you will receive. The harder you try to impress people, the less impressed they’ll be. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. And the best of times are often the worst of times.

Some version of that last one has come to mind several times in the last year, so it’s been helpful to remind myself of the rewards I’ve experienced in life by running toward adversity. There are those who advise us to run from adversity and others who will tell us to make the most of it when we can’t avoid it, but I believe there’s true value in seeking it.

Adversity builds perseverance and that develops our character, which produces hope that the future will be just fine. So, when we pursue adversity, we pursue perseverance, character, and hope, and that sets us up for a better future.

I’m not talking about living a reckless life. Jumping from an airplane without a parachute isn’t an example of pursuing adversity; it’s an example of stupidity. Pursuing adversity is about actively stepping out of our comfort zone to take on challenges that come with the potential for worthwhile rewards.

I pursued adversity, for instance, when I spent a summer between college semesters working on a garbage truck in Pittsburgh, when I stepped away from a comfortable accounting job to pursue an MBA, and when I agreed to take the job of running a company that was facing bankruptcy during the Great Recession. Adversity came with all those decisions, but all of them taught me important lessons that helped me grow as a leader.

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When you seek adversity, you almost always find it. The question is, will you benefit from it? When I think about the lessons I’ve learned by chasing and embracing adversity, four things come to mind:

1. Frame it as an opportunity.

Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, writes about this in her book Presence. The mindset shift of seeing difficulties as opportunities helps you focus on where you want to go and what possibilities you can accomplish rather than what could go wrong.

2. Think incrementally.

This is another piece of sage advice from Cuddy and other authors. James Clear, in Atomic Habits, for instance, writes about how making small improvements each day toward a goal is the key to creating life’s defining moments. In the same way, most challenges aren’t resolved overnight. It’s seldom “one thing” that changes everything, but a series of incremental small things that allow us to persevere until we succeed.

3. Challenge your fears.

The best leaders in the world make mistakes, but they learn from them. They don’t let a fear of failure paralyze them; they accept fear as a part of the process that moves them toward success. Thomas Watson, the former chairman and CEO of IBM, once challenged his people to double their rate of failure. He wanted them to challenge their fears, because he knew that doing so would move them forward to something new and better.

4. Replace fear with faith.

If you’ve built perseverance and developed your character, you can replace your fears with hope. In other words, you will have faith that allows you keep working, keep fighting, keep challenging, keep learning, and keep growing.

Running toward adversity involves risks. Risks that you will suffer some pain. Risks that you will be uncomfortable. Risks that people stop supporting you or actively work against you. Risks that you will fail. In fact, those things are not only risks, but certainties. They will happen. But here’s the paradoxical truth: You will always be better for it in the end.

Comments

  1. Tim Bahr

    Put another way, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is counterintuitive and a learned behavior. The Finns call this special kind of courage “Sisu” and by embracing discomfort in their day-to-day activities, they develop the muscle memory to take on life’s inevitable challenges.

    Reply to Tim Bahr

  2. Tony Fightmaster

    I began learning this Truth at 19 years old when I turned down the comfort of summer at home with mom to instead go door to door in a part of the country I had never been selling books. Oh the treasure of facing fear!

    Reply to Tony Fightmaster

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