In Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she argues that we should not shield our children from adversity but rather, in healthy and safe doses, welcome it. But turning adversity into a lever to actually improve our lives and build our careers is not easy. It’s natural to wallow in bitterness instead, but it’s also worth trying to do better.
That starts with honestly identifying the challenges we face. That can help us grow, can strengthen working relationships and improve collaboration—provided we ask the right questions.
In many job interviews, the applicants are asked “What’s your biggest weakness at work?” But we should dig deeper: What was the single greatest case of adversity that you’ve faced and overcome in your professional life?
Adversity to Perseverance
I was never asked that question in job interviews, and I would have struggled with it. Only with the benefit of hindsight and maturity (as well as years of therapy) could I answer it today, letting go of embarrassment and shame and actually turning my perseverance into a source of pride. In fact, if there was ever a Workplace Adversity Score measuring how much of it you’ve faced, I’d score high. I’ve been fired, laid off, put on hiatus, forced to shut down a failing business and rejected by countless would-be employers and clients.
But what stands out for me most occurred during the summer of 1992 when I was a 28-year-old associate at the then-largest PR firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller. There was cigarette smoke from a colleague wafting over my cubicle (Philip Morris was a client of the firm’s) when I just learned that my father, then 54, had stage-three lung cancer. After a successful career in architecture and real estate, the market nosedived, and he ended up dying broke. My sister and I were heartbroken while picking up the pieces and fire-selling what was left.
The experience was haunting but served to teach and motivate me like nothing else. While some might have played it safe, the experience made me truly realize how short life can be and inspired me to take calculated risks, both professionally and personally.
If you look deeply enough, most of us have stories, perhaps crossing gender and racial lines in your field, or overcoming learning disabilities, or coming to America as an immigrant with nothing. There are countless examples of individual struggles that became launching pads for professional success. We’ve all been touched one way or another at different times along our respective journeys.
Consider the setbacks most of us are still enduring during a global pandemic, with a background of protests over racial injustice and record unemployment.
Resistance Is Needed for Growth
For expert perspective, I turned to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, the New York Times Best-Selling Author of Happier. A former lecturer of positive psychology at Harvard, he taught the school’s most popular course ever, he now teaches at Columbia University and is the founder of the Happiness Studies Academy. He began with the following analogy.
“Imagine you’re going to the gym to lift weights but setting the resistance to zero. With no resistance, you will not grow and develop. That’s the power of adversity, to build and stretch your muscles without tearing them. Similarly, it turns out that adversity is essential for personal and professional growth.”
Ben-Shahar cites research by a colleague at University of Southern California, Morgan McCall, who studied top leaders, and found the best predictor of long-term success is the amount of adversity they faced early on.
I validated that insight by talking to Barbara Osborn, who was named earlier this year to run PR for Northwell Health, the largest employer in New York with 72,000 employees spanning 23 hospitals. Northwell Health ended up treating more Covid-19 patients than any other health system in the country.
Osborn was thrust into her new role this spring at the very start of the pandemic. Normal transition plans and scheduled meetings with colleagues were all put on hold. Without even getting to clean out her last office at Lenox Hill Hospital, she dove right into dealing with a crushing number of media requests, and other urgent COVID-19-related tasks. As a former journalist who’s covered plane crashes and political scandals, Osborn is used to dealing with crisis situations and putting adrenaline to good use.
But her defining moment actually began at home. At a time when she was already caring for two infant daughters, her sister died suddenly at 42 from a heart attack leaving behind a four-year-old daughter. Barbara found herself adopting her niece, who after initial struggles is now flourishing and is preparing for her senior year in high school.
“Everyone has had hardships and other challenges in their lives, and any adversity I’ve faced has helped make me a more empathetic leader,” said Osborn.
In fact, as a working mother she credits her three girls and her husband for giving her the strength and support that allowed her to survive and even thrive during the current chaos.
“Gathering the strength to deal with the realities of my new position would have been impossible without them,” said Osborn, who is a living illustration of how tapping your primal instincts is the key to overcoming adversity.
Tips for Overcoming Adversity
She and countless others have done it in the following ways:
- Putting on blinders. Imagine you’re in a race, and suddenly, like a thoroughbred, you manage to cut out extraneous noise and sprint to the finish line. The same applies in presentations and deadlines. When we’re under such stress, the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and we’re forced to focus like never before.
- Being hungry. It’s more about your mindset than credentials and that starts with wanting it. Wanting success more than anything else. Most of us lose that edge, become satisfied and sated and say “it’s all good” rather than scrambling to make improvements.
- Keeping a little chip on your shoulder. Reflect back on some slight, real or perceived inferiority—and rather than deny it, own and relish it instead. That’s what a guy I know who’s risen to the top of the Boston tech scene does: every day before work he looks at the shoeshine box from his first job as a poor Italian-American kid on the South Side.
Mogel was right. Too often we pathologize adversity. I know I did. It’s a much better idea to reframe, embrace and even celebrate it—in ourselves, our colleagues and our organizations.