The Power of Adversity

I once heard a friend who was some distance removed from a very trying time in his life say, “Best thing that ever happened to me, but I hope I never have to go through it again.”  Why is it that the things in our lives that test us the most often result in indispensible lessons and invaluable wisdom?  Life, it seems, is full of adversity.

Adversity comes in many forms.  It can affect us personally or professionally, and sometimes both.  It is misfortune, difficulty, or discouragement.  It is fatigue, frustration, failure, or fear.  However and whenever it arrives, what we do with it often determines the course of our future.  In his book, “The Adversity Paradox”, author J. Barry Griswell makes the case that we can build success on the lessons learned in overcoming adversity.  What is true about adversity on an individual basis is also true for organizations on a collective basis.

For many companies, the past twenty-four months have been filled with plenty of adversity.  Slowing markets and disappearing customers.  Tight credit and the “monthly nut”.  The stress of uncertainty and not being able to depend on the things that were historically dependable.  Cost reductions and layoffs.  All of these issues have created a “new normal” where adversity comes fast and hits hard.

As with everything in life, overcoming adversity is a choice.  We can choose to flee or fight, go it alone or stick with the team.  We can let adversity consume us or we can face it head-on and learn from it.  Whatever options we may have, the choices usually boil down to some form of giving in or overcoming.  If we choose to overcome, working through our adversity can change us in very positive ways.

Overcomming Adversity Creates Resilience  

In the early 1980s Time magazine did a story on a group of people who had lost their jobs on multiple occasions due to plant closings.  The author expected them to be a very discouraged group, but found them to be surprisingly optimistic.  Their adversity had turned to advantage.  Because they had already coped with job loss and had found employment at least twice, they were much better equipped to handle their adversity than individuals who had lost their job for the first time.

Overcomming Adversity Builds Perseverance 

Perseverance is steady persistence toward a goal in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.  Perseverance is the essence of overcoming.  What goals are you persisting toward?  Are they the same as they were two years ago?  Have you adjusted?  Scaled back?  In business the adversity battle is never-ending in both good and trying times.  You keep moving forward because there is no other choice.  This is perseverance.  Will Rogers said, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  The process of overcoming adversity builds within us the perseverance we need to keep pushing.

Perseverance Builds Character

How we persevere is important.  The choices we make in adverse conditions reveal the values we hold true.  For leaders, actions are infinitely more important than words.  The values and character traits that are forged in adversity are enduring and define us to those around us.  Organizationally, the decisions made in tough times are woven into the fabric of culture.  What sort of character traits are you forging through your adversity?  Honesty or dishonesty?  Cruel or compassionate?  Dependable or not?  Everything is a choice.

Character is the Foundation of Our Future 

The character either revealed or constructed through perseverance becomes the foundation of our future.  Whether that foundation is one of bedrock or sand is determined by the choices made along the way.  Like a balance sheet, our character is the collective, permanent record of all of our actions and decisions.  Abraham Lincoln said, “Reputation is the shadow.  Character is the tree.”  All that we will do in the future will be determined by the foundation we build today.  This is in large part due to the fact that it is our character that determines our responses to various situations, including adversity.


It is probably safe to say that none of us would choose adversity.  Adversity is usually thrust upon us as a result of some external force or adverse event.  When you find yourself in such a situation, remember that you have a choice.  Will you give in or will you overcome?  Although persevering through adversity is not easy and sometimes painful, the process will leave you a stronger, more resilient person or organization.  Hopefully, at some point in time you’ll be able to say, “Best thing that ever happened to me, but I hope I never have to go through it again.”

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