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Masters of Adversity: Lessons from the Best on Surviving the Worst

Hidden within the angst of failure, adversity, even disaster is the foundation of not only resilience, but also transformation to a better you, perhaps a better world.

Photo courtesy of Cristofer Maximilian via Unsplash

For the last 40 years in 39 countries on six continents, I’ve had the unique opportunity to see “up close and personal” the psychological effects of great personal adversity as well as world-changing disasters. These disasters have included natural disasters, nuclear incidents, war, terrorism and even the collapse of financial markets. Initially, I focused on the identification of the factors that seemed to best help people, communities and nations bounce back from adversity. But as my career spanned the globe and an ever-widening array of crises, I began to focus not only on factors of resilience but also on what I felt were determinants of growth in the wake of adversity. Some might refer to this as a form of post-disaster growth. 

I have been struck by the emergence of a rather consistent constellation of transformative factors that seem to help people move from being “victims” of adversity to survivors, and ultimately masters of adversity. Those observations have borne testament that often hidden within the angst of adversity, there resides the opportunity to reshape one’s life. Great growth arises from great adversity. As a muscle and even bones grow stronger with stress, so too can individuals, organizations, communities and even nations.

We are approaching two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been a roller coaster ride of shock, denial, angst and sadness. It has left many of us, at best, tired, re-evaluating what is really important in life, or worst, feeling out of control, drowning in a sea of uncertainty and loss. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once famously wrote, “Change is the only constant in life.” That the world has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt. 

Crisis as Opportunity

The “Father of History,” Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) told the story of the Egyptian phoenix, a bird that was reborn from its own ashes. The story has become an icon for the notion of rebirth. But it was the Roman poet Claudian who was the first to say—several hundred years later—that the bird was reborn “more beauteous than before,” the first mention in Western literature that growth can result from adversity.

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So, if it’s possible to spring forward from adversity, why don’t more people do so? Psychologically speaking, most people are resistant to change. We fear uncertainty, even if there is a chance for something better. Virginia Satir perhaps said it best when she noted that people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. The angst of the tangible and predictable is preferred to the angst of the intangible and unpredictable. We become inmates of a prison of our own creation. Psychologically speaking, to escape takes bravery, the courage to take a chance. 

Masters of Adversity: What Is It They Understand?

So, what is it that those who seem to have “mastered” adversity understand that many others don’t? 

  1. They understand the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1948, sociologist Robert Merton coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Simply said: If you truly believe some outcome will be realized as a result of your actions, the likelihood of that outcome actually occurring will be increased. So, those who bounced forward had optimistic visions. They refused to allow adversity to define them or shape their future. They possessed a rather dogmatic refusal to become a victim. They looked beyond victim to survivor, and then to being master of one’s fate. Failure actually increased their motivation. There is wisdom in understanding that if you don’t like the hand of cards you’ve been dealt, there are more cards in the deck.
  2. They understand the power of finding role models. Armed with vision, they “studied” people who were living the life they wanted to live. They gained self-confidence vicariously. If someone else can spring forward from adversity, so too could they. Sadly, too many people look at those who are happy or successful through the green lens of envy. They fail to see them as potential role models. They lose an opportunity and revert to being a victim. It takes strength to swallow our pride and look at others as teachers, not competitors, and perhaps even with admiration. 
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  1. Those who grow stronger from adversity intuitively or otherwise understand that a key to rising out of the abyss is often being connected to others, not just vicariously. They see friends as a “force multiplier.” They understand the power of a mentor. They understand the power of a collaborator. As John Donne noted in the 1600s, “no man is an island…we are all connected.” 

Masters of Adversity: What Is It They Do?

Futurist Alvin Toffler once noted that while it’s important to study the past, it’s more important to shape the future. Should we fail to create the future we desire, surely, we will be condemned to reside in a future shaped by someone else, or worse yet, by our fears. But I will go further, allow me to suggest we have a moral obligation to shape the future for not only ourselves but for all those who depend upon us. 

  1. Attitude is key. It is the launch pad for transformative change. Attitude consisted of two elements for “masters of adversity.” First, they held a belief that they were part of something greater than themselves. For some, it was spirituality. For some, it was religion. For many, it was simply a belief there is a grand plan wherein failure and suffering were not part. Second, they not only believed in the self-fulfilling prophecy, but they also harnessed the energy that emerged from such a belief. They were “supercharged” by it. 
  2. They understand that lasting change is a marathon, not a sprint. So, in order to overcome inertia which resists change, they started small. They changed one simple thing about their daily lives. This was not only wise to save energy and avoid frustration, but it also gave them a taste of success. Success begets success.
  3. In order to sustain themselves in the marathon, “masters of adversity” used a psychological technique called cognitive reinterpretation. Research indicates that through concerted effort, the positive reappraisal of negative events can activate brain regions associated with positivity, not negativity. Repetition then can make positivity a habit.
  4. Once positivity or any other action becomes a habit, continued repetition can convert it into a trait. Once a trait, it becomes a part of you.
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Hidden within the angst of failure, adversity, even disaster is the foundation of not only resilience, but also transformation to a better you, perhaps a better world. So now, it’s time to get out of your own way. Christopher Robin once said to Pooh, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” If you believe this and act as if it is true, surely you too can become a “master of adversity.”

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