Conventional wisdom, or perhaps sheer instinct, compels us to steer well clear of painful circumstances. And while no one desires hardship, and we should strive to prevent it, some obstacles are unavoidable - the current financial crisis is but one example.
In The Adversity Paradox: An Unconventional Guide to Uncommon Success, we profiled more than 200 businesspeople who had overcome the kind of obstacles that could easily topple a career or a company, and we interviewed a number of them. Their stories displayed a consistent theme - facing adversity head-on and overcoming it is one of the surest paths to personal and professional success.
The current economic downturn is the worst that has been seen since the Great Depression, retirement funds have vanished overnight, hundreds of thousands of employees have been laid off, and according to many, the newest generation of workers, who came of age in prosperous times and have been largely shielded from adversity, are likely ill-equipped to handle misfortune.
Sadly (or perhaps luckily in the longer-term), this generation is in for a generous dose of hardship. To cite just one example of how the recession is already affecting Gen Y, employers forced to downsize are retaining their most experienced workers and letting the newest hires go. In the midst of such dire circumstances, is there any light at the end of the tunnel? We believe there is, as long as one is willing to find the hidden gift adversity offers.
How does one do so? Our research revealed that those who used the experience of overcoming adversity to create the business savvy needed for success shared a number of common characteristics. Specifically, they enhanced their individual human capital in five different ways.
Introspection is the process of conducting honest self-assessments. When we're riding high on a wave of success, most of us don't stop to assess our progress toward goals, our strengths, and certainly not our weaknesses. But suffering a setback has a way of sparking intense self-reflection, and if we don't stop to indulge in self pity or simply give up, this time of taking stock offers an invaluable opportunity for growth.
Those who benefited from the adversity paradox used introspection to determine their weaknesses and formulate a plan for going forward. Rather than let a failure stop them, they treated it as a wake-up call to increase their knowledge and hone their skills.
Yesterday it was Charles Keating, Dennis Kozlowski, and Bernie Ebbers in the news; today it's Jerome Kerviel, Bernie Madoff, and Allen Stanford, and tomorrow it will be someone else. The headlines will forever trumpet the stories of fallen business leaders whose values are questionable or downright corrupt. Engaging in unethical business practices may bring quick wealth and power, but this sort of success is always temporal.
Inevitably, unethical businesspeople lose their money, reputations, companies, and integrity, and they bring a lot of people down with them in the process. To gain true success, one must have superior moral reasoning, and one's behavior must always match one's values.
By work character, we mean more than an ability to put in long hours. We're talking about the ability to work hard, think hard, and lead well. Many of the people we interviewed grew up with severe disadvantages and went to work at an early age because they had to. The work may not have been fun - venture capitalist John Pappajohn sold rags on the street at the age of eight - but they all spoke of the value hard work instilled in them.
Today's economic challenges require that all of us have a robust physical work ethic, cognitive work ethic, and superior skills to lead - every resource will be needed to turn our financial future around. But there is reason to hope: Think of the outcome if Gen Y, fueled by a full work-character package, collectively tackled this recession. Perhaps in the generation who had it all lies the destiny of restoring all - for themselves and those who follow.
Purpose and passion
In any graduation or motivational speech, someone is bound to tell you that to find your purpose in life, you must follow your passion. But that's exactly backwards! Find your purpose, and passion will follow.
Doris Christopher, founder of the Pampered Chef, knew her purpose lay in cooking and hospitality. Her challenge was to create a career centered in that purpose. At first she had little passion for the business aspect of her burgeoning company. She had zero experience in marketing, sales, or public speaking, and getting the Pampered Chef off the ground was a serious challenge indeed. But she stuck with it because she was firmly convinced of her purpose, and eventually, she became passionate about all of her tasks - even public speaking, which she initially dreaded.
The proof is in the results: Christopher took a cottage industry she began in her basement with $3,000 and turned it in to a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Helping employees find purpose and passion in their work is perhaps the most powerful competitive advantage a company can develop.
Thirst for knowledge
The last individual human capital component we saw in those who had overcome adversity was a lifelong thirst for knowledge. A deep, unquenchable curiosity made them quick, astute learners, able to master any challenge life presented.
For Peter Dawkins, early academic failure spurred him to develop one of the most remarkable thirsts for knowledge we've seen. After nearly flunking out of junior high, Dawkins redoubled his efforts and went on to be a top-ranked student at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar; later, he earned a PhD from Princeton.
To this day, Dawkins, who was also a Heisman trophy winner, a White House fellow, a brigadier general, and the retired vice chairman of Citigroup, credits his lifelong thirst for knowledge with helping him to master every challenge he encountered.
And then some
The principle of "and then some" ties all of the human capital components together. It's the practice of fulfilling your goal or task and then consistently going the extra mile. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson we need to learn in these difficult times.
We can and should work to preclude adversity before it happens, but it's always possible to be blindsided. Our challenge is to face adversity with a positive mindset and the willingness to learn. If we do not run from adversity but work to overcome it with all of our power and then some, we will gain a rare and precious learning experience and emerge from misfortune smarter, savvier, and better positioned to succeed.