This post will be the first of a four-part series about overcoming adversity. Over the years, I have experienced my fair share of struggles—as all people have done—in both my professional and personal life. In recent months, I have spent some time engaged in reflection upon various challenges and the means through which I have attempted to overcome them.
I am certainly neither a psychologist nor a therapist. However, I have observed that there are four broad categories of skills that many people, myself included, use successfully to get from point A to point B when facing obstacles, both big and small. In this Tackling Adversity series, I will address each of these skills and provide real-world examples of how I have seen them used to make a difference.
One of the most difficult, and yet important, life skills that we can develop is the ability to reflect. Much is made of self-awareness in pop psychology journals and on self-styled, self-help websites. But genuine reflection goes beyond some new-age meditative experience. When it comes to attaining goals or overcoming obstacles, we must be able to engage in meaningful, tactical, objective assessment of our situations.
When faced with substantial adversity, sometimes it may feel like there is no path to the other side, no means to reach our desired destination. At the beginning of any new challenge, things are overwhelming. So much uncertainty; so many options or paths to take; so little guidance! It does not even matter whether the struggles have arisen suddenly and unexpectedly or were created through our own agency. Life is a series of decisions and outcomes, but when faced with a major change or a significant hurdle, we are suddenly paralyzed into inaction.
The fear that we experience is a normal and expected response to uncertainty. It is not necessarily something to be avoided. In fact, for some of us, it may be a necessary first step to recognizing a scenario that deserves more attention and care than the other run-of-the-mill everyday decisions we experience. However, once the fear has had an opportunity to creep in and settle down, it is critical to move on to a state of objectivity.
With adverse situations, if we continue to base our decisions on subjective criteria, then our emotions take over. I am not suggesting that anybody should disregard their own feelings about the scenarios they face. On the other hand, it is possible to develop skills to assess the likely emotional impact of a given outcome as one (of many) objective criteria to be considered when looking at benefits, risks, and alternative end games.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Have I properly identified the goal I hope to attain by tackling the obstacle in my path, or are there alternative goals that are equally beneficial to me?
- Why has this obstacle arisen and is it an inevitable part of my journey?
- If the obstacle is necessary, what individual steps are required to get the job done?
- Are there multiple pathways I could pursue to reach the same end and, if so, what are they?
- What risks (fiscal, personal, health and welfare, career) are associated with taking a given step or heading down a given path, and am I prepared to absorb those risks?
Finally, after working through a thorough assessment of what lies in your path, you should ask: “What is the best possible outcome I can hope to achieve? What is the worst?”
Asking these questions, of course, is not the difficult part. Answering them in an objective manner is a different story. What I attempt to do in my own life is to step outside of myself. I pretend that a few different friends, colleagues, or clients have approached me and are facing the same adversity that I am trying to tackle myself. What would I say to them? How would I advise conquering the challenges and moving forward? Specifically, I do this multiple times with different imagined conversation partners just in case subtle personality differences among them cause me to adjust my advice. More objective data points allow me to get closer to the truth.
Strangely, it is often easier to be honest with others than it is to be honest with ourselves. By taking on the thought experiment of advising a third-party version of myself, I am enabled to check myself against my own fear and confirmation biases.
Working with consulting clients over the years, I generally found this assessment skill was among my first areas of focus. Far too frequently, individuals show up at the door requesting a very specific implementation. “I want you to build me X; how much to build me X?” Usually, however, it turns out they have not spent nearly enough time on honest, objective assessment and analysis. When forced to take a step backward and a deep breath, we work together to determine just what problem we hope to solve. What is the nature of the obstacle standing in our way? What kind of implementation will actually solve the problem?
But in business and in life, before we can begin we first must chart out an anticipated path. Where am I beginning? Where do I need to go? How will I attempt to get there? And can I tolerate the level of risk required to undertake the journey?
In the next part of the series, I will cover the importance of relationships, mentors, and trusted advisors.