The upside of adversity

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Any business book worth its salt will tell stories of adversity faced by the most successful businesspeople. You learn of catastrophic product launches, bankruptcy, divorce and health scares, all part of the hero’s journey to becoming a wealthy, successful entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur success formula

  1. Register business name
  2. Get website up
  3. Have massive humiliating failure
  4. Have massive success
  5. Write a book describing said humiliating failure followed by massive success
  6. Plan motivational speaker tour and tell humiliating failure story, followed by dramatic business success story
  7. Appear on cover of Inc. Magazine in confident pose
  8. Tell failure and success story on the Today Show
  9. Sell your company to Google
  10. Repeat

If failure is such a part of entrepreneur lore, why do we let it upset us?

Because we think that our particular humiliating failure is not in the same category as those we admire.

Sure, Seth Godin may say:

“The first five years of my solo business, when the struggle seemed neverending, I never missed a day, never took a nap.”

But inside you say “Surely Seth was not really struggling, or if he was, it was over something like a typo. I am sure he felt absolutely confident in his ability to become a best-selling author. He is, you know, Seth after all.”

My take?

Seth felt the same humiliation and fear that you may be feeling about some aspect of your life at this moment.

But as his quote says, he “never missed a day, never took a nap.” He thought about the failure in such a way that did not stop him from moving forward. He also may have had people who really believed in him, and encouraged him through the rough spots.

The upside of adversity

No matter the severity of the challenge you are facing, ask yourself these questions:

How is this experience:

  • preparing me to do great work?
  • preparing me to be a smarter, kinder or more compassionate person?
  • teaching me exactly what I need to know so I can serve my market well?
  • reminding me of what my true, natural strengths are, and aren’t?
  • pushing me to make an urgent decision about something that is critical to my well-being?
  • reflecting back my thinking?
  • teaching me what I need to get help with, outsource or stop doing?
  • teaching me to have more patience?

Honest, non-judgmental answers to these questions will give you huge gifts. Life-altering gifts.

I know that I will continue to face some big challenges this coming year.

I also know they are exactly what I need to live my mission.

As my good friend Martha Beck told me on a particularly tough day:

“Some day you will see that this was not being done to you, but rather for you.”

I trust the process. Do you?

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33 Responses to “The upside of adversity”

  1. Matias Coo says:

    From my personal experience I’ve learned the most from my failures. I think it’s important to have a good attitude. You become a better business owner when you learn from your mistakes.

  2. Craig says:

    When I’m really feeling good about my work, it’s amazing how easily I take it when things go wrong. I am able to step back and see the broader perspective and know that the current setback is a small blip on the screen. On the other hand, when I’m struggling along without much vision and just going through the motions of getting the tasks done, when obstacles come up I get sent into a negative downspin. I forget where I am going and get caught up in following the trail of the obstacle, down into nowhere land.

    From my experience, keeping one’s head up with forward vision is great way of dealing with adversity, before it even happens.

  3. Craig says:

    When I’m really feeling good about my work, it’s amazing how easily I take it when things go wrong. I am able to step back and see the broader perspective and know that the current setback is a small blip on the screen. On the other hand, when I’m struggling along without much vision and just going through the motions of getting the tasks done, when obstacles come up I get sent into a negative downspin. I forget where I am going and get caught up in following the trail of the obstacle, down into nowhere land.

    From my experience, keeping one’s head up with forward vision is great way of dealing with adversity before it even happens.

  4. […] on December 22nd, Pam Slim had a great article on her blog entitled “The Upside of Adversity” where she touches on how many of the most successful people have had crushing failures, […]

  5. Elle says:

    Adversity is the best medicine. I don’t like it. I can’t stand it. But I realized that I was a big panzy fancy pants that didn’t want to feel anything “bad”! What the heck is this…Preschool? I got an epiphany and it said to grow up, put on my big girl panties and fight for my dreams. I’m ready.

  6. […] food the second is actually two: A post from Charlie Gilkey, and one from Pam Slim. The two of these came at a particularly salient moment for me last week, just as I was facing my […]

  7. Julio Blanco says:

    I love the “doing it for me” idea and I’ll keep that in mind as the adversities continue to serve me. Being an entrepreneur sure has been a crash course in personal growth. I’ve grown more, failed more, and broken through more limiting beliefs in the last 2 years than in the previous 20 combined. Thanks for this perspective on the rough spots.

  8. Pam! I LOVE this article and would like to interview you. I have a site called Upside of Money, and I highlight the positive aspects of a very difficult subject – money. Adversity certainly plays a part in it, and seeing the Upside of adversity is key. Please contact me at barbara@upsideofmoney.com at your convenience. Cheers, Barbara

  9. Pam – What a great post!! Love the Entrepreneur Success Formula! I work with so many people that will get so much out of this post! Time to re-tweet and re-post! 🙂

    Thanks,
    Chuck

  10. Alexis Neely says:

    This is the key to success in business (and probably in life too). I’ve successfully built my businesses because I began to trust adversity and see every challenge as the opportunity to be more of who I am. How else would we learn? Thanks for the great reminder.

  11. Mary says:

    Thanks for an excellent post. I wanted to let you know that both newsletter sign-up forms on this page (right sidebar and below the post) generate the following message:

    Hello Fellow Creative Entrepreneur
    We are delighted that you are interested in our teleclass series!
    Keep an eye on your inbox for future call information.
    . . .
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    I really would like to sign up for the newsletter. Thank you!
    Mary

  12. Well put, Pam! It’s really a myth that we get it everything right at first go. Thanks for sharing.

  13. This is my first visit to your site, Pamela, but I’ll surely be back! I’m in the process of re-visioning and focusing my business. These are wonderful reminders that success and failure are two sides of a coin as I move out of my comfort zone. Your list of eight lessons to be gleaned from a failure are now on my desktop!

    Thanks so much for this post.

  14. Avril says:

    Pam, impeccable timing with this post for me and so spot on. Perfect for New Year review time. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Diane Hunter says:

    Beautiful reminder that life is happening for me. While in a funk yesterday afternoon I thought, “okay, I know I’ll learn something from this but right now I’m not going to resist it and just let myself feel crappy.” Later that evening I did reflect back on the funk period and saw some amazing revelations about my husband. During my funk, he came home, didn’t get tangled up in my mood but rather filled the leadership void and led the entire family (including me) to a place of peace within about fifteen minutes. It was gorgeous watching my husband lead us all back to a state of peace and love.

    You are a brilliant light of love, Ms. Pamela Slim and I Love You!

  16. bahiehk says:

    Just what I needed to hear Pamela!!
    Going through a challenging professional situation at the moment.
    Then I had an AHA moment yesterday where I realized this difficult situation was *exactly* what I needed to practice some much-needed qualities.
    In the long run this challenge will prove to be a great accelerator of my career!!
    thanks for this post, be blessed.
    Bahieh K

  17. Beto says:

    Pam – I think you nailed it down on the fact that the difference between failed and successful people is that the latter don’t stop dead on their tracks if – or rather, when they fail. Probably because their ambitions and goals surpass whatever struggles a failure puts them through. What happens with highly successful people is that we rarely get to hear about their past of failures, and if we do, we tend to think they were not a big deal to them – unlike ours.Now, our struggles? Oh yeah, that’s insurmountable, big stuff to sweat over – or so we trick ourselves into thinking.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this, and the more I read over it, the more I’m convinced it’s not about avoiding failure (nobody does), but rather being able to cope with and learn from it. And doing it fast and then move on. It’s easy to think about it. Doing it is the hard part. But that’s where the main difference between success and failure lies, I think.

    • Pamela says:

      I am so with you Beto! Very wise, I totally agree with you about coping with failure is the key to everything.

      Boy does it suck when it is happening, but if you can get the positive spin on it and get a good lesson, it is more than worth it.

  18. I’m a proud Canadian, but this is one area where I really admire Americans. Failure is seen almost as a badge of honour; a necessary war wound on the way to success.

    There aren’t many other countries in the world (if any?) that have that mindset.

    • Pamela says:

      Glad you are a proud Canadian Brooks! 😉

      And I have heard from my Canadian and European friends that the same celebration of failure (at least in business folklore) is NOT the case in many places outside the U.S.

      This breaks my heart, because isn’t it a crazy thought to think that our ENTIRE lives are defined by one mistake or poor choice? We only get one whirl around the globe, and there are certainly many ways to redeem yourself and create value and contribution.

      If you ever fail (highly unlikely), I got your back.

      Your adopted Canadian sister,

      -P

  19. S. DeSantis says:

    Those are great questions, Pam, and striking enough I am going to print them out as a reminder to keep going, keep breathing.

    It’s been a tremendously successful year for me–three book contracts in six months–but I want more. Greedy? Unrealistic? I don’t think so. I hold three concurrent careers, something I never imagined and don’t really want, and 2011 will be the year I leave higher education and let my own flower blossom.

    ‘Thank you for everything,’ I say to those higher forces because it’s all part of the journey: the good, bad, miserable, and estatic.

    Happy new year and happy achievement to all.

  20. Richard Posey says:

    As someone who is engaged in “the struggle,” this is (financially, at least) a somewhat dark Xmas. No matter. It is all part of the process. And it’s not my first time to be in this place. What I strive for is to make it the last time. Game on!

  21. kymlee says:

    The adversity is neither good nor bad, simply part of the path to the destination. We are a composite of our experiences without which we cannot gain wisdom. even if I don’t know that there is a “lesson” in the experience, hopefully I am wiser and more resilient for it.

    • Pamela says:

      Good point — a lot of suffering comes when we go to one extreme or the other. I find the book The Four Agreements to be a great source for understanding the “don’t be swayed by big compliments or big detractions” issue.

      Personally, when I ask myself these questions in the middle of a really difficult situation, it does calm me down and provide relief.

  22. […] from Escape from Cubicle Nation talks about The Upside of Adversity. Answering the questions in regards to personal, and not just entrepreneurial adversity, can be […]

  23. Andy Pels says:

    So you’re saying 1,2,3,9 won’t work? Dang it.
    Thanks for the timely wisdom, Pam.
    Here’s to everyone’s personal 4 in 2011!

  24. Bruce Serven says:

    Hi Pam,

    I think we let failures upset us because there is a double standard when it comes to failure.

    On one hand: Society counter-productively tell us that failure (and risk overall) is bad and undesired. Schools teach us that failure is bad and unacceptable. Socially, for the past century, particularly in the post-war era, as we’ve moved from an agrarian society to a manufacturing society, we’ve been taught to adhere to the status quo, keep your head down, fall in line, minimalize all risks, seek safety, seek a steady job/income, and strongly admonished not to pursue anything that might be considered different or entrepreneurial as “it’s too risky” (or similar notion). The courts are prejudiced against failure (tough bankruptcy laws, severely punitive tort laws, etc). The financial system (especially combined with any court action) puts you on a (seemingly inescapable) death spiral should you happen to stumble or wholly fail (bad credit, medical issue, divorce, child support). People who do experience failure are ostracised from their communities and rarely forgiven (even decades later) – and strangely enough even fellow entrepreneurs have been known to ostracize the failures like the person has a sickness that they don’t want to catch. Marriages, friendships and other relationships are severely strained and often terminated in the event of impending and/or actualized failure (often causing you much disappointment as you realize that your real friends aren’t who you thought they were). etc. So it upsets them because they face that mountain of crap that will come down upon them in the event that they fail. It upsets them because they fear being shunned and sent away to the wilderness upon failing, and also because they know that should they be granted repatriation that they will probably have to swallow any entrepreneurial desires and “put a tie on” in a cubicle nation so they’ll potentially be granted clemency on their carry-over burdens to be able to survive. In other words, they fear having to coalesce back into the status quo of corporate normalcy.

    On the other hand: There are the people who can embrace that fear (or grow to put up with it) and accept that ship sink, they will be penniless out in the cold wilderness alone while they try to put themselves back together (ie: deal with the post traumatic stress) and determine their next strategic move (if they can even recover from the failure and social abandonment – Have the pets.com people done anything since the tech bubble burst a decade ago?). There are the people who manage to find a tribe of (calculated) risk taking failures like themselves in the entrepreneurial subculture of society, and are able to seek solace and support (moral, financial, etc) from that tribe of peers. There are the people who are able to get over that failure, extract the lessons from it, and move on toward the hope of something brighter. Then there are those people, bless their hearts, who, having lost everything (and everyone around them) in their past failure(s), and are burdened with the lingering debt or other troubles from those failures like a foggy stink around them everywhere they go (like Pigpen from Peanuts), are able to apply the sports analogy (see next paragraph) to their lives (personal and professional), and keep stepping up to the plate and swing for the fences each time, against all odds. They simply keep on keeping on (because when you are going thru hell, keep on moving).

    As much as the entrepreneurial community says they embrace failure, when it really comes down to it in practice, it’s often a two faced lie. Socially, we accept it as OK in sports (the median batting average is .260 which means that professional batters fail to hit the ball 74% of the time, and still they get back up there and swing again the next time; and Michael Jordan is another who says that he failed all the time on the court yet kept trying), but outside of the sports arena, failure is frowned upon and markedly discouraged.

    I guess the moral of the story is: 1) [Trust the process, believe in yourself, and] Keep on keeping on; and 2) You need a support group [find your tribe, find people who have been there done that, can comfort you as you traverse the five stages of grief, and can empower you to be ready & willing to answer the door when opportunity eventually knocks again].

    • Pamela says:

      Very interesting perspective Bruce! I agree there can be all kinds of societal judgments about failure, particularly financial failure.

      Since we can never control the perception of anyone outside of ourselves, to me the ONLY important thing is to really evaluate and integrate the lessons personally.

      People will say what they will, but only you can make sense of your life in a way that makes you fulfilled and moving forward.

  25. Pam,
    What a great perspective… I’ve had some successes this year, and some failures – or at least failures to materialize. Thank you for the thoughtful questions you pose – they really go deeper. I will take your questions to heart as I look back at the year and forward into next year. And although it’s been said before, your reminder to “trust the process” resonates.
    With all good wishes for your success in 2011!
    Cheryl

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