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Overcoming Adversity

Here’s a question for you: What are you made of? What are you really made of? When push comes to shove, when the rubber meets the road, when the chips are down, what lies at the very core of your character? You learn what you’re really made of only when things go wrong and you are tumbled, end over end, by some adversity or setback that hits you like a Mack truck coming out of an alley. Since your behaviors on the outside are the real indicators of who you are on the inside, only by observing how you behave when things go wrong can you tell what you really have inside you.

Let’s make one thing clear at the beginning. Life is a continuous succession of both small and large problems. They never end. No sooner do you get control of one situation when you are hit by another. Life is a process of “two steps forward and one step back.” When you become a great success, you simply exchange one type of problem for another. Before, you had small problems with limited consequences; now you have large problems with enormous consequences.

No matter how smart and clever and careful you are, you’ll face challenges, difficulties and sometimes heartbreaking adversities every day, week and month of your life.

And thank heaven for that! You couldn’t possibly have become the person you are today if you had not had to contend with adversity on your way up. Perhaps your chief aim in life is to develop a noble character, to become an excellent human being, to become everything you are capable of becoming. Only by contending with challenges that seem to be beyond your strength to handle at the moment can you grow more surely toward the stars.

The starting point in dealing with any difficulty is simply to relax. Clear your mind. Get yourself into a state where you’re calm and cool and in full control of your emotions and senses. Back off mentally, and become as objective as possible. Step back and look at the problem with a certain amount of detachment, as if it were happening to someone else. When you can analyze your adversities clearly, you sometimes see opportunities to turn them to your best advantage. One of the rules in dealing with adversity in life is that you are only as free as your well-developed alternatives. You are only as free as the options you have. Only when you can switch and do something else can you be flexible in dealing with your current situation. If you have not developed an option or an alternative, you will become anxious and even panicky when you are threatened with a sudden loss or reversal in a particular area of your life.

For example, if you’re in business, look into the future and imagine that your biggest customer could go broke or start buying your product or service from someone else. If that were to happen, what would you do? How would you compensate for the loss of business? What could you do right now to ensure that it doesn’t happen? How could you increase the quantity or the quality of your service or your product in such a way that your major customer would never think of switching? How could you develop additional customers so that you wouldn’t be so dependent upon a single purchaser?

If you are in sales and your goal is to make a certain amount of money so that you can enjoy a certain quality of lifestyle, you have to look down the road in your sales work and ask, “Where will my sales come from? How many prospective customers do I have who can generate the business that I need to make my numbers?” And ask yourself, “What would I do if I lost my best customer? What would I do if I lost my biggest prospect?”

When I was a boy, I read a story that contained one of the most important messages about adversity that I’ve ever learned in my life. As I recall, in this story a young man went up to Alaska and worked with an old Indian trapper, learning how to lay traps, clean pelts, live in the bush and take care of himself in the wilderness. At the end of his apprenticeship, the old Indian gave him some advice. He said, “Remember this. Whatever you do when you travel, always use two logs crossing.” He was referring to the best method for crossing the many small rivers and streams that the young man would come upon between the small town where the Indian lived and the distant wilderness where he would be trapping.

The young man went off on his own and trapped throughout the summer, until he had all the furs that he could possibly carry. When the leaves began to turn, he began his long hike back to the small town where he would trade his furs for enough money to live on for the winter and outfit himself again for the spring. He did everything exactly right, as he had been taught, until he came to the last, fast-running stream remaining between him and civilization. In his eagerness to get back to town, he tried to cross it on a single log that stretched from one bank to the other.

Alas! He lost his footing and fell into the stream. He had to throw off his pack to avoid drowning. He lost everything. His whole year was wiped out. He arrived in town, wet, bedraggled and exhausted. There he met the old Indian, who looked at him, shook his head and said, “You forgot to use two logs crossing.”

The moral of this story is clear. To contend with adversity in your life, you have to develop alternatives. You have to expand your range of choices. You can never afford to put all your hopes in a single person or a single possibility. You, too, must use two logs crossing. As a consequence of disregarding the Indian’s advice, that young man faced some truly dire circumstances. We can avoid tragedy on that scale by following a four-step method for dealing with any adversity. Dale Carnegie wrote about it more than 50 years ago, and it’s still one of the most powerful mental tools that anyone can use when confronted with problems or worries of any kind.

1. Define the problem clearly. What exactly is the problem? What exactly are you worrying about? Write out the definition of your problem. Make sure that it’s a single problem. If it’s more than one problem, write out clear definitions of all the problems that together constitute what you are worrying about right now.

2. Determine the worst possible outcome. Ask, “What’s the worst possible thing that can happen in this situation?” Be frank and honest with yourself. You might lose your money, or your relationship, or your customer, or someone or something else that is really important to you. If everything fell apart, what is the worst thing that could occur?

3. Resolve to accept the worst, should it occur. Having identified the worst possible outcome, you now can go through the mental exercise of accepting that it is going to happen, no matter what you do. The remarkable thing is that as soon as you stop resisting the worst possible outcome, you’ll relax, your mind will clear, and your ability to deal with the situation will improve dramatically.

4. Begin immediately to improve upon the worst, which you have already accepted is going to happen. Throw all of your mental resources into the battle to minimize the problem or resolve the difficulty. Concentrate on the future. Don’t worry about what happened, why it happened and who was responsible. Think only about the question, “What do I do now?” How can you minimize the consequences? What’s the first step you can take? And the second step? And the third step? And so on.

Successful people are not people without problems. They are people who respond quickly and positively to their problems. They think them through in advance; they anticipate them. And when they can’t, they use the four-step method to resolve whatever difficulty they face. They define the problem clearly. They define the worst possible thing that could happen as a result of the problem. They resolve to accept the worst, should it occur. And then they concentrate all of their energies on making sure that the very worst doesn’t happen.

In dealing with adversity effectively, your ability to ask questions is essential. As long as you are asking questions, you are expanding the range of options and possibilities that are open to you. As long as you are asking questions, you are keeping your mind calm and cool and objective. You are not allowing yourself to get caught up emotionally, thereby shutting down large parts of your brain and your creative powers.

Many problems and adversities arise because of misunderstandings and incorrect information. One of the smartest things you’ll ever do in facing any adversity is to ask yourself, “Who else may have had this problem, and what did he do?” Ask around. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re in a bind. If you made a mistake, or dropped the ball and found yourself in a difficult situation, don’t be afraid to go to someone and admit that you need help. You’ll be amazed at the valuable advice that you can get from someone who has already experienced the difficulty that you’re going through.

In dealing with adversity, perhaps the four most important words that you can remember are these: “This, too, shall pass.” Whatever it is, however difficult it may appear, say to yourself, “This, too, shall pass.” Remember, too, that you are never sent a difficulty that is too big for you to handle. Whatever problems or adversities you face, you have within you the resources to deal with them. You have the creative ability to find a solution to your problem. You have within you, right now, everything you need to deal with whatever the world can throw at you.

One of your main jobs in life is to become an expert in dealing with adversity, to triumph over difficulty, to rise above the challenges of day-to-day life. Keep your thoughts on where you’re going, not on where you’ve been. Keep your eyes on your goals, and keep your chin tilted upward toward the sunshine. Resolve in advance that you will meet and overcome every difficulty, and then, no matter what happens, don’t give up until you do.

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