Overcoming Adversity

The scene after a good session of "piling on" is a mess of pizza boxes and bad decisions. A gambling spree on an Indian reservation is one scenario you see around here, but there are countless others. Questionable choices are just one Internet connection away.

There’s not a lot more to it; the hard part is seeing it through. I have a few more tactics and refinements to share, and then the book is finished. The rest is in the doing. But I should say a few words about the resistance we are sure to encounter along the way.

This book would work a lot better if we were machines, grinding our way through. But that’s anything but true. There’s nothing harder to face than our own frailty. The disappointments of the “almosts” add up; plan-wrecking hurricanes are everywhere. People are crippled by medical bills, tied to jobs they can’t stand, too far in debt to think straight. Others have been through divorces as expensive as they were difficult. Times like that make you forget about big plans; it’s bitter to lose so much of what you’ve worked for. That’s when we tend to dig a bigger hole, caught in a cycle of debt, over-spending on anything that can make us feel better.

Earlier, I wrote that I respected financial competence because it cannot be achieved without emotional mastery. But luck also plays a role. There’s no guarantee our assets will generate income; there’s no promise that our hard-won career will continue to provide job security. A few months of unemployment can put us back years.

That’s why you choose projects that have a payoff beyond cash. When you run your business the right way, empowering people with skills they never had, you get some of that payoff. When you finish a book like this, you get the thrill of all those laptop nights adding up. When you rehab a house, you pick up some carpentry skills, not to mention the satisfaction of a job well done. The best way to avoid bitterness is to pursue projects with soul. Grabbing some happiness along the way is the best insurance against uncertain outcomes. Having said that, soulful projects must ultimately be marketable enough to support us. That is a worthy challenge.

I wish that this book could reduce the adversity. I’m not sure that’s true. In most cases, chasing a vision brings on more difficulty. There may be something beautiful on the other side, but getting there is no picnic. Our fate is not determined by adversity, but it is defined by how we respond to it. The people I admire most have found ways of minimizing its impact. And there are tactics we can borrow from them.

The first tactic is not to “pile on.” When we take a hit, it’s tempting to wallow, and the good money soon follows the bad. I call this “piling on,” and the scene after a good session of piling on is a mess of pizza boxes and bad decisions. A gambling spree on an Indian reservation is one scenario you see around here, but there are countless others. Questionable choices are just one Internet connection away. The hardest thing is to drink the vinegar of our disappointment and stay the course.

Learning how not to pile on takes skill and resolve. Of course, comfort is not always bad. Scarfing down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a rough day doesn’t do much harm, but the pints tend to add up. Avoiding the “pile on” means reckoning with yourself and developing coping tactics. That process can take years. But it’s important: excelling in one aspect of your life only to piss it out the other is not a good time. Just becoming aware of the dynamic can help. It’s a great day when we endure a brutal setback without taking it out on ourselves. I didn’t do a good job of that the day I had to liquidate my 401k.

The second technique is the famous cliché: “never give up,” though I prefer the boxing analogy, “always pick yourself up off the mat.” The ultimate sports cliché, getting off the mat requires no explanation. But I’d add this caveat: heading into the ring with the same old stance is a good way to get yourself knocked out. Dissect your performance first. Before heading back out, identify the weakness in your approach and adjust.

This is happening to me now. I’m making money and my business is stable, but I’m dejected about the amount of sweat required. I need to develop income streams that require less effort. I might feel foolishly productive, but the joke will be on me next time I look up from my laptop and another decade has gone by. So I must pursue ventures with a better time/money exchange. “Never give up” only works if you are continually adjusting. “Finding your passion,” as some would have us do, is not going to cut it either. Passion with strategy is the key. It’s the integration of theory and practice that allows you to change your circumstances. Take your medicine, acknowledge your skills gaps, and fill them. Then you’ll be on the mat less often.

The “keep on fighting” talk implies that it all comes down to self-reliance. It’s really the opposite: our accomplishments are largely due to the right relationships. This applies well beyond business. Some of us are under the illusion that strength is a matter of resolve and that leaning on others is a sign of weakness. Some of the most tragic figures in my family are the ones who insisted on facing their problems alone. Some suffered from the isolation, others simply crumbled. Learning how to let people carry you is one of the greatest skills you can develop. Adversity humbles us, but it’s our loneliness in the face of those setbacks that is devastating. It seems like people with strong bonds can face anything. The bigger our ambitions are, the more we need people with big hearts to lean on.

The final technique for overcoming adversity: live for more than one thing. It’s great to have professional focus, but the lack of balance undermines us. For many, this means cultivating a spiritual life, an understanding that we need to go within for inspiration instead of deriving our self-worth from the workplace. There’s nothing more tiresome than a co-worker who lives to work, jockeying for position on every project. Having a life beyond work may seem obvious, but the ambitious people I know struggle with this, so it must not so easy. It’s certainly not easy for me.

The idea that we live in a “meritocracy” where success and hard work are always rewarded is ludicrious. Success at the highest level involves luck and market momentum. No one has any business taking credit for all that, though some have the arrogance to do so. The line between “success” and “failure” is thin as a motherfucker, and don’t let the Tony Robbins crowd tell you different. Dreaming it doesn’t necessarily mean you can do it, and no karmic law ensures that good people always get what they deserve. But the best dreams don’t need to come true; their pursuit is its own reward. If that’s not the case, then you’re chasing the wrong dream.

Want to buy Free From Corporate America or see reviews of the final published version from readers like yourself? The printed book is now available on Amazon.com with product reviews.

You can also get a discounted version of the final book in eBook (PDF) format, or you can pick up a copy on the Kindle. The published version of the book is significantly enhanced from the web version available on this site.

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