Virginia Bianco-Mathis
University professor, author

Virginia Bianco-Mathis

Business department chair of management programs at Marymount University and author of two books on executive coaching.


Hit the reset button

Q: It's official: A new study concludes that experiencing a few "adverse life events," such as a natural disaster or losing a job, really does make you stronger in the long run. People who sail through and those who face more frequent adversity usually don't fare as well. The researcher says ''people are more resilient than we think." Are setbacks actually a key to success? Have you ever faced major adversity that you weren't able to overcome?

So far in my life, I have not had a setback I haven't been able to overcome with time and perseverance. Yet I have definitely been thrown off the horse, pushed below the surface, and dunked into the deep end. Thanks to a strong support system and some counseling here and there, I have been able to move on.

I agree that experiencing two to four adverse life events -- and not more than five --builds resilience. Humans are wonderfully adaptable. Once we have experienced a very difficult situation, it becomes a "known" in our life strategy. Even if the experience is bad -- chemotherapy, bad accident, death of a loved one, loss of a job -- our psychological system says, "Oh, yes, we know this. We know what to do." We also have the knowledge that we went through it before and survived. Thus, we are mentally stronger. Those that lack resilience often get lost in the fear of the unknown.

Another important lesson in life is learning to prioritize setbacks. Early in our lives, we may believe that a romantic break-up is a tragedy and loss of a job is catastrophic. We soon learn that such situations are mere blips compared to a heart attack, disability, loss of a child, etc.

I remember being devastated at not getting a particular job. Six months later I was in a position making more money that also provided more time with my family. Keep going and make the most of what it is in front of you and don't keep thinking about "if only."

Also, it is important to realize that setbacks are a part of the fabric of our lives. Those who get the most frustrated are those who expect everything to be organized, controlled, and free of misfortune. These folks tend to be control freaks who have a breakdown whenever things don't go their way.

I remember crying in my car in the driveway when I drove right through the garage door without opening it. Glass from the rear window shattered over my three kids strapped in the back seat. I was under stress, trying to juggle motherhood and a thriving consulting practice. Luckily, no one got hurt.

It was after that incident that I said to myself, "Oh, I get it. About every three months I'm going to have a slight breakdown. I should expect it and plan for it. Then, when it happens, I should realize that it is then time to make changes in my routines in order to accommodate what ever new stresses have emerged. Once I did that, life became more manageable. Unfortunately, no one will drive with me anymore.

And, sometimes the "change" means taking a three-month break and regrouping. It is important to know when to walk way. I had a great mentor once who said to me, "If you are on a business trip and two major things go wrong (lost luggage, eight-hour delays, getting ill), get a ticket and come home before the third bad thing happens."

The Center for Creative Leadership has found that leaders learn the most from their mistakes. Consequently, when experienced in small doses, adversity is to be welcomed as a strong medicine for life-long strength and creative problem-solving.

By Virginia Bianco-Mathis  |  November 15, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and adversity Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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