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?
I believe adversity has been my competitive advantage in life. Yet adversity by itself does not yield strength or success but, instead, often breeds hopelessness, destruction, and despair. I have been fortunate to have the ABCs -- Adversity, Belief, and Courage -- which have helped me to develop a psychological immune system to overcome just about every challenge I've ever faced. And there have been many.
My parents were teenagers when I was born and, like many in their situation, were not equipped to handle the complexities of child rearing. My mother, who at her best self is a loving and sweet-natured woman, suffered emotional and physical abuse even before I was born. She loves me with her whole heart and self, but brought the same adversity she experienced into the ways in which she raised me.
My father, on the other hand, made decisions that led to adversity. The youngest of Japanese and Guyanese parents in post-World War II California, there's no doubt he experienced his share of unearned challenges. Yet my father is a self-proclaimed boundary pusher who often exacerbated already difficult situations by his actions.
Although I spent the early years with my mother and my adolescence with my father, both of my parents instilled in me congruent Beliefs. My mother was taken advantage of by the very people who were placed on earth to nurture and protect her. Yet she has never stopped loving, forgiving, and hoping. At times, this makes her seem naïve, but it wired me to Believe in humanity. I know that the villain is not purely evil, and the hero has her dark side. In the end, we are all one life lesson away from redemption or condemnation. All we can hope for is compassion on the part of those who judge us.
In contrast, my father taught me to Believe in problem-solving. One of his most frustrating obstacles, perhaps even now, is how frequently ideas are wasted. People are so concerned with being wrong that they often refuse to even search for solutions. He never shied away from publicly acknowledging when he was wrong, even to his children. It was a unique brand of humility that emphasized the quest for answers even more than the solution itself. As a result, when faced with problems, I am wired to experiment and test theories since I learn even more from what I disprove.
While humanity and problem-solving are different Belief systems, both are grounded in something bigger than the individual. These values define what is meaningful to me, and thus, put my adversity into context. If my value system was anchored in me as an individual (i.e. my humanity or my ability to problem solve) I would not benefit from an ideal that allows me to both fail and have faith in possibility. Yet Courage can only be expressed as an individual.
I am fortunate that my mentor, Deborah Dean-Nelson, taught me to have the Courage to succeed at an early age. People focus so much on the entrepreneurial courage to fail, but what plagues so many of those who face untenable adversity is the exact opposite.
In my situation, the more successful I became, the less support I had. This was not intentional; my family had more debt than money and could not afford to send me to college. It felt irresponsible to ask them to pay for my education, even though I had good grades. But Deborah pushed me outside my comfort zone to apply for schools based not on what they cost, but on what I could achieve as a result of that education.
While I have been unquestionably blessed, each step on the path of success has exposed me to experiences that many who were closest to me did not understand, at best, and, at worst, resented. If it were not for the Courage Deborah taught me, I would have sought new adversity just to find a place to belong.
Instead, I grounded the Courage she taught in my Beliefs and have found a new support network that includes friends, family, and mentors who do not require adversity for membership.
Counting the number of adverse situations in one's life, whether it's 2 or 200, is beside the point. One bout with adversity can derail someone, while another person can seem impervious to a barrage of life's injustices. Instead, it is the combination of Adversity, Belief in something larger than oneself, and the Courage to put those values into action, that define the outcome. I have benefitted tremendously from these ABCs.
But what I find most encouraging is the fact that I am the rule, and not the exception. Every day I work with young people who have had similar challenges to overcome and find a way to defy odds and statistics. They leverage their adversity into the very fuel that propels them forward to achieve what many thought was not possible. They remind me of my own competitive advantage and ensure that I am eternally grateful for the opportunities I continue to have.