This is how adversity can improve the way you think
It’s hard to make sense of the world right now; we’re in the middle of a pandemic, racial strife and a political divide in America that looks more like Dante’s version of hell every day.
We’re bombarded with social media, camera phones and a 24/7 news cycle. We’ve relied on our “feel good at all cost” philosophy for so long that we no longer even know how to process the negative events that we’ve experiencing in a helpful way.
Current events have left us humbled and uprooted from our routine. Nothing seems certain anymore. As the philosopher Socrates would say, “Well, it’s about time.” Socrates knew a little about adversity, as he lived during the fall of Athens as a world power and the bubonic plague.
Determined to seek out opportunity during troubled times, Socrates talked to the great thinkers of his day and soon discovered they weren’t as smart as they thought they were. Instead, he found people who didn’t know the things they didn’t know. Sounds like most of our modern-day politicians.
Our immediate response to today’s events is something like: “When things return to normal …” The thing is, now is the perfect time to redefine what is normal. Do we really want everything to return to what it was before? Or do we want something better, both for ourselves and our community? Now is the time to imagine a future that is kinder and more supportive of the sick, powerless and disenfranchised.
Today’s “pause” gives us time to think about exactly what we need in life. It’s no wonder that many of history’s greatest thinkers were the product of pandemics, social unrest and economic turmoil. This is how wisdom takes root, when we finally take the time to question assumptions about ourselves and the life we lead.
Adversity improves the way you think because the perspective you gain is an honestly earned wisdom, something produced from deep within your soul. You give yourself permission to explore all the “givens” in your life. You can take a step back to see yourself with more clarity.
This is how adversity can improve the way you think:
1. Find the philosopher within
At some point in life we will need to answer these questions:
- What is true?
- How should I live my life based on what I believe to be true?
If you’re unable to ask or answer these questions, you’ll never be content with your life because you’re a shallow person. You don’t know what you don’t know, which means you’re easy prey for whack-job therapists and expensive “redesign your life” manuals.
Once you begin to question the significance and veracity of what you believe, you begin to understand that much of what you believe about yourself and the world was formed by the people around you -- not you.
In the same way, you must step back and question the values by which you live and make decisions. Chances are good that your values were heavily influenced by your family and community. News flash: Every family has some sort of dysfunction, and every society has its flaws. We improve the way we think when we examine the values and beliefs to which we have clung over the years. We may discover they are no longer helping us and may even hinder our efforts to move forward.
Our current crisis gives us an opportunity to know ourselves and connect with the essence of who we are. Lao Tzu said it well: "Knowing others is knowledge, knowing yourself is wisdom.”
We need mental toughness to help direct our actions so we can live in accordance with what we believe to be true. We need mental strength to define our values and determine whether we’re living our lives based on those values. This is when we create a life with purpose and meaning.
How to make it work for you: Socrates once again pops up. He said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Your relationship with yourself will always be the most relevant in terms of providing a guiding light for your actions and behavior. Like the minimalist Marie Kondo, strip away all that is not essential. Take the time to choose what matters.
2. Look for the opportunity in every crisis
The Chinese characters for crisis and change point are the same. Western popular culture prefers to interpret a change point as :opportunity," but the idea is much the same: Crises are often opportunities because they are the point at which we pivot and change direction.
Our frantic and goal-driven life pushes us to set big hairy audacious goals and work ourselves senseless to make it all happen so we can buy bigger cars, dress in expensive clothes and experience fantastic vacations. Those things are not necessarily bad, but they often came at the expense of something just as important: the desire to nourish and refuel ourselves.
Often the crack in our protected world that’s created by adversity is just what is needed to let the light in. A friend of mine lost her job in finance and hasn’t had luck in finding a new one. When pressed, she admits she finds it hard to focus and blames COVID-19 for her lack of enthusiasm.
As I listened to her, it became obvious that she wasn’t really interested in jumping back into the same old type of job. This was an opportunity to change direction in her career and while it wasn’t fun to be sacked, it created a crack just big enough to let the light in.
How to make it work for you: Steve Jobs was famous for being dismissive of phrases like “It can’t be done.” Create the same mindset and have faith in your ability to make something where nothing existed before. Don’t allow yourself to become depressed or angry. Tears and rants might have worked at home, but you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy; instead, use your circumstances to stoke your energy.
3. Take a lesson from the Stoics
The ancient Greek slave turned teacher Epictetus once said: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about things.”
A good Stoic would anticipate every possible adversity that could befall them. The Stoic philosopher Seneca encouraged the Romans to “rehearse your adversity in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.” Before you dismiss the Stoics as a bunch of masochists, remember that once you’re prepared for what is ahead of you, the better you’re able to overcome the obstacle.
Your list might look a bit different than Seneca’s -- perhaps it’s a job loss, unpaid bills, divorce, or ill health. But the idea is the same: When you prepare for adversity, you diminish its bite when it happens.
As a result, you’ll land on your feet because you’ve already thought about how to respond if something goes wrong. You have contingency plans in place. It’s easier to pivot and move in another direction with fluidity—and with peace of mind because the adversity hasn’t made a mockery of your vision for your future.
How to make it work for you: Start your week by anticipating how obstacles could derail your plan. Prioritize their likelihood. Each day, revisit this list and write a one-sentence foil to the obstacle. By the end of the week, you’ll feel more confident that you can respond with alacrity, no matter what happens.
4. Hunt the good stuff
There’s a reason the 24/7 news cycle is filled with negative stuff: Bad news gets out attention faster than good information. That’s because the small but powerful limbic brain controls of our emotions. This little pea brain gets excited when it thinks it needs to protect us from a saber-toothed tiger. While society has evolved, the limbic brain is still stuck in caveman days and interprets bad news as a potential threat to our safety.
Researchers have discovered that it takes five positive bits of information to overcome the impact of one negative bit. As Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones."
The ratio of 5:1 means we really do have the hunt the good stuff. So, while it’s a good idea to prepare for all that could go south in our plans, we also need to take the time to appreciate the good things in our life.
How to make it work for you:
- Counter each negative thought with five positive ones.
- Savor those positive thoughts, hold them for 20 seconds so they soak into your subconscious.
- Call your negative emotion by name. When you accurately identify and describe your discomfort, you lessen the power of the fear associated with it.
- However, limit the description of your fear to one or two words. Don’t engage in a soliloquy because it will only heighten your response.
- Hang around people who will help you move forward rather than remind you of the past and keep you in a rut.
Are you mentally tough? Here is my free 45-Question Mental Toughness Assessment
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy's new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles" as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths." Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.