What is the value of adversity, in life or in business?


This week I found out that someone I love very deeply has a form of cancer. Many of you will have had a similar experience. Even if not, have you ever had the feeling that life is just wonderful, and just when you are looking forward to an even more fabulous future - wham! Something happens that takes the wind out of your sails or the breath from your body.

What is the value of adversity, in life or in business?

As always, there are three main answers.

One, which may seem frivolous, but is not, is that the alternative to adversity is a life devoid of interest and passion. Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying that “there is no alternative.” But life doesn’t agree with her, and I side with life. Imagine if you lived for ever. How boring! Imagine that life was never a struggle, but everything arrived without any thought or effort. How demeaning, because if you never have to struggle, how can you take pride in anything? Imagine that everything just got better and better. Wouldn’t you just take it for granted, and seek some way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? This, I feel, is what happens increasingly in today’s affluent society. If things are great, we get depressed anyway. Just as a novel where things got continuously better would sell no copies, so we need our crises and our enemies. They help to make us alive.

Second, there is the nobility of suffering. Victor Frankl, living in Nazi concentration camps, insisted that the one freedom that could not be taken away was that of our reaction to adversity. He wrote about the few inmates who came smiling through the camps, giving away their last crusts of bread or cigarettes. He thought with love of his wife, who perished in the camp, and thought of her with such intensity that when he saw a bird hopping around outside his cell, he saw her represented by the bird, and cried with joy. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he imagined himself after the holocaust, giving lectures about the experience and the value it brought. And because he had this apparent delusion, he lived to do precisely that. We humans can do amazing things through sheer willpower. No other animal can do this. It is a form of voodoo. It is ridiculous, but it is real. Our subconscious mind cannot distinguish between dreams and reality, so the former can turn into the latter.

Third, there is anger at suffering. If it affects you personally, you want to remove it. You may dedicate your life to fighting cancer, or intolerance, or man’s inhumanity to man. Without experience and fury, there is no strong will to bend the world to a better path.


And what has this to do with business?

No person becomes great without adversity. Neither does any organization.

No firm can grow for a long time without a reverse. In the reverse, comes knowledge and humility. Many firms go under. But the few that survive are stronger, wiser, and more resilient. It is called market feedback, but it goes deeper than that. Firms are basically collections of skills, and deep skill needs deep adversity.

No firm can attract the best customers and employees without reverses. Without the crisis of 1997, when Apple nearly died, could it have gone on to become the world’s most valuable company? And without the crisis of 2013, could Apple have gone on to even greater things? Will the setback be good or bad in the long term? I would guess it’s going to be good for Apple.

And setbacks breed determination – not to let it happen again, not to become a victim, not to behave arrogantly or carelessly. It has been said that nothing succeeds like success, that nothing fails like success, and that nothing succeeds like failure. Of course, all three statements are true, though in varying percentages. But temporary failure galvanizes the mind and willpower. Nothing could be more precious.

So – cherish adversity. There is no need to seek it out deliberately. It will come anyway. But when it does – do not give up hope, develop your character, and become more useful. Rudyard Kipling, of course, said it all long ago, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat these two imposters just the same ...”

But possibly it is deeper than that. Continual triumph is a disaster, but disaster can lead to continual triumph. At least, enough for the lifetime of one person or business. If they don’t kill you, disasters inoculate you and give you the willpower for lasting achievement.


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