The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, 1818 (public domain - Wikipedia)
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“Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.” — William Shakespeare, 1595
Once you've made it through a tough spot, there's something about adversity that makes you consider your good fortune.
The old maxim "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is trite, but it's generally true. The emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius, upon hearing someone respond with sorrow that something unfortunate happened, framed it thusly:
"No, it’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it."
How freeing it is to be able to look upon the struggles we encounter in our lives as gifts that are given to us — incidents that we can learn from, if we're curious enough to be life-long learners. For what is leadership but a spirit of openness and reflection, and a willingness to always grow and improve.
“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1911
The lessons are only there for those who choose to see them. They're not always positive lesson, either. But they require a commitment to reflection and self-awareness. The true benefit of adversity—its "sweet milk," as Shakespeare called it in Romeo and Juliet—is philosophy.
Now, this doesn't mean you need to become a Stoic or read Kierkegaard after you lose a job or experience a loss. But if you're committed to improving your trajectory, it does require an awareness of your surroundings, yourself, and other influences.
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” — William Shakespeare, 1599
Wherever we look, we can find things that inspire us, inform us, and educate us. Forget the self-pity. Resilience means you still push ahead despite your setbacks. But you do it with a sense of progress, not out of drudgery.
When Hercules had the Twelve Labors to accomplish (tough things are called "Herculean efforts" for a reason), he didn't stop to bemoan his circumstances. He set out to get the jobs done. He used his brains and his physical stature to clean the Augean stables, kill the Stymphalian birds, capture the Cretan Bull, and more over the course of twelve years.
Why did he do that? Why didn't he just give up?
Hercules, driven to a fit of madness by Hera (those Greek gods were royal pain, weren't they?), he killed his two sons. When he came to his senses, he regretted it and sought forgiveness. King Eurystheus gave him a set of labors to atone for his sins.
So for Hercules, his adversities were framed as a series of physical and mental challenges over the course of more than a decade. He needed to power through his difficulties to emerge as a purified man. It was essential for his journey to enlightenment.
In his Discourses, Epictetus asked:
“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar — and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules. And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?”
Here's a bit of etymology that helps us put this notion of resilience in context.
You've probably heard of the phrase "the patience of Job." Job is a figure of the Old Testament of the Bible who was prosperous, but was made to suffer indignities, misfortunes, and major setbacks. He bitterly questioned why and constantly sought an audience with God, but nevertheless, he persisted. In the King James version of the New Testament, we see a reference to him, with that familiar phrase: "Ye have heard of the patience of Job" (James 5:11).
But the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible translates it as "You have heard of the endurance of Job." Suddenly, Job has gone from being a man blessed with patience to a man of remarkable endurance and resilience. A man with purpose behind his exertions.
In the face of horrific loss and profound suffering, Job eventually emerges from this despair into a new life that he builds around his children and grandchildren. His purpose.
Ask yourself about the challenges you or your team are dealing with right now. Are they for a higher purpose? Is there a greater lesson for you once you've traversed these waters?
If you're just battling endless onslaughts without any appreciable improvements, either to yourself or your situation, it's a waste of time.
Adversity without edification is just failure.
Next week, we'll be discussing the impact of those around us — adversaries or advisors — and how they make us better leaders. I hope you'll encourage others to subscribe so they can share this journey with you.
Timely: Present Tense
“To live—do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble!” — Nikos Kazantzakis, 1946
How do you know if you're resilient? Here are eight key elements of resilience against which to check yourself. (Psychology Today)
Self-sufficiency is a prized trait among executives, especially during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has drawbacks, too. The Downside of Resilient Leadership. (strategy+business)
It's okay if you're not resilient — some might even call resilience overrated — there are other skills that are called for each day. (The New York Times)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1899
Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish seafarer who was abandoned on an archipelago off the coast of Chile in the early 18th century. For four years he managed to survive on his own. His story may sound familiar to you; he was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. (Lapham's Quarterly)
It's difficult to make a go of it alone. Friendships are some of the most powerful relationships we have to help us through life, yet it can be hard to find new friends later in life. How to make friends as an adult. (Psyche)
A powerful mantra for any leader is to admit you don't know the things you don't know. But when we're successful, it's easy to think we know everything. Adversity has a funny way of improving the way you think. (SmartBrief)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man's, I mean.” — Mark Twain, 1897
🎧 Resilient is an award-winning podcast series that features authentic, engaging, and thought-provoking conversations with leaders. Hear interviews and personal stories about how CEOs, senior executives, government officials, board members, and people outside of the business world embrace complexity to lead, navigate, and disrupt to accelerate performance. And discover what they learned about resilience amid risk, crisis, and disruption.
📖 The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday is based on Stoic philosophy. Stoics focus on the things they can control, let go of everything else, and turn every new obstacle into an opportunity to get better, stronger, tougher. As Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2000 years ago: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
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