I’ve already promised that this follow-up post will feature some real-life examples of adversity…of actual people who have leveraged the power of a problem to achieve incredible things. And we’re going to explore 4 of those stories in just a minute.
But first, I want to share a make-up story that you may or may not have heard before—a famous old adage about a guy who gets stuck in a big hole next to a road. Try as he might, he can’t find a way out. So he looks for help.
The first person who walks by throws some money in the hole and travels on. But money doesn’t help. The guy is still very much stuck in the hole.
The next person who walks by offers prayers and travels on. The prayers are welcome, but again, the guy is still stuck in the darn hole.
The third person who walks by might be the answer to those prayers. He looks at the guy long and hard.
“It seems you’re stuck in that hole. Do you need help?” the stranger asks.
“I sure do!”
So the stranger jumps into the hole. Talk about a shocking—even infuriating—move.
“Why on earth did you do that?!” the guy hollers, all his hopes suddenly dashed.
“Because I’ve been in this hole before,” the stranger smiles, “and I know the way out.”
Examples of Adversity: A Help Out of the Hole
When trudging through the weeds of a big problem, it’s often helpful to know that you’re not the first one who’s been there. Yes, it can feel that way at times. But the history of this world is long and deep.
Others have gone before you. And there is a way out. It might not be easy, but it is likely to yield fruit. In fact, I recently outlined the 7 powerful forces that get unleashed in the process of overcoming adversity, so start there if you haven’t already.
And take courage and inspiration from these real-world examples of adversity and the successful people who translated stumbling blocks into launch pads for new opportunities:
Fuel from the Fire
In 1914, when 10 buildings in Thomas Edison’s plant exploded in a chemical-fueled inferno that a family of fire departments could not extinguish, he could have been broken. But even as he stood and watched the flames, Edison did not panic. In fact, he seems to have reveled.
“Go get your mother and all her friends,” he said to his son Charles in a child-like voice. “They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
When Charles objected, his father said something even more amazing:
“It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
Because of the structure of the plant, Edison’s insurance covered only about 1/3 of the damage, so he lost today’s equivalent of about $23 million in the disaster.
But the next morning, as Edison surveyed the ruins, he famously said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”
And he did. With the help of a sizable loan from his friend Henry Ford, Edison got his plant up and running again after only 3 weeks. And his team went on to make almost $10 million in revenue the following year.
This is one of my favorite examples of adversity and what a positive approach to it can produce, because Edison did not just overcome, he truly appreciated what could rightly be called a disaster. It seems that his Creator attribute helped him recognize the benefit of the fire as it quite literally destroyed old habits and paradigms (see points number 4 and 7 here).
It’s also a great reminder of why risk tolerance is one of the most essential things to consider when starting a business.
From Arthritis to Artistic Great
Anna Mary Robertson was a farmer’s wife who helped support the family by doing needlework for local customers. But arthritis closed that door in 1938, when she was 75 years old.
Friends and family reminded her that she ought to retire anyway. But instead, she began expressing her artistic attribute through painting.
When the local drugstore put one of her pieces up, a collector happened by, bought it, and displayed it in New York City. That was the beginning of an incredible new career.
By age 101, Anna Mary Robertson had completed 1600 more works as the renowned American folk artist Grandma Moses.
Clearly, Robertson’s “setback” pushed her to leverage her natural strengths—one of the greatest forces for good that problems can deliver.
A Game of Cat and Mouse
In 1928, a young Walt Disney took the train into Manhattan to negotiate contracts related to his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon. He was so optimistic about the future of this character that he invited his wife along for the time in New York and deemed the trip a 2nd honeymoon.
But instead, he was ambushed with bad news. His producer and distributor had penned a backdoor deal to form a new studio—one that could produce Oswald cartoons without Disney’s involvement. And to add insult to injury, he’d hijacked Disney’s team of animators.
Such was the situation when Walt Disney and his wife boarded the train back to Los Angeles. But he’d sworn to fight this fight, even if it cost him everything.
Somewhere between Chicago and LA, he invented Mickey Mouse.
If you examined Beethoven’s career with no knowledge of his success, you might think he was a composer defined by setback.
First, a smattering of discouraging teachers gave up on him, claiming he “would never do anything in a decent style” and that “as a composer, he [was] hopeless.”
So he gave up on music teachers and sought out patrons until he was able to support himself with his increasingly popular work.
By age 28, he was making a good living, but still, critics viciously attacked his symphonies as “harsh and bizarre,” “an orgy of vulgar noise,” “laborious without effect,” and so on.
He ignored them. And in fact, they were the least of his problems. By this time, Beethoven had begun experiencing hearing problems and periods of deafness, and by age 55, he was completely deaf.
And yet the late period in his career saw him producing his most ambitious pieces—many of which possessed a complexity that could not even be fully appreciated in his own time.
I particularly love to look at Beethoven’s history because it doesn’t just reflect one setback, but repeated challenges. Yet he still achieved, in fact leveraging these overwhelming examples of adversity into unimaginable creation and success.
The 7-Part Power of a Problem
While each of these examples of adversity is amazing and inspiring in its own right, as a whole, they reveal 7 powerful forces that are unleashed in overcoming adversity.
The more we’re tuned into these beneficial outcomes of adversity, the better we’ll be able to surmount the next obstacle that comes our way—and then leap from atop it to the next great thing.