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The Obstacle is the Path: 3 Steps to Changing Your Outlook on Adversity

One of the significant and noteworthy personality traits of happy, successful people is their ability to make the most of what other folks would consider bad situations. And I would say that the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly something that would fit into such a category. I posted this blog on my old website several years ago, but I think now is a good time to pull it up again.

When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me that the way I viewed something impacted my experience of it. In other words, if I thought I was going to have a bad day, I was more likely to have a bad day. If I said something wasn’t possible or I wasn’t good at something, then that would be my reality. Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”

It took me more than half my life (thus lived) to understand what my mom was talking about—and that what Henry Ford said is very true.

Some would argue that thinking a bad situation is better than it is doesn’t actually make it any better—it just means we think it’s better.

I would ask: what’s the difference?

Isn’t everything so much about perception, anyway?

If thinking about something in a different way allows you to have a different experience of it—whether that experience is good or bad—wouldn’t it behoove you to think about things in positive, constructive ways?

How does this work, exactly?

This can be illustrated by looking at trends in the economy and among investors. The typical reaction to a tanking economy is to take less risk, sell quick if you can, play your cards close to your chest, and invest conservatively—if at all. But there are those who see a downsizing, downtrodden economy as an opportunity.

-An opportunity to buy low.

-An opportunity to grab a piece of overlooked but high-quality products and businesses that have the capacity to rebound in a big way.

-An opportunity to jump on bandwagons that everyone else is jumping off of and hold on tight until things turn around.

When approached strategically, a bad economy can be perceived as the best opportunity.

Notice that regardless of which outlook a person (investor) chooses to take, they are both essentially “right.” But which one leads a person to feel happier, hopeful, and more in control of their destiny? Seeing adversity as opportunity, of course. In one scenario, the person is just trying to cut their losses and maintain the status quo; in the other scenario, the person is identifying and acting on a potential advantage. It is the essential difference between operating from a center of fear versus operating from a center of faith and hope, and choosing a positive stance rather than a negative one.

How do you do this?

Like anything you want to do differently or improve upon, you have to train yourself. I have identified 3 steps to help you get started with this process:

1. Conceptualize the advantage of thinking about your life from a different perspective. As Henry David Thoreau said: “Things do not change, we change.” Internalize this idea because it is the basis for being able to control your outlook even when you can’t control your circumstances. Is the loss of your job a death-sentence and a ticket to the poor house? Or is it an opportunity to retrain yourself in something you’d really love to do? Is the presentation you are required to make to your employer’s management team an unwelcome burden that you must somehow struggle through, or is it an opportunity to hone your speaking skills and showcase your knowledge? Choosing a mindset and perspective that will allow you to see your situation in the best light possible will give you the psychological advantage of knowing that the circumstances you didn’t control can have an outcome you do control.

2. Remind yourself that growth and improvement are only possible by stretching your limitations and testing your capacities. The first part of this blog title is an old Zen saying: “The obstacle is the path.” What it seems to suggest is that not only are we not meant to avoid obstacles, but that we must actually seek them out if we are to put ourselves on the right path in life. A young racehorse expands his limits of endurance by being challenged with greater and greater distances. His bones and tendons are strengthened by hills, and sand, and other changes in surface. Without these struggles (presented strategically by his trainer in appropriate stages), his capacity to succeed as a runner is diminished, and his physical integrity is compromised as well. Whatever potential he may possess will not be fully realized. Like a body builder pushing himself to lift weights he can barely endure, so we are strengthened, and toned, and built up by the obstacles we encounter and overcome.

3. Actively look for the advantage in any adversity. Know that the vast majority of people will have a contracting, fear-based response, and that you can leap ahead by having an expanding, faith-based response. Faith in your capacity to learn, to improve, to grow strong, and to seize the opportunities others have become blind to. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you will automatically welcome the presence of struggles, obstacles, and adversity, only that you understand that they can work to your advantage over the long run. What I am suggesting you do is deliberately focus on that aspect—the silver lining, if you will—rather than all the ways you feel, in the short term, that you are cursed by these things.

There is opportunity in adversity. Come to believe this and embrace it, and not only will you be more likely to survive—and even thrive—in difficult circumstances, but you will be on the road to enhancing your positive psychology in ways that can brighten all layers of your existence.

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