Experience is not what happens to you; 
experience is what you do with what happens to you.

—Aldous Huxley

When adversity strikes, before you feel or act on it, you interpret it. You try to explain it: Why did this happen? Where did it come from? Who’s responsible? 

But Paul Stoltz, author of The Adversity Quotient, says the origin of the adversity is not as important as taking ownership for the results you want—independent of who or what caused the adversity.

In the face of difficult challenges and/or circumstances, it makes a great difference whether you tell yourself a victim story. Or a creator’s story.

Victim? Or Creator?

Victim 

When adversity strikes, the knee-jerk reaction for many is a “poor me” story—Something bad happened. There’s nothing I can do. Why me?—a victim story.

Such stories increase pain and suffering. You suffer more from an ankle you break when a cocky skateboarder knocks you off the sidewalk than you do from one you break sliding into home plate to score the winning run for your slo-pitch team.  

The difference is in the story you tell yourself. 

Victim stories lead to pessimism, negativity, helplessness. and even hopelessness. At worst, they lead to desperation, despair and self-harm.

You are not likely to take action to improve the situation, move away from it, or create a different situation for yourself. 

Creator

On the other hand, what you tell yourself about adversity can generate realistic optimism. I’m not talking about old-fashioned positive thinking. Everything will be fine. It’ll all work out. Or other magical incantations not grounded in reality.

Realist optimism is vision driven and reality rooted. It leads to increased focus, energy, and action that supports desired results.

Say, for example something bad happens, such as Covid and quarantine. Instead of moaning, “Poor me!” you do best to accept the reality of what happened. 

Then, envision the results you want to create, and take steps to create those results—independent of the adversity. The realism in realistic optimism comes from accepting reality-as-it is. The optimism comes from embracing a vision of what matters, and taking action, step-by-step to bring that vision into reality

Realistic optimists own their results, and do whatever they can do to bring them into being—independent of the unpleasant or debilitating adversity.

Close up of a bald eagle soaring in a cloudless blue sky. Thriving!

“If you are distressed by anything  external, the pain is not due to the thing itself,  but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 

—Marcus Aurelius 

How Owning My Results Helped Me Rise Above Adversity 

Growing up with a pessimistic way of explaining the world, I tended to see the worst in things, others and myself. Such judgments made it difficult to create results, especially when facing adversity. Creating a result felt like climbing a mountain, shouldering a 90-pound pack of rocks. Moreover, when something did not go as I thought it should go, I often got frustrated, angry, and quit. 

Over the years, help from mentors, plus extensive self-study enabled me to embrace adversity, own my results, and take action on what I could control. When I did, I created better results, easier, and more effectively. 

Once, ironically, I was about to give a 90-minute keynote presentation titled, “Embrace Adversity: Create Resilience and Results,” to 1000 people at a prestigious education conference. But three gnarly difficulties threatened to derail me and my presentation. 

First, I was scheduled to deliver the keynote from 10:30 to 12. Hard stop. The kitchen served lunch at 12 noon, and locked the doors at 12:15. Two shorter presentations were to proceed me. But, on the morning of my talk, the agenda drifted off schedule.

The program started late. Other presenters used more than their allotted time. A 10 minute break expanded to 20 minutes. As the noon deadline loomed, the organizers came into the Green Room three times, asking me to shorten my presentation: first to 75 minutes, then to 60, and finally to 35. I agreed, but with each change, I grew more edgy.

Then, when I walked out on to the huge stage, I discovered that my podium was bolted to the floor, stage right, while my overhead projector was centre stage, 10 metres away. The mic cord was gaffer-taped to the podium and the floor. 

To be able to talk and show graphics, I had to unfasten the mic (and cord) from the podium, hold it in one hand, and my notes in the other. Then change slides with my other hand. (That’s how it felt!) Not only did the situation frustrate me, it cut another five minutes off my talk. 

Finally, when I started to speak, the sound system didn’t work. I looked up at the sound booth, and raised my arms in a “WTH?” gesture. But the techs told me I was “live.” Still, each time I spoke, the audience shook their heads. No sound. And each time that I looked up at the booth for help, the techs gave me a frustrated thumbs-up sign. 

I was confused, and more than irritated. My 90-minute session had shrunk to less than 25 minutes. A big part of me wanted to blame the organizers and other presenters. I came close to thinking “What’s the point?” then stomping off the stage in anger and frustration. I was terrified that the whole audience would get up and leave.

Empty auditorium symbolizing every speaker's nightmare. Empty wooden chairs facing as stage wot a wooden podium
Every Speaker’s Nightmare

Instead of stomping off, I focused on the results I wanted: a professional persona, a strong talk, an impressed audience, happy organizers, a reputation for being resilient, and my $1500 fee.

I sucked it up and shouted a summary version of my talk. When the organizers cut in and announced lunch, I offered to stay and take questions. About 100 people crowded the front rows, aisles, and the space in front of the stage. We had a spirited, productive 45-minute Q & A session.

In the end, the people who stayed went away happy. The organizers congratulated me on “making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” And handed me my cheque. The techs apologized because they hadn’t realized a TV crew had unplugged the sound feed to the auditorium.

To be creative you have to be ruthlessly courageous. To bring something inexistent into being, to jump out of the box, to stray from the status quo, to take the lonely path, to blaze trails, to leave the crowd, to dare losing sight of the shore and cross the sea. It takes courage to create your life and own it. Creativity is another name for courage.

—Felix Kalu

Owning Your Results

Instead of wasting time and energy worrying about what happened, why, and who was responsible, I owned my results. I took control of what I could. I adopted a realistically optimistic stance—and did my job in spite of multiple adversities.

Over the next few days, I got a myriad of compliments on how well I’d handled a difficult situation—and practiced what I preached. I also got dozens of requests for coaching help, and two new speaking gigs!

So, when adversity strikes, don’t focus primarily on it or why it happened. Don’t tell yourself a victim story. Instead, acknowledge and accept the adversity, and focus on the results you want to create. Tell yourself a creator’s story. Own your results‚ in spite of the difficulties. And do your best, with what you have to bring into being the results you want to create.

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