Posts Tagged handling adversity
When my wife and I went to visit our son in Wyoming last year, he was anxious to show us the beauty of the mountains that are a short drive from the University of Wyoming campus. Up there, at about 10,000 feet, are his favorite fishing lake and places that he likes to hike. We had seen pictures, but were excited to witness the beauty he had told us about.
In October in Laramie, anything you want to do outdoors is at the mercy of the weather. When we left town, it was bright and sunny. By the time we reached the mountains, it was snowing and blowing, and the mountains were obscured by clouds and a heavy layer of fog. On top of that, the roads turned treacherous about half-way up the mountain. Since we couldn’t move the clouds or clear the roads, we turned around and headed back, never being able to see the great vistas we hoped to see.
Though the excursion didn’t yield the results we wanted, we didn’t let that damper the enjoyment of being together as a family. We chose to make the most of our circumstances, rather than let something as uncontrollable as Mother Nature get us down.
Mother Nature can be a formidable foe, but sometimes, we can move clouds, and inexplicably, we don’t.
That happened recently in our house on the morning of my daughter’s first day of her senior year of high school. My wife had an elaborate breakfast planned for my daughter and two of her classmates who had spent the night, so she woke up early to prepare, only to discover that our refrigerator had abruptly quit without the courtesy of a two-week notice. That event cast a negative cloud that hung over our home throughout breakfast and well after Kelly and her friends left for school, and though we could have moved it, we let it obscure the beauty of what should have been a cherished memory.
It’s easy to do that – too easy to do that. We drive to work on a beautiful day, and instead of noticing and appreciating that beauty, we stew about the guy who cut us off in traffic. We gather to celebrate a birthday, but we don’t enjoy it as much as we should because a guest didn’t show or we didn’t have enough cake. We let our frustration over a long wait at a restaurant dominate a night that we’ll never again have.
Why do we do these things? Are we determined to sabotage our own happiness? Can we not separate the wheat from the chaff in our minds? When I let negativity crowd out beauty, it’s because I lost control of my thoughts.
Controlling your thoughts sounds simple, and it typically is in calm, pleasant times, but when outside factors, like a fridge full of slowly rotting food emerge, it’s not so simple. Obviously, we couldn’t completely ignore the quandary that the fridge forced upon us, but we didn’t need to let it overtake what should have been a morning more memorable for its significance in our family life.
Instead of pushing back on negative emotions like anxiety, anger and frustration, we ceded our morning to them, and in doing so, tarnished a memory. It’s all too easy to let this happen, and even to be unaware that it’s happening.
When challenging circumstances like this evoke negative emotions, we must remind ourselves that we have options in dealing with them. Unlike the weather, our emotions are under our control, and we should use them to move clouds when we can.
Tunnel vision is both extremely powerful and potentially debilitating. When we need extreme focus, tunnel vision blocks out distractions, making us more effective. More often, though, we need to see the bigger picture in order to be most effective, and tunnel vision can get in our way. That was my gym lesson for the week.
Readers of this blog and people who know me know that my body is an enigma of peculiar strengths and weaknesses. This creates unique challenges when I attempt simple tasks, like loading weights on some of the machines at the gym. To load one machine, I must move weight from knee level to head level. To do this, I grab the weight with my abnormally strong left arm which has no problem moving it to shoulder height, where an almost completely unusable left shoulder should take over. Since it can’t, my weak right hand must catch the weight and move it the final few inches to its target on the machine. If I time everything right and am feeling good, this isn’t a problem. If something is off, the weight comes back down, straining my back. Picture a track athlete trying to set a personal best on the pole vault.
Smaller weights are not a problem, but the biggest plates – those that I want on the machine – are. It’s a good day when the machine is already loaded or I can find a friend to help me load it. That wasn’t the case last week. I thought about trying to hoist the weights myself, but I have been recovering from a knee injury and didn’t want to make things worse. I was about to skip the lift when I realized that I can load the same weight as the large plates by simply using more of the smaller ones. Graduate school finally paid off!
Obviously, it wasn’t the math that created this “aha!” moment – fourth-graders could have figured out the numbers – it was looking past my tunnel vision. My mind saw only one way of performing that lift; I needed the big plates up there. If they weren’t up there, my mind erased all other possibilities. I was about to walk away when my vision suddenly widened.
Think about how that happens in other areas of life. Imagine a big project, like changing the landscape in your backyard. Maybe you have attempted something similar and achieved less-than-desirable results. That earlier failure might make you hesitant to even start the project, but is there another way to do it? Not even attempting the project is already a failure.
The challenge often isn’t dreaming up a new solution. Many times, like my example at the gym, the solution isn’t even that complicated. The challenge is recognizing that alternative solutions even exist.
Swedish furniture maker IKEA is an extremely popular company worth billions of dollars. IKEA’s packed, ready-to-assemble furniture is not only easier to transport than traditional furniture, but it is also less expensive. IKEA became a pioneer in this regard in 1955, and remains a recognized brand for it 70 years later.
The idea that made the company famous and prosperous came when one of the company’s employees was having a difficult time loading a table into a car. (Good thing the customer didn’t have a pick-up truck.) To solve this problem, the employee removed the table’s legs and stored them underneath in what would become known as a flatpack, which is what you would buy in one of their stores today.
Again, the solution was simple, and it was born in response to a problem.
The next time you encounter a problem, before walking away in defeat, consider: is there another way to do it? You might surprise yourself with what you can do.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”
She looked at my wife, then at me and then at the wall before saying, “I don’t envy you.” We were in an elevator at Bellagio in Las Vegas, headed back to our room after an afternoon spent exploring The Strip. I was in my wheelchair, and Lynda was behind me. It was evident that it was Lynda who she didn’t envy.
Lynda did leave the door open for that comment when she said something to the effect of, “That’s a workout!” in regard to pushing the wheelchair. Still, the stranger’s comment was stunning, so much so that neither of us could manage a response. To her credit, the stranger probably wasn’t trying to insult us – she just let a thought escape her lips.
No man wants to be the source of pity for his wife, but I could understand the reason behind the insensitive comment. Pushing a wheelchair is a lot of work, and I would have much rather been walking side-by-side with my wife, but that wasn’t an option. Ironically, the wheelchair was Lynda’s idea, and the genesis for that idea came in Las Vegas. On our first trip to Las Vegas and for most of the second, Lynda mostly explored the city on her own, as the walking that it required was just too much for my legs. It didn’t bother me all that much to wait in the room while Lynda was out. As my friends and family know, I never want to get in the way.
On that second trip to Las Vegas, Lynda checked with the hotel concierge and discovered that they had a wheelchair for people like me to use. Even when she brought the chair up to the room, I resisted. I had never been in a wheelchair in public, and wasn’t eager to start. My wife is persistent though, and I’m glad that she is. Using a wheelchair allowed me to see Las Vegas in ways that never would have been possible otherwise. We were returning from just such an adventure when we encountered the stranger on the elevator.
I’m not a stranger to pity, and it really doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that genuine pity comes out of concern. People don’t want to see me struggle, and they feel sorry for me that I have to struggle. Plus, they don’t want the struggle for themselves, and are secretly afraid that they couldn’t handle it. I’m certain that the stranger in the elevator felt that way for Lynda and probably for me too. She just said what a lot of other people were thinking.
She had no idea that Lynda insisted on buying me a wheelchair and using it even when I don’t want to. Several times on that trip, I told Lynda that she could leave me in the room, but she always refused. (It’s hard to be stubborn around my wife.) She makes sacrifices like that all of the time, and I appreciate her immensely for it.
The stranger also didn’t know that my hands were blistered and bleeding from propelling the chair myself. There is a reason that experienced wheelchair users wear gloves.
Most of all, the stranger didn’t realize that people with ample experience facing adversity don’t pity themselves and certainly don’t want pity from others. In fact, we’re often happier than people without adversity, because we appreciate small things that a lot of other people take for granted. Pity doesn’t usually cross our minds, unless someone else brings it up, like what happened on that elevator.
Coincidentally, I read the book Tough as They Come by Travis Mills during that trip. SSG Mills is a quadruple amputee due to injuries he suffered while defending our country in Afghanistan. Like me, he has an incredible wife who adapted to a marriage that requires more from her than lesser women could handle. Initially, when facing his new reality and its limitations, SSG Mills thought of his wife Kelsey and what his injuries would mean to her. I’m sure that the stranger on the elevator wouldn’t envy her either, because that was SSG Mills’ initial feeling too. However, once he crushed self-pity, he found a new purpose that he could share with his wife, the Travis Mills Foundation.
I write all of this not to make you feel guilty for pitying other people, but to ask you to use pity as a prompt for kindness. When you feel the very natural feeling of pity, say or do something nice. You might surprised by the beauty you find in adversity, just like we are.
Next Month: It’s not all bad! Far from it! Hear about the good things in people I get to see from my wheelchair.
I’m cheap, and adversity doesn’t scare me. This means that I often choose dollars over comfort and convenience – a tendency that drives my wife nuts in a number of areas, like kitchen appliances. My coffee maker has been threatening to quit for nearly a year now, but I refuse to buy another one until this one has sputtered its last drop, and I still miss the dishwasher my wife replaced last year after she made an impassioned plea that included images of flooded floors.
Sometimes though, I accept imperfections that affect the quality of my life, when I don’t need to. This tendency is likely the result of dealing with less-than-ideal physical circumstances for a very long time. Living with a disability has conditioned me to focus on things within my control and to shrug off things that aren’t. Occasionally, I underestimate the control I have over the things I shrug off.
I recently saw a glaring example of this. For years, while the rest of my body was a deductible waiting to happen, I had tremendously healthy eyes and teeth. It has been a very long time since I’ve had anything other than a check-up at the dentist, and until just recently, my visits to the optometrist always culminated in reassurances that everything was working correctly.
I knew that I wasn’t seeing as clearly as I should, but I’m in my mid-40s, and those older than me consistently tell me that weaker vision is part of the aging process, so I shrugged off my failing vision as just another inconvenience to which I would need to adapt. As my eyes worsened, my glasses got in the way at least much as they helped. At first, I couldn’t read the newspaper while wearing glasses. Then, I couldn’t read the television screen or scoreboards at sporting events. My glasses rode on the top of my head as much as they did the bridge of my nose. I figured that was my future, but my wife pressed the issue, as she usually does, and convinced me to see the optometrist.
My last eyeglass prescription was just two and a half years ago, and before that, I was able to go nearly ten years without changing the prescription. It just didn’t feel right, but I also knew that my vision was becoming an increasing inconvenience, so I relented and agreed to the appointment. A week or so later, when I looked through the new lenses for the first time, it was like someone shined a bright spotlight on everything I had been missing. I went hunting a few days later, and saw turkeys that others could only see through binoculars. I realized, in dramatic fashion, that I had been needlessly denying myself a better, crisper view of the world.
How often do we do the same thing with other facets of our lives? Do we accept and excuse negative attitudes from ourselves and those around us, when we could be trying to spread optimism? Do we let coworkers, managers, friends, family or spouses treat us in disrespectful or demeaning ways? Do we accept less from ourselves than we should? Do we miss the chance to say: I should be doing better, and I deserve better?
It cost me less than $200 and a lunch hour to start seeing the world and all of its bright, vibrant potential, the way God intended. What would it cost you to improve your view?
Former Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini was recently caught on tape sharing his frustration with the circumstances and people involved in his recent firing. His audience was a group of college students who also play football for their university. Though a select few, probably fewer than 10%, will earn money in the NFL, most will become professionals who could have learned something from the experience, if Pelini had handled it differently.
In fact, there were probably future CEOs and perhaps even a few future head football coaches in attendance that night. At the very least, there were many future fathers – a position where leadership is all too often undervalued – in the audience. Imagine if Pelini had treated the forum as a teaching moment to prepare these young men for their future roles, rather than a Festivus-like airing of grievances.
Imagine if he had shared lessons like this:
Some positions just aren’t good fits. For the past few years, it’s been evident to nearly everyone paying attention and being honest that Pelini wasn’t a good fit for the head coaching role at the University of Nebraska. He knew it too. In fact, at times, he seemed to beg the administration to decide whether or not they wanted him. If you have to do that, it’s not a good fit.
In my role as the owner of a recruiting company, I routinely encounter good people who are bad fits for good companies, and vice-versa. That doesn’t necessarily make either side bad, but to prolong the relationship is to increase the bitterness and stifle progress on both sides. These young football players might find themselves in ill-fitting jobs or relationships, and they need to know how to recognize and correct the situation.
Sometimes you and your boss will disagree, and that’s OK. Pelini’s boss was Shawn Eichorst, the athletic director Nebraska hired during Pelini’s tenure. Pelini directed most of his vitriol at Eichorst, calling him many vulgar names and saying that he had no integrity. Not only were the vulgar names Pelini used inappropriate, especially for a leader of young men, they were part of an immature response to a very normal adult situation.
The young men in his audience need to learn how to cope with the conflict they might have with their superiors. In very short order, they are going to trade the fleeting glory of playing a high-profile sport for a high-profile team for the reality of working a low-profile entry-level job. Not all of their bosses will be exemplars of leadership. They will need to learn to control their emotions and be professional when they disagree with their bosses. Without that skill, most careers will stagnate.
At some point, you might get a new boss, and that could be good. Pelini was seemingly comfortable with Eichorst’s predecessor, Tom Osborne. For whatever reason, Eichorst and Pelini were not a good match, but that doesn’t mean that all management and leadership change is bad.
The football team will see almost an entirely new coaching staff next year. Just like Pelini when he knew Osborne was retiring, they likely have some trepidation about how things will be handled by the new staff, and there is little doubt that they might not like some of the changes coming their way. They should have been encouraged to be open-minded and give the new staff a chance, just as they might need to do at some point in their post-football careers when a new boss is hired.
Sometimes you will feel life is unfair, but how you react makes a difference. Pelini’s words leave little doubt that he feels like he was treated unfairly. That’s understandable, but lashing out at others is not a productive way of addressing perceived unfairness. It promotes a victim mentality. Instead of acting the victim, Pelini could have encouraged his players to face adversity like grown men.
Some of those guys will get fired at some point in their careers. They need to learn how to take inventory of the situation and how to dust themselves off and keep going. Just because life gave you a sucker punch doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to change your plight.
Taking the high road makes life less stressful. A true measure of a man is not how he handles himself in times of tremendous success, it’s how he handles himself in times of deep loss. The people who are most respected are not those who yell and scream at injustice, but rather those who quietly persevere and reapproach their challenges in a dignified way. This promotes a sense of calmness and peace in which some challenges simply seem to fade away.
The future fathers in that room will have children who will look to them for guidance during times of great stress. If they can keep themselves from bitterness and vindictiveness during these times, their children will likely model that behavior in their adulthood. Everyone wants to see that in their children.
College is more than classroom learning, and those blessed enough with the talent, work ethic and physicality to be athletes have the experience enriched with athletic participation. Let’s hope that most college coaches correctly use their positions to teach their players lessons that help them succeed in their careers and personal lives. It should be better than this.