Is adversity our greatest ally?

“I do believe that to reach the highest levels of human flourishing, you need setbacks and traumas. When you look at biographies of great people – the greatest industrialists, the greatest scientists, the greatest leaders – almost all have major setbacks, traumas and crises from which they grew. The nature of human development is that we develop new skills by striving to respond to situations, and if you’ve never been sorely tested or challenged you aren’t going to reach the highest levels of human development.”

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

I’m not a fatalist. Neither do I believe that every adversity carries with it the seed of success. But I do believe that wisdom can’t be taught, and we have to find our own way in the world. If that means falling on our face once in a while then, I’m afraid, it’s a necessary part of our evolution.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see this as inevitable, it’s just that we learn most from our mistakes. Indeed, as a parent, I don’t want my children to endure the hardship that I encountered at their age. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my parents were cruel but there was a sense of “… that will teach him a lesson.” I suspect that their autobiography was hewn in pretty much the same way, which was fashioned from a stark Victorian landscape.) But I know that if I do too much for them that, in the long term, it will affect their inner confidence.

The problem for most people is that they are not willing to expose themself to the risk of failure. If they did exhibit and act out a growth mindset, then there’s unlikely to be the degree of ossification that you see in later life i.e. late 30’s/early 40’s (my generation). Of course, as people move into later life, there is a greater degree of acceptance, and just getting through the day is a triumph.

I don’t say this out of a sense of arrogance or to disprove the notion of a fixed mind-set, but from the earliest days I started in work (I was 13), I’ve always been prepared to give things a go, even if that means I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. My motto: ‘if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing’. I know there have been moments in my life where I haven’t been entirely true to that maxim but it has stood me in good shape for life’s trials and tribulations.

I suppose some would call me selfish. And to an extent they are right.  The thing is we only have one chance in life, and even allowing for all my responsibilities as parent, husband and friend, I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t true to who I am. That was why leaving law was such an easy decision.

In my personal life, it’s been a different story. I’ve put up all sorts of barriers that have stopped me forming long-term friendships. It’s not so much that my mind has been closed in but rather from my earliest days I’ve never needed the support network that is so common with extroverts. I wish it were different. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become much more sociable but I still feel awkward in certain situations.

I accept that this is a difficult area. We might have heroes or villains that we look up to but of course their life situation is not ours. In a nutshell, that’s probably why I remain so sceptical of people who tell me they have cracked the code and try to flog me their success formula.

Decoding our behaviour is fraught with problems. For a start, if we don’t accept that there is something to investigate then we will remain in stasis. Even if we did, how far are we prepared to push it before we give up? If someone said that you can have a better life but first off you have to rescind the current malaise, would you do it? This is no different to asking the perennial question, “if money wasn’t an object what would you do?”

I have often asked myself the question, what is so fearful about fear? I don’t have a ready-made answer. My best effort has been to put myself in the position of worst case scenario and try to feel what that must be like. It sounds easy in practice but it isn’t. How can you possibly know what it must be like to lose everything and have to start over if it’s never happened to you?

However, my point about fear is somewhat of a paradox. Whilst I don’t know absolutely what is fearful about fear, very often it’s the fear of not doing something, even without a clear outcome, that has led me to do something which prima facie might seem extraordinarily stupid. In other words, even for someone who likes to embrace the challenge that change brings, I still need to feel fear to know that I’m at least heading down a path that will in time make or break me or the person behind the decision.

I know that any discussion about adversity is circuitous. No one wants to make wrong decisions, least of all those that expose them to life-altering effects; but if we value our lives beyond simple production, then we deserve to know the outer limits of our capability. We will never get to know what those might be unless we are willing to try new things, start again and reframe our experience.

I suspect any exhortation to fail faster etc. is bound to fall on deaf ears, but I would ask you to take a more reflective look at where you have grown most in your life, and see if that didn’t arise from the greatest adversity. If so, perhaps you should start to listen less to the inner critic and more to your heart – the heaven and hell moments.


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