Befriending Adversity

The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man without trials ~ Confucius

The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man without trials ~ Confucius

Over the last 30 years, l have lived on two continents, gathered global experiences in over 40 countries, studied and worked in large multinationals, started two small companies and traveled. When asked by a friend to sum up my life in six words, “School of hard knocks, double degree!” sprung to mind.

Avoiding adversity is taking away one of the opportunities to experience your own greatness.

Despite my charmed life, inevitably I also have had to endure adversity and suffering. Some are minor daily inconveniences which can be met with sighs and smiles. Some others are quite significant, heart-breaking, excruciatingly painful, life-changing experiences caused by combinations of elements within and beyond my control.

My non-exhaustive list of personal adversities includes the divorce of my parents when I was merely 5 years old, moving away from my home country alone in my teenage years, the failure of my previous marriage and my little daughter’s rare genetic condition.

Professionally, I have had an exhilarating journey which had taken me to different parts of the world. However, a few years ago I also had to stop one of the companies I started due to the breakdown of the core team. A disappointing end after a great start in which I put my own financial investment and the great traction we’ve gained in the market.

Right now, at a larger human level, we are sharing this troubling time, facing COVID-19 pandemic. This unexpected global challenge has affected us all regardless of our gender, nationality, race, academic or economic status. Adversity doesn’t discriminate.

I share my personal belief, “Resilient people are made, not born!” All of these challenging moments in my life contribute to my resilient character. It has shaped me into who I am and will continue to shape who I will become. These experiences provide me with the stamina and learning mechanism to deal with things which don’t always go my way. I am more relaxed about navigating future obstacles as I possess more confidence in my ability to conquer the unknown future.

Are you one to view setbacks as gifts and growth accelerators? Do you have enough self-belief and strength to make the sacrifices to turn things around? What makes some capable of creating a pathway through roadblocks and turn those into springboards?

Here are my personal ways of befriending adversities under any condition of uncertainty:

Be a student again

When challenged by adversity, stay humble.  Accept that adversities are written in your book of life. Perceive every challenge as a teacher from whom you can learn.  Often, I allow myself to get curious about every trait of my new teacher.

In my business life, adversity has encouraged me to learn from my customers, suppliers, players in other industries and even competitors in my own field. Regardless of how sharp, clever or talented I am, I can always learn new skills. Every adversity offers the opportunity to resynthesize the world through multiple lenses. Those who make it through difficulties are not always the smartest and the strongest but those who are willing to learn and adapt.

Be a do-er!

In nature, plants and animals, are extremely resilient. Humans can be too. However, unlike plants and animals we tend to ruminate and dwell on the difficulties. We have a hard time shutting down our stress responses after a threatening experience and keep on extending the scenarios to anticipate similar or worse danger to avoid more adversities. These tendencies tend to feed the suffering and cause more paralyzing anxiety. Dwelling on the adversity make us slower in our responses or worse, holds back our own potential to be more resilient.

Behavioral scientists have been studying human capacity for resilience, for years. Although personality, genetic and hormonal differences have been found to determine vulnerability to depression and anxiety, resilience is not just a result of biological predisposition. Cognitive behavioral researches have proven that mental outlook and the choices we make in overcoming trauma are key factors in resilience. The ability of the frontal part of the brain to disengage from the emotional responses will allow the individual to move pass the stress responses and get into an “action mode” for recovery.

In adversity, I make the behavioral shift and refocus my mind on what I can still do. Then I act. One of the attributes of resilient people is the ability to make new meanings out of seemingly pointless suffering. My personal icon, Frida Kahlo, the artist, possessed this quality when she started painting!

When I face adversity, it is very easy to put additional pressure on myself with the expectation of moving on with the effort to find the best possible solution, as quickly as possible. In such moments, I pause and be gentle on me. I’d do my best to treat myself as my own best friend. Just when I am kind to a friend who is struggling with life challenges, I shall also be multiple times more patient with myself. After all, self-love is stronger than any adversity.

Refrain from building the mental dwelling in the heart of adversity. Every action counts, no matter how small it is. A positive mindset depends on action for the transformation into resilience. Start doing!

Be creative

With hindsight, I have found, adversity brings to the fore, my true strengths. It draws out the quality which would have laid dormant within me had I not have been faced with the challenge. I have experienced this in both, in my business and personal life. When things get really tough, I have been forced to look intensely at my resources. What do you still have? What do can I still do? What are my strengths? What am I fueled by? Then, I choose my strength as my new trajectory point to pivot, for my new direction.

Nokia, the pioneer of mobile phone started as a Finnish paper mill in 1865 on the Nokianvirta river. From paper products, Nokia went into the electricity business after the second world war followed by mergers with three other companies which created various products including rubber goods, electronics and telecommunications devices. By 1970s Nokia became a network powerhouse. It launched the first ever mobile phone in 1992 which changed the global mobile phone landscape forever.

Having lived in many different countries have thought me to develop broader perspectives on strength and resilience. Sometimes taking a step back is the way forward. Hurdles have many times metamorphosized into opportunities to redefine my own definition of success. Similarly, in the business world, many successful businesses such as Starbucks, Twitter, Paypal and Instagram started off as different businesses which never gained full traction. They simplified their businesses and pivoted on their strengths. These new focuses have led them to their success today.

When I feel stuck, I return to my essence to learn. What new ideas, product or service can I invent to serve the current need in the business? Adversity provides the opportunity to adapt and reinvent yourself. Bounce back, get creative!

Build a bigger tribe

Social support is believed to be one of the most important factors in enhancing resilience. In adversity, it is easy to run away and hide in the cave. Resist that primitive impulse and expand your tribe. If what you are experiencing is unique, this period will allow you the chance to have access to new group of people connected to that area of adversity, with whom you have never had any contact before. You will be surprised how often someone else will have had a similar experience and can help you feel less lonely through a difficult time.

It is OK to draw on diverse experiences and expertise other than your own. Try crowdsourced inspirations for problem solving! You would be surprised how many of your own family members, friends and business colleagues would finally open up, to share similar experiences of their own struggles. These stories will serve as bridges for new human connections. Tapping into the collective intelligence is a good mindset to have in adversity as you start to welcome new people into your space. Better and more creative solutions come from the broader range of people with varied experiences of the same challenge.

The presence of a support circle during stressful experiences reduces heart rate and blood pressure increases, boosting levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is known to reduce activation of the amygdala, the centre for response to fear.

When my daughter was diagnosed with her rare genetic condition, we were introduced to so many different segments of the society to which we had almost no previous contact with. The number of social workers, therapists as well as special education professionals have provided us not only with the professional assistance we need but also inspirational display of the collective strength of humanity. With a broader circle, my own journey and solutions became more creative.

Interviews with Holocaust survivors revealed that those who developed a sense of purpose and a “survivor mission” often fared better.

Over time, I also have made many new connections in online communities where I have shared my own stories of adversity. Instead of hiding my fears, failures and vulnerabilities from others, sharing my stories has help me in my own struggle for meaning. Now, I have lessened my fear of judgement and demolished the shame in adversity. Today, overcoming my adversity is one of the most profound ways I can contribute to the society and make more meaningful stories in my own book of life.

Be your own best friend

There is a Dutch proverb which says, “In prosperity caution, in adversity patient.”

There are suggestions that human race in general is “naturally” resilient and often, we tend to underestimate our own ability to overcome adversity.

In my role as a business mentor, I see a spectrum of abilities in my clients in how each of them would respond to the stresses of building new businesses. The process of building resilience is going to depend on the nature of the adversity and the resources (skillset, financial power and time) the entrepreneur has to overcome it at the time. Everyone needs to restructure, rearrange and retrieve these resources in trying times. The process takes time.

When I face adversity, it is very easy to put additional pressure on myself with the expectation of moving on with the effort to find the best possible solution, as quickly as possible. In such moments, I pause and be gentle on me. I’d do my best to treat myself as my own best friend. Just when I am kind to a friend who is struggling with life challenges, I shall also be multiple times more patient with myself. After all, self-love is stronger than any adversity.

This article was originally published on November 4, 2020  as part of the Executive Writer series on

Nina Justin

East-meets-West Business Mentor & Resilience Advocate

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