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Why We Need Adversity

Are you feeling like everything is out of control; like you can’t imagine a successful future right now; like the wheels keep falling off the bus over and over again; like the other shoe is about to drop…

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

It’s an old cliché. And like most clichés, there’s a lot of truth behind it.  In this case, it means that winners don’t let adversity sidetrack them from achieving their goals. Instead, they learn from the situation, adapt their strategies, behaviors and ways of thinking, and forge ahead.

Adversity is not fun to go through, but a growing body of research suggests that it is essential for bringing out the best in ourselves and becoming all we can be. In fact, adversity is important for all types of life. Without it, species would not evolve and would be unable to survive changes in their environment.

In 1991, a group of scientists launched a unique experiment called Biosphere 2.

It involved sealing eight people inside an airtight dome covering three acres in Oracle, Arizona. Its purpose? To conduct research on the new science of biospherics — the study of closed systems that mimic Earth’s environment.

The goal was to study how a mini-biosphere – with climates ranging from a rainforest and grassy savannah to a desert, saltwater marshland, and a coral reef in a 150-foot “ocean” – would work with minimal contact from the outside world.

The scientists learned many lessons during their time in Biosphere 2, many of which have been applied to today’s ecological challenges. Perhaps the most important was the recognition that everything in nature plays a critical role. If even one element goes missing from the environment, it can have a major impact on all who live in it.  For example, the trees planted in the biosphere grew well – up to a point. Then limbs began to break off and trees collapsed.

The problem turned out to be the lack of wind inside the artificial environment. In nature, winds literally change the cell structure of trees so they develop the ability to withstand strong winds and other adverse conditions. Without this stress, trees don’t develop the internal structure to be strong and flexible at the same time.

Build New and Stronger Neural Pathways in Your Brain

As business leaders, why do we need the wind blowing on us?

Because without the testing of our abilities, we don’t grow in ways we and our organizations need to survive. Even if we don’t want it, exposure to adversity can create the resilience we need to lead others in a constantly and rapidly changing world. It can teach us to cope with what is to come and makes us stronger as human beings and as leaders. Whether we turn adversity into an ally instead of a foe depends on how we respond to it.

The human brain prefers certainty over the unknown. When adversity hits, our brain wants to stick with what it knows rather than explore uncharted territory. This can easily cause us and our organizations to get stuck in the past or ignore key indicators. When that occurs, markets will quickly leave us behind.

Fortunately, we can overcome this tendency through a process called neuroplasticity, the ability to reorganize our brain by forming new neural connections and pathways throughout life.  Neuroplasticity gives us the ability to change and adapt to new circumstances based on experience and new learning. By thinking differently, we can literally rearrange our brains <link to Rearrange Your Brain to Win blog.

Creating new pathways for dealing with adversity requires intentional thinking and time. The more we slow down just enough to prompt our brain to think in different ways,  the more mental pathways we create to provide options and alternatives in our future thinking.

When going through adversity, most people get stuck in the problem. We replay the conundrum over and over. We get stuck in frustration, anger, denial or one of a myriad of more negative reactions.  When we pre-think by exploring possibilities before we are faced with adversity, we are often able to react more effectively by traveling one or more of the pre-thought pathways. These ‘possibility pathways’ give us choices including potential solutions.

To build new bridges and pathways in the brain that turn adversity into a learning experience:

Think positive.

There is always opportunity in adversity. Instead of focusing only on the problems, look for the lessons to be learned and approach the change as a positive rather than just a negative. “What can we/I learn from this?  What is the most important thing to take away as a lesson?” “What is the silver lining?” “What good can I find?” “What is possible today?” “Who might benefit from this?” “How can I/we figure this out?” “What have I learned about myself?” “How can I help others?”

Be flexible.

Explore alternative ways of viewing or defining the problem. Our expectations & mental models determine how we perceive life. Seek out the ideas and opinions of others, even when they differ from yours. Visit your brain with a quick neuroprompt. Pause & consider what you do know (even if it is only small, simple things). This brings your brain a sense of comfort. Then define what success or winning is for you/your team/ your organization. Define it for the day, the week, even the moment when you are feeling particularly stressed, Define it with as much detail as you can.

Get organized.

Develop structured approaches for processing information and managing ambiguity. Establish clear decision criteria to choose the most effective options. Get clear on what needs to happen and think through the steps and consequences before making key decisions. 

Be decisive.

Instead of letting adversity dictate your course of action, face it head-on. Take timely action to address issues and solve problems. Don’t delay just because you don’t have all the information. Even if you just take small steps while you continue gathering more info, it will serve you well.

Stay focused on winning.

Maintain a clear vision of what you want to achieve, and constantly communicate how the organization will still win. Refine individual and team goals that align with current circumstances.  Shut down all projects that don’t support your vision of winning so you can focus on getting the right things done.

When the winds of change blow, will your organization lose its limbs and possibly collapse? Or will you have the cellular structure to withstand adversity and become stronger than before? As the leader, it’s your job to model the right ways of thinking and acting so your company can still win.

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