I want to ask you a question. How would you describe 2020? As I reflect over the events of 2020, a few things come to mind: the global pandemic and stay-at-home orders, racial unrest, a collapse in the economy and markets and the subsequent government-assisted rebounds, and all the divisions and contentious rhetoric around the national election. Did all of these, collectively, add up to a bad year? I’m not so sure about that. I would describe 2020 as a hard year. I would also say that not all things that are hard are bad. Sometimes hard things can produce good results.
Hard times can, if we let them, pull us back to our center. When things are good, we get busy with routines. But hard times interrupt our routines and force us to think about what we really want out of life. For most people, that’s found in centering on family. Here are my perspectives on the value of hard times.
As some of you know, a few years ago, my daughter Jacki fell and hit her head. The blow was severe. She was immediately rushed to the hospital. A friend of ours is a brain surgeon and he advised us to have her transferred to another hospital where he knew Jacki would receive the care she needed. Upon arrival they immediately took her to surgery. The surgeon said it went well, but the next morning she didn’t wake up. Each day that followed, a team of doctors in the intensive care unit tried all they could think of, but without success. This was the hardest experience our family had ever faced.
Day after day, we stayed by Jacki’s side and hoped and prayed for the best. As word spread of her injury, friends and family began to reach out and offer support. There were so many people who were concerned for Jacki, in fact, that our family started a small blog to update people about her condition. As I reflect back on what we wrote during this period, I am taken right back to those moments at her hospital bed. I am reminded of how deeply uncertain that time was in our life.
While in the hospital, I reflected on her young life. Jacki, our youngest of three daughters, had graduated from college several years earlier. With great determination she had gotten a job in Chicago and was living there, no longer needing to depend on us. At the time of her injury, she was engaged to be married. Her entire life was ahead of her and held forth so much promise. I suppose the hardest part of all was not knowing how it would end. We were given no guarantees that she would recover or ever be the same wonderful person we had always known and loved. We were living, in many ways, moment by moment.
But then the miraculous occurred. Jacki regained consciousness and make an astounding recovery that surprised everyone. A while later, she married and today has two beautiful children with her husband. I suppose you could say that we are very fortunate.
Why do I tell you this story? I would not wish this experience on anyone and don’t want to go through anything like it again. But something very real and, I would say, permanent happened to me and my family as a result of that hard time. We found our center again. Our focus narrowed, for the two weeks that Jacki was unconscious, to what really matters in life. I would say that the love and the connection we all felt for each other before this event became even stronger after it, as a direct result of it. We don’t take anything for granted and are more focused about making the most of everyday. Hard times can fuse you, like a blacksmith melding two different metals, to the people who matter most.
I want to make sure I say this. If you or someone you love went through an experience like this and it did not turn out well, especially if a loved one was lost or permanently altered, you have my deepest sympathy. While we were in the hospital with Jacki, we saw other families going through trauma just as we were and not all of them experienced the kind of miracle that we were so fortunate to realize. I recognize that these families’ hard times were much harder than mine. The ideas I’m about to share with you are really not about grieving. That is a completely different matter.
IDEAS FOR BEARING UP UNDER ADVERSITY
I think there are parallels between my family’s experiences and what many of us experienced in 2020. Here are some ideas for how to cope with adversity and maybe even come out stronger on the other side:
- Know that adversity is nearly always temporary.
- You need a strong support system.
- Don’t diminish it.
- Avoid making big decisions.
- Recognize the opportunity for greatness.
- Hard times can yield endurance and confidence.
ADVERSITY IS NEARLY ALWAYS TEMPORARY
I would advise you to consider the old saying that this too shall pass. It may last longer than you’d like and it may be harder than you’d hoped. But hard times do come to an end. I’ve come to believe that the best way to get through hard times is one day at a time, one step at a time. Sometimes, when it’s really difficult, we have to take it one moment at a time.
Patience is so important. However, if we remember that adversity will end, I find that it’s easier to take that next step. That’s one step closer to the relief that is just down the path. If we anticipate the end of adversity, it’s easier to keep moving forward toward better days.
YOU NEED A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM
Research from the National Institutes of Health and many other sources document the importance of social support systems during hard times. Those who walk alone are vulnerable to early mortality, poorer quality of life and undue stress. If you don’t have a strong social support system and network of family and friends you can lean on, I would advise you to start building those relationships today. It takes time and effort, but the result is that you’ll likely be a much more resilient person who bounces back faster from adversity.
What should you look for in a support community? You don’t need people who say things like “it will all be better tomorrow.” In my experience, platitudes diminish what people are feeling or even make things worse. You do need sounding boards, people you trust to help you sort through how you feel and how to get through the hard time. Sometimes, what you might need more than anything else is someone who will simply listen to you.
DON’T DIMINISH IT
I find that many people struggle with hard times because we don’t know what to do with them. Our culture seems to prize adversity so little, unlike other cultures and particularly the ancient Greeks. We are expected to be happy, successful, vibrant and healthy. In the investment world, we know that it is the uncertainty about what will happen in the future and the ups and downs in the market that provide an opportunity to earn an attractive return on your investments.
This is why I believe it’s important to be completely honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. When writing the blog about what was happening with Jacki, I tried to be absolutely forthright about how she was doing and what the doctors were prognosticating. In fact, I find that keeping a journal of what you are thinking and feeling when going through hard times really helps. It also serves as a record of how you dealt with adversity that heirs and others may find useful themselves someday. My colleague, Christy Pedersen, wrote a great article on this very topic.
AVOID MAKING BIG DECISIONS
I would counsel you not to make major decisions when facing great uncertainty or adversity, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Give yourself time and reach out to someone you trust for counsel. Hard times can pull us back on course, but they can also cloud our judgement and sap our mental strength. Adversity may force us to stop doing things that might be less than great, like working too much. But making major decisions when you’re going through adversity might lead to results you later regret.
RECOGNIZE THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GREATNESS
The soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 certainly experienced a horrific time of trial. But those who survived that event were nearly instantly heralded as American heroes, and rightly so. The actions they took, the bravery they showed and the horrors they endured have become the stuff of legend.
This is the thing about hard times. They give us the opportunity to achieve greatness. In fact, it just may be that no other situation in life will give us as rich an opportunity to achieve greatness as some form of adversity. This may not be something great that anyone outside your family recognizes or even knows about. But hard times can provide opportunities to do something, to survive something, that becomes the stuff of family legend. These stories can shape the horizons and values of the generations who follow.
HARD TIMES CAN YIELD ENDURANCE AND CONFIDENCE
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Those who go through hard times and come out on the other side often learn the value of perseverance. This is often about never giving up and finding a way to endure, even when things are going wrong. Entrepreneurs, maybe more so than any other group, must learn these lessons because adversity comes with the territory.
This is the heart of my message to you. Those who learn to endure, to bear up under difficult circumstances, often become very strong and confident people. That is not to say that they are arrogant or refuse to recognize the pain. It’s simply that they know they will win in the end. They know they will beat hard times because they refuse to give up. That is a person who is nearly unstoppable at whatever they choose to do in life. I very much admire that kind of person.
There is a very good documentary called We Stand Alone Together. It’s about the experiences of Easy Company in WWII. The documentary is a follow-up to the outstanding HBO series Band of Brothers. These men went through hell together in the Battle of the Bulge. The documentary shows how the love between them was still vibrant and strong more than 50 years after the war. Their extremely hard time produced a connection between them that has lasted their entire lives.
I want to encourage you to think about the ideas I’ve put forward here. I know how much they’ve benefitted me and my family and I believe they could do the same for you. If you ever want to talk about things I’ve said here, please know that my door is open.
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