I am no stranger to adversity. My professional journey has allowed me to work with some of the world’s most elite performers across many fields. Mindfulness has been a part of my everyday life since around 2000 when I first learned about it in massage therapy school. It became a foundational way for me to manage my adversity, and to continue to design a life full of growth. I have been extremely fortunate to dedicate almost a decade working with wounded, ill, and injured service members, as the Master Trainer for the US Army’s Performance Psychology program, as well as the Senior Subject Matter Expert for the Department of Defense’s Military Adaptive Sports Program. These positions allowed me to help people develop plans to become better versions of themselves—usually after the worst experience of their lives.
In times of adversity, some fundamental traits allow us to continue moving. I’ve seen these traits in people who have learned to thrive in unimaginable situations. Motivated by the current state we find ourselves in, I’ve created a list of five things to keep in mind to continue being at your best.
1. Take an Honest Look at Yourself
“Don’t get confused between what people say you are, and who you know you are.”—Oprah
One of the first activities I take a client through is taking an honest look at oneself. It will always include factors such as personal values, strengths, and areas of challenge.
Being in quarantine is a fantastic opportunity to look at your personal values, and to see if you are truly living them. We are all usually good at listing our areas of challenge, but celebrating those things we’re good at could be a bit tougher. Having a proper understanding of both is critical to all of life’s performances, especially in times of adversity.
Taking an honest look at our areas of development allows us to build competence. It shows us where improvement is needed. Truly knowing our strengths, and celebrating them for what they are, is how we build confidence. Why not take some time today to make a list of the values, strengths, and challenges that make you who you are? Once you know what these are, you can start making changes where they’re needed, and be confident in the areas that are already amazingly you. We have been through tough times before. We can acknowledge and celebrate the traits that have helped us through those tough times, and can do so again.
2. Don’t Bite off More Than You Can Chew
“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”—Henry Ford
“How do you eat a whale?
“One bite at a time.”
My first exposure to this old adage was in one of my favorite books as a kid, Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. It contained the poem “Melinda Mae,” which introduced me to a young girl who sat down and determinedly ate an entire whale, not finishing until she was 89 years old. Instead of seeing the whale as being much too big ever to conquer, she took her time and accomplished many small tasks along the way, completing a massive goal. It is common to see experts in every field encouraging clients to set big goals. These big dream goals can help create motivation and a desire to attain them.
One of the first lessons I learned while designing a goal-setting program for the Army’s wounded warrior program was that “big” is extremely subjective. For some, starting a business, running for political office, or returning to combat was a lofty goal. For others, walking the length of the hospital hallway, simply standing unassisted, or going to the bathroom by themselves was as big as they could imagine at the time. Many small goals would have to be accomplished to even get to that point.
Our individual paths belong solely to us. It is unfair to compare them to anyone else’s. Many of us have thought about lofty things we want to accomplish after the pandemic. It’s essential to entertain these aspirations in our mind, but we also must focus clearly on each step along the way. What we do in this moment determines the direction of our next step.
3. Do Unto Yourself, What You Would Do For Others
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”—Maya Angelou
One of the most important aspects of managing adversity is self-care, but in our modern society, it’s often the most overlooked. On a “good” day, we tend to fill our calendar with constant movement and searching for things to keep us occupied. Our personal well-being is usually much lower on that list.
When I’m giving presentations—particularly to caregivers—I often say, “You can only give the best of what you’ve got.” Helping others is an essential part of being a top performer and a good human.
During this pandemic, we’re collectively searching for innovative ways to show compassion, empathy, and love for one another. We’re being asked to perform in ways we are not used to or question our comfort level. We find ourselves exposed to new challenges with our families and working remotely and homeschooling. Our roles are being blurred and personified all at once. It’s easy to put others first and to be a little harder on ourselves than usual. We will have bad days; that’s a normal part of life. A key to navigating them is to find ways to have the best bad day possible.
If we’re looking for a solid strategy for managing personal adversity more effectively, a great place to start is showing ourselves the same qualities we show others. The world needs us all to be at our best during this time. What can we do today, with the resources we have available to us, to get closer to this version of ourselves?
4. Be the Best-Selling Author of Your Story
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”—Brené Brown
Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human communication and knowledge transfer. We could think of our current vehicles for storytelling (blogs, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc.) as modern-day campfires, our digital equivalent of the places where our ancient ancestors first mastered the art of sharing stories. We have become extremely good at creating stories for our digital campfires, as well as seeking them out from others.
A problem occurs, though, when we allow these stories to stray into the fictional, creating false narratives based on something other than the truth. We can spend hours, or days, even weeks vividly imagining worst-case scenarios. We allow ourselves to get carried so far down the path of imagined narrative that we can lose our focus on the objective present.
During times of adversity, it’s crucial to stay aware of the facts at hand and act accordingly. Being selective as to the type, reliability, and quantity of news and social media exposure is vital right now. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests, “Consume only what we need to know, what’s most relevant to us and particularly what is happening or anticipated in our own community.” What we allow into our minds affects how we see our situations, and ourselves, which directly impacts the overall story we create.
Try taking a few minutes today to explore the story you’ve been writing. If it is not full of facts, begin writing it again. The beautiful part is that you are the one holding the pencil. Many others can give suggestions about what to include in your story, but only you can write it.
5. Be Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
One of my favorite conversations to have with someone is about how big a fan of adversity I am, and how I believe it has acquired a bad reputation. I know that adversity can bring us moments of discomfort and pain and extreme sadness.
That’s only one side of the story, though.
Adversity has always been part of our journey since the very beginning. Some of the greatest moments of our journeys, our most significant lessons learned, our moments of growth, and many of our successes have been the result of how we learned to manage adversity.
One of the primary lessons I offer to elite performers, in all fields, is “being comfortable with the uncomfortable.” I learned this concept from one of my mentors in sport psychology, Ken Ravizza. Ken and I often spoke about adversity in the context of the work I was doing with wounded soldiers. The key to this concept is not to fear uncomfortable things but to embrace them. Once we welcome what’s uncomfortable as just another part of our journey, it allows us to develop as humans, and we learn how to get back up and keep moving along our path.
We love to cheer for the underdog because of how they handle adversity. We grade those we follow on their ability to lead during tough times. Our current situation has been extremely challenging and will continue to deliver many uncomfortable moments. It is in our DNA, however, to survive, learn from the tough times, and become better versions of ourselves. We just have to remember that precious and vital truth. It will make it possible for us to keep moving forward together.