Discover positive possibilities in difficult circumstances


Sometimes, maybe even often, it is possible to see something positive in adversity. The setback is not just something we have to survive or overcome. We can then see it as a harbinger for growth or a positive breakthrough.

The Stoic View of Adversity

The famous football player and trainer Johan Cruijff once said “Every disadvantage has its advantage”. But Cruijff was not the first to think in such a way. In 2014 Ryan Holiday (2014) wrote the book The obstacle is the way. In that book he quotes the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. This emperor was considered one of the "five good emperors." Marcus Aurelius was strongly inspired by the philosophical movement the Stoa. This movement was founded in Greece about 300 years before the beginning of our era by the philosopher Zeno. It would become the most popular philosophical movement in Rome.

How should we behave in difficult circumstances?

The works of Roman philosophers such as Seneca and Epictetus had a great influence on Roman culture. This was largely because the subject seemed so relevant to people's everyday lives. Stoicism focused on questions such as: What is important in life? How can you be happy? How should we behave in difficult circumstances? Thinking about this last question, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

  • The mind adapts and converts to its purposes the obstacle to our acting.
  • The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.
  • What impedes us can empowers us. Challenges makes them better than if they’d never faced the adversity at all.
  • The thing you dread or secretly hope will never happen, what if it wasn’t so bad? What if embedded inside it were certain benefits only for you? 

Freely translated, this comes down to this. The human mind has the ability to use that which hinders us as a means to achieve our goals. Therefore, what gets in our way becomes something that helps us move forward. The obstacle becomes the road. What hinders you becomes something that strengthens you. Setbacks can make us better than we would have been without it. What seems awful and what you would most like to avoid may have benefits within it.

Let's look at some examples to see how this way of thinking could work out in practice.

1. Response to an annoying email

We will start with a very small example. I once got an e-mail from someone in which this person, in my perception, gave me some arrogant feedback on something I had written. A negatively worded e-mail may seem like a small thing compared to all the suffering people can have. But I still felt bad after I read it and I immediately felt a defensive impulse. Instead of reacting immediately, I got myself together and took some time to think. I asked myself: how can I use this unpleasant situation to learn from?

I thought quietly and then thought that I could use this e-mail to try and sort out what effective email communication is. An hour and a half later I had written a practical little article about it. Already while writing I had started to think differently about the e-mail I had received. I realized that without that email I would not have written this fun and practical article. In addition, writing the article had given me a very clear idea of ​​how to respond effectively to the person's email.

I wrote my answer according to the principles of the article. I soon received a friendly email from the person. The situation that had first provoked irritation had now become one for which I felt some gratitude. I had managed to turn my own negativity around and avoid an unpleasant follow-up contact. Moreover, I felt that I had learned something from writing the article.

2. Wrong career decision

A larger example of a challenging situation is about a managerial position I once held at a large consultancy firm. I had not applied for this position myself, but was approached for it. At first, I was reluctant. During the application procedure, however, I gradually became more interested in this position. Although I continued to have hesitations, I thought I might learn a lot at this big company.

Within a few weeks of hiring, I was increasingly wondering if I had made the wrong decision. The reality of the job was in many ways different from what I had understood from the interviews. I did not feel at home in the job or in the organization. But I told myself that I shouldn't give up too quickly and that I should give the job and the organization a chance. And while some things turned out to be quite fun, on balance my discomfort in the organization only grew.

More than a year and a half later I took the plunge and left. I had experienced the period as quite difficult because so many things had happened that I did not feel happy about and that I could not support. Still, looking back, I see this period as valuable. My experience at this company has given me a clearer understanding of what I did not want in my work. This also helped me to formulate what I was looking for. During the more than 20 years that followed, these negative experiences helped me to determine where I should and should not step in. Gradually I started to see this unpleasant period more and more as an educational experience for which I can be grateful.

3. Loss of a brother

A greater example of adversity was told to me by a middle-aged woman. She told how she had lost her brother as a child due to an illness. This incident had left her and her family with tremendous grief that had always been palpable. Speaking of whether even such a tragic setback had produced anything positive in addition to grief, she said without hesitation that it did.

She talked about how this event had had a strong positive effect on how she developed as a person in her eyes. Looking back, she said that her little brother's death made her think about life and death from a very young age. She realized that as a person you could die just like that and that life was special and that you should use the time you have well. It helped her make the choice to do something good with her life. It helped her keep her affairs in order and make wise and social choices. She said that, as a small child, she did not consciously have all these precise words in in these precise words. She used these words afterwards to try to describe the thoughts she had as a child at the time.

4. The corona crisis

The corona crisis is very serious for many and has unfortunately cost many lives. At the same time, this crisis is also an example of a situation that carries in itself the potential for improvement. Both individuals and organizations work with great inventiveness to survive and to keep going. Forced by the crisis, they experiment with forms, some of which they are beginning to find very interesting, educational and valuable.

The benefits at a social level are still unpredictable. It could of course be that the corona crisis means that we will be much better prepared for possible new virus outbreaks. But perhaps the benefits will go further. Perhaps the crisis will lead to a reappraisal of all kinds of critical organizations and professions in society. Perhaps the crisis will lead to a greater appreciation of the common good and to a revival of solidarity, who knows even international solidarity.

5. Self-chosen obstacles

A much more lighthearted example that adds yet another dimension is the following. The example is about the rock group The Foo Fighters. Band leader Dave Grohl talks in the documentary Back and Forth about recording the album Wasting Light from 2011. Grohl had made the decision not to record this album digitally but on an analog audio tape. At first glance, a completely irrational decision. This would mean that the recording process would become much more inconvenient and less flexible. Digitally recorded music can be very easily manipulated and corrected. But that does not apply to analog recorded music.

Grohl realized, however, that the convenience of digital recording might make musicians a bit lazy. After all, every mistake can be corrected relatively easily. But analog recording would require the band members to play extremely sharp and good. While we cannot know how and to what extent Grohl's decision to record analog contributed to the album's success, we can say that the album was a great success. It became their best-selling album and won 5 Grammy Awards. It may go a long way to saddle yourself with unnecessary obstacles. But it does seem like it worked. The self-imposed obstacle turned out to release a great creativity and energy in the band.