Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Facing Adversity

Dear Mackenzie,

A man gets shipwrecked on a deserted island. Every day he scans the horizon hoping to be rescued, but help never comes. He’s despondent and fears he’s going to die in this Godforsaken place. To protect himself from the elements the man builds a little hut for himself out of driftwood.  One day while he’s out scavenging for food, he sees smoke rolling up to the sky from the direction of his hut. He runs to the hut only to find it being engulfed in flames.

The man is stunned as he watches his last hope for survival burn to the ground. He’s overcome with grief and anger at the notion that all is lost, and he cries himself to sleep. Early the next day, however, he is awakened by the sound of a ship that has come to rescue him. “How did you know I was here?” the weary man asks his rescuers. “We saw your smoke signal,” they answer.

So far you’ve been very blessed throughout your young life. Other than maybe not getting an acting role or two that you may have wanted, or having to do schoolwork when you’d rather be at Disneyland, you haven’t experienced much in the way of hard times. And if your mom and I could have our way, bad luck and trouble would never find you at all. 

Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to shield you from it.  At some point you may be challenged in your career. You may stumble in your personal life. Maybe you’ll face financial challenges. In fact, sooner or later all these things may find themselves at your door.

The urge to give up when the going gets tough is only human. Uncertainty creates anxiety, and the fear of pain trumps the desire for pleasure in virtually every instance. So what should you do to keep from giving up when nothing is going right?

Below are Dad’s three rules for overcoming adversity in your personal and business life. Ready?

Rule #1: When things don’t go right, face the brutal facts.

This is one of the hardest things for people to do in crisis, but if you don’t do it you’ll only dig a deeper hole for yourself. Your boyfriend left you? Face the brutal facts. Your company is going under? Face the brutal facts. You have a life threatening illness? Face the brutal facts. You can’t solve any problem that you can’t admit at least to yourself.

One day many years ago I was on vacation in Hawaii, when I got a call from the controller of the company I was working at. “What’s up?” I asked him as I sipped my tropical drink. After a few seconds of silence he spit out “I thought I should tell you we can’t meet payroll tomorrow”.  I thought I had misheard. Cash flow is cyclical in almost every business, which is why companies have revolving lines of credit. “Why don’t you just go into our credit line?” I gamely suggested. “It’s tapped out,” he said. “I’ve been hoping collections would accelerate”.

The controller had refused to face the brutal fact that our receivables that quarter had not kept up with our expenses. Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he feared he would be blamed if he shined a light on the problem. Who knows? But without facing the brutal facts he couldn’t address the issue. Needless to say he wasn’t our controller much longer.

Rule #2: When things don’t go right, tackle the issue that is directly in front of you without getting distracted by related problems not yet at your doorstep.

I once read a script where two detectives, a rookie and a seasoned veteran, are trapped on the top floor of an abandoned building. Bad guys are shooting at them, and more bad guys await them on the stairwell and in the lobby. “How many do you reckon are on the stairwell?” the rookie asks his partner between rounds.  “And how many do you reckon are in the lobby?” “Why don’t we worry about staying alive for the next sixty seconds?” says his partner. “We can deal with the other guys soon enough.”

However difficult what you face in life may be, Mackenzie, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that you’ll be able to deal with it more effectively if you can focus on the actual problem at hand. If you lose your job, for example, the challenge in front of you is to get another job. That’s what you must make yourself tackle.  It’s true that if you don’t get another job you may lose your house.  You may well feel humiliated in front of your family and friends at having been fired. Yet you must make yourself minimize those fears and feelings lest you get overwhelmed and derail the real task at hand.

Rule #3: When things don’t go right, remember that the knot in your stomach is temporary.

The ultimate brutal fact is that not all problems are solvable. Loved ones die. Passion fades. Lebron left Cleveland.

The loss of your grandma was a bitter pill for me to swallow and I miss her every day. But as time goes by the pain lessens, and the memories of her and of our time together fill my heart with warmth and love. When I was in my twenties and a romantic relationship ended, I was certain I’d never find love again.  Yet I did find love. And years later I can barely remember some of the people who broke my heart.  I guess I’m saying if you can imagine what the problem might look like to you from the rear view mirror, you’ll be better able to handle it in the present.

All that said, my sweet daughter, may you never get shipwrecked on a desert island. But if you do, I hope this letter helps you build your hut.

All my everlasting love,


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