From Adversity to Success…Lessons and Growth


By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW

“When life gets tough, the tough get going.” So they say…

Consider that 75 percent of all people experience some form of trauma in life, and about 20 percent of all people are likely to experience a traumatic life-event within a given year. So the odds are good that our lives aren’t going to be free from pain and suffering, no matter how well-off or well-positioned we are. Since adversity in life is a given, our success and happiness depend on our ability not just to cope with it but to actually grow because of it.

Hardships may refer to adversities, misfortunes, troubles, hard times, problems, or something that cause suffering. Hardships can come in many forms. The common types are: physical (illness, disability), material (poverty, bankruptcy), psycho-emotional (experience of abuse, depression), and social (racism, bullying). Hardships are agonizing. But it’s how we choose to deal with them that will transform our pain into growth. By recognizing the positive impacts of our struggles, we become stronger, more capable agents of change. We become the path towards better, leaving the bitter behind.

We do not have to look hard to find very successful people who have failed, some of them many times before they found success. Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordon, and J.K.Rowling are just a few.  J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers (and before she even wrote the book she suffered a stream of potentially devastating personal failures). Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. Abraham Lincoln suffered a series of lost elections before he went on to become one of our greatest presidents. Yet the consistent and deliberate practice of elite performers is nearly always fueled by innate interest and passion in what they’re doing.

Scientific research shows that the stress we experience as a result of adversity—and how we respond to that stress—tends to predict how much we will benefit. You see the world and yourself differently after you’ve gone through challenging events and emotional states that define each event. What differentiates these challenges from ordinary difficulties or hurdles is the three elements they all have in common:

  1. While they are inevitable, they are random and unpredictable. You can’t predict how you will respond or where you will end up after you go through it. The only certainty is that the way you respond will define your present and future career.
  2. These experiences are emotionally and cognitively intense. They test and push you. You will have to call on resources you didn’t know you possessed, rely on skill sets you previously ignored, assess your priorities and re-evaluate your basic values.
  3. As a result, your sense of yourself will change in some fundamental way. Who you are, what you’re capable of doing and your place in the world will all shift.

We know that adverse life-events can trigger depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress syndrome. But what most of us don’t realize is that posttraumatic growth, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune—even tragedy—has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose with the combination of persistence and passion The following are some of the reasons why hardships can be good for you:

Character development. Depending on how you look at hardships (with optimism, pessimism, or realism), they can be your road to character development. They can  force you out from your comfort zone and lead you to make some much-needed changes in your life. They can make you suffer and in the process give you the grace to be strong. They can strengthen your pride and prejudice to make you humble. If one adversity could make you develop at least one virtue, then imagine how a number of adversities can develop your character and make you a better person.

Life lessons. Hardships can teach you valuable lessons: to never take your health for granted (in case of illness), to spend below your means (in case of bankruptcy), to learn to let go and walk away (in case of abuse), to stand up for your rights (in case of racism). Behind every adversity is a lesson waiting to be learned.

Empathy. Hardships enable you to walk in other’s shoes so you can understand better other’s worlds. What defines our humanity is our ability to feel another person’s pain. It is therefore from hardships that we learn the gift of inter-connectedness and the realization that “we are in this together”.

Resilience. You gather invisible scars as you grow. Each is your badge of a problem solved, of a personal adversity triumphed, of an inner war won. These invisible scars stem from hardships that you have endured and overcame, making you a resilient person, capable of “bouncing back” when confronted with life’s adversities.

Many people have gone through hell and back and are moral, happy, and successful. They are fueled by intrinsic desire and patience, the practice of which can often be unpleasant. They are aware of their strengths and understand their weaknesses, and see themselves as continuously learning, adapting and responding to both positive and negative circumstances. Reflection is also a trait of success. Although some people are naturally more introspective than others, everyone can improve his or her ability to reflect, and therefore to grow and learn. Leaders who do not succeed tend to be people who lack self-awareness. Ineffective leaders don’t understand their own motivations or acknowledge their weaknesses. Here are some questions to ask yourself in and after trying times:

  • When you are going through an experience, step away from it and think about what is occurring?
  • After the event had wound down, reflect on what has taken place. Pput this event into the larger context of your life and attempt to figure out its meaning in the greater scheme of things.
  • Engage at least one other person in significant dialogue about this experience. Have a conversation that is more encompassing than what happened and what you did or might do about it. Talk about deeper issues-how you feel, your fears, your expectations.
  • If the event had an adverse effect, did you admit to yourself or others how you may have failed or come up short?
  • Is there anything you learned from this experience that motivated you to reassess certain assumptions, made you aware of a certain vulnerability, or prepared you to handle a similar experience better in the future?

Acknowledging that an adversity is occurring and that it is significant; reflecting on why it is occurring; making sense of the it as an adverse experience; integrating the lessons of the event into your life; and taking action to do things differently in the future are imperative. Here are five (8) lessons you can take from failure on your road to success:

  1. Take out the ego. When our egos are in charge, we are unable to learn from our mistakes, see situations clearly and take in others viewpoints. The ego wants to be right. To be successful we have to accept that we were wrong, learn from it and carry on. Insight is necessary to make the changes we need to.
  1. Build resiliency and persistence. Since our ability to bounce back from defeat is crucial to eventual success, failure gives us the opportunity to build our resiliency.
  1. Failure brings us closer to success. Failures force us to rethink, reconsider and find new resources and means to achieve our ends. Those who achieve success view failure differently than most.
  1. Remember you are in great company. When we fail we will feel an emotional low which is natural. For the people who will succeed, this is temporary. They do not take their failures personally, seeing them as short-term setbacks vs people who give up, take it personally and see their failures as permanent. A great way to motivate yourself and get back on track after a setback is to remember all of the people who struggled through adversity and failures to eventually achieve their dream.
  1. Failures add sweetness to eventual success. Looking back upon our failures after achieving our goals adds a satisfaction to our lives that those who never risk and get beyond failures will never know. Some love to hold them out as badges of honor that signify they are amongst those that have endured and eventually triumphed.
  1. Cliché but true, everything happens for a reason. Those reasons lead us to better things. But in the midst of a downward spiral, we lack perspective, something that’s very dangerous because it’s a bitterness trap. One way to regain perspective is to take inventory of the hardships in your life thus far and list the positive outcomes of each. Try to remember how long those results took to emerge; this will help remind you that hardships — like anything else — are a process, but they do have an end.
  1. Hardships bring you closer to where you’re supposed to be. Hardships remind us that when we’ve gone too far down the wrong path. They strengthen us by forcing us to let go of the stuff that weakens us thus allowing growth. There comes a time when bitterness and resentment will no longer serve a purpose. Identify the parts of your life most affected by your hardship. Which areas were you most unhappy with? How has your struggle freed you from having to live those out any longer?
  1. Hardships change the world for the better. Inspiration is rooted in hardship, and from it flourishes happiness. Some of the most powerful influencers of good have gone through the roughest, lowest ordeals. Tales of overcoming adversity create powerful human networks. When we come to see one another for the amazing, resilient beings we are, we start to truly believe change is possible.