February 28, 2018
It was a cold, snowy day and my flight home was delayed due to the weather. I was sitting in a drafty airport holding a cup of coffee and warming my hands, hoping the caffeine jolt would wake up my tired brain.
I had just finished a very long, very difficult global project. You know the type – not enough resources (people or budget), not enough time, and overly-ambitious expectations from the executive team.
After finally finishing what had turned out to be one of the most difficult projects in my career, I thought I would be in good spirits on my flight home. Instead, I felt like I had just been given a career death sentence.
During my meeting with my boss, I had been told the executive team had chosen me to head up another complicated and chaotic project. This time, it was a project that had been started by an internal team and had failed. Then it had been started again. And it had failed. Again. I was to step in, pick up the pieces, and figure out how to “make it work.”
Fifteen minutes later, after I’d asked many questions, I realized there was little chance for this project to succeed.
“Do I have a choice in taking on this project?” I asked my boss.
“In life, you always have choices,” came his response. “This isn’t one of those times.”
So, there I was, sitting in the airport, feeling discouraged.
“You look frustrated,” commented the stranger as he sat down in the seat across from me.
I couldn’t even respond. I just rolled my eyes and sighed, shaking my head.
“Oh, I know that look well,” he said, staring at me. “Trust me, if you hold it all inside, you’ll implode.”
Then he laughed. “Sometimes it helps if you talk to a total stranger.”
That was the beginning of a conversation that lasted several hours, while we waited for our delayed flight.
It was after the boarding announcement came over the loud speaker that he said something I’ll never forget: “You know, I’d rather fly with a captain who has flown during the roughest storms than fly with someone who has only flown when the sky was clear and beautiful.”
When we walked onto the airplane, he reached into his briefcase and handed me a book. “I just finished reading this and I think you’ll enjoy it. My gift to you.”
As I slid into my seat, I opened the book and ended up reading it from cover to cover on my cross-country flight home. The Adversity Advantage is about Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind person in history to climb the Seven Summits.
In the book, Erik and co-author Paul Soltz discuss the concept of using adversity to become more focused, creative, driven and to transcend limitations to achieve more than you might ever have thought possible.
One paragraph caught my eye, where Erik wrote:
“I believe that inside each of us is something I can only describe as a light, which has the capacity to feed on adversity, to consume it like fuel. When we tap into that light, every frustration, every setback, every obstacle becomes a source to power our lives forward. The greater the challenge, the brighter the light burns.”
That was the day I changed my way of thinking and started looking for opportunities whenever I encountered adversity. Instead of allowing myself to feel overwhelmed with the chaotic project I had been asked to lead, I looked at it as a challenge to see if I could fly an airplane during the roughest storms (to use the phrase of the stranger).
As captain Sully Sullenberger proved when he successfully made a water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people onboard – having previous experience with difficult situations can be priceless, especially when adversity strikes.