February 10, 2021

The Choice Is Yours: How Do We Respond to Adversity?

By: Sarah Williamson


The ability to choose the way we respond to our individual circumstances is perhaps the single most powerful ability we have as human beings. Yet it is often misunderstood and under-appreciated. Some may see this topic as diminishing the difficult circumstances many people face. The goal of this post is to unpack the ability to empower ourselves by tapping into this powerful human ability, to respond rather than react. It is also a fundamental concept that lies at the core of an entrepreneurial mindset. 

What Can We Control?

Recent circumstances like the pandemic, business shutdowns, and widespread layoffs have sent many people into a reactionary mode. But rather than allowing these circumstances to control our lives, each of us has the ability to choose to concentrate our time and energy on things we can control rather than things that we cannot.  

We all make assumptions—about the world around us, our own abilities, and the limitations upon us. We presume that success as an entrepreneur requires rare talent or access to money, power, and privilege. Essentially, we assign success to factors beyond our control. And by assuming that this is how entrepreneurship works, we inadvertently blind ourselves to opportunities as well as our own untapped potential. 

Starting as an Underdog

It may surprise you to learn that the vast majority of businesses do not start out with access to capital or outside investment. Their founders don’t focus their efforts on the pursuit of financial backing for their idea. 

Even companies like Hewlett-Packard, Waste Management, and Walmart were started by inexperienced entrepreneurs with a few thousand dollars cobbled together from credit cards, second mortgages, and the contributions of family and friends. The founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK is a classic example: He started with an “investment” of $700 and a used pickup truck. 

Yet somehow these scrappy underdogs managed to transform their ideas into sustainable endeavors. How did they do it? 

While a desire to create wealth is certainly a motivating factor that drives many entrepreneurs, when we look beneath the surface, there are other subtle factors that contribute to their ability to succeed. Namely, it is a goal beyond money that compels them forward.

The Power of Compelling Goals

Much of the logic and the methods that enable entrepreneurs to succeed can be explained by the compelling nature of the goals they pursue. One insight that stands out from the hundreds of interviews we’ve done with entrepreneurs is that they all articulate a vision they’re trying to achieve. You can read more about this in the first blog of our 8-part series “How to Think (and Act) Like an Entrepreneur.” 

A compelling goal shifts our perspective. It elicits a psychological and physiological response that energizes and engages us in ways that can enable us to accomplish extraordinary things.

Entrepreneurship, at its essence, is the pursuit of opportunities to create value for others rather than simply creating wealth for ourselves. And, with their focus on creating value for others, underdog entrepreneurs empower themselves.

It is the act of creating value for others that gives a goal its motivational potency. When our work becomes purpose-driven (rather than profit-driven), we are more likely to become optimally engaged. As we explain in Creating Wealth: An Altruistic Paradox (part 5 of 8 in the series), the pursuit of opportunities to create value for others cultivates curiosity and creativity and increases resilience, life satisfaction, and well-being. It also creates a powerful incentive to learn.

Many entrepreneurs have used adversity to their advantage. Rather than focus on their limitations or blaming their circumstances, they used their hardship as motivation to propel them forward. When you have a lack of resources, you often learn how to take small steps towards a goal, rather than making high-risk bets on the outcomes of your endeavor. 

Concluding Thoughts

In 2021, many people are taking stock of their situations and seeing only adversity. But if they stay open-minded about their world and their potential, they will realize their adversity can be a strength. For example, they may have less to lose—and therefore be in a better position to tolerate risk and uncertainty. Learning these underlying lessons from unlikely entrepreneurs can impact many of us as we move forward in uncertain times.

Instead of engaging in beliefs and behaviors that perpetuate our circumstances, we can focus on the future and chose the life we want. This is one of the most important lessons we can learn from the unlikely entrepreneur.