How Do You Handle Adversity?
By Bob Williamson
The way you respond to problems, challenges, setbacks and general bad news says more about you than you probably realize. It’s also a pretty good predictor of where you’ll be a year from now.
You just found out that the borrower for whom you spent more than an hour working up loan scenarios has decided to go with a competitor.
On top of that, the loan you’ve been working to get approved, the one that needs to close day after tomorrow, came back from underwriting with some additional conditions you’re going to have to scramble to get cleared in time. You called the Realtor to keep her in the loop and she chewed you out for your trouble.
You spend so much time getting your loans approved that your marketing and lead generation has taken a back seat. Your bank balance has seen better days.
So, how does this kind of information make you feel? How do you respond to problems, challenges, setbacks, adversity? Do you get angry, frustrated, depressed? Do you worry? Do you imagine things getting even worse?
Many people (maybe even most) do some combination or all of those things. More disturbingly, I suspect most people are, for the most part, unaware of their thoughts and feelings running in the background in response to these kinds of stimuli.
But there are some who choose instead to recognize, in the words of Dr. Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich that: “Inside every adversity are the seeds of an equal or greater opportunity.”
They look for that opportunity.
I’ve always been fascinated with the variety of ways people respond to difficult challenges. As a coach, it’s part of my job to help clients tap into inner resources they may not have known they had.
The Difference Between Successful and Unsuccessful People
In his famous recording, The Strangest Secret, Earl Nightingale examined the question: What makes successful people successful? And what makes unsuccessful people unsuccessful? He concluded that successful people do things that unsuccessful people don’t/won’t do (things like cold calling, prospecting, practicing to improve their skills, continuing education, planning, etc.) – not because successful people enjoy doing those things any more than the rest of us – but because they are determined to be successful and have learned the discipline of delaying gratification now, so they can have what they truly want later.
Nightingale was onto a classic truth here. But his insightful observation also begs the question: Why do successful people make the choices they do? Where do they get that positive outlook, that impressive self discipline that seems to elude so many others? And what’s missing in the vast majority of people who lack those traits? Put another way, why is it that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”? Why do resources seem to flow more easily to those who are already successful, and away from those who are unsuccessful?
What Modern Science Can Teach Us About Success and Failure
Bill Harris of Centerpointe Research[i] has also spent his life investigating these questions, and he’s assembled a fair amount of scientific research suggesting that this phenomenon is a law of nature that applies to all living things, not just human beings.
For example, bacteria in a colony communicate with each other using chemical attraction and repulsion signals. When food is plentiful, the bacteria eat and multiply. But when the food source is depleted, the bacteria send out scouting patrols to find more food. The unsuccessful bacteria send back chemical messages that say, “Avoid me.” The successful bacterial scouts, on the other hand, send out chemical messages that say, “There’s plenty of food over here!” And the rest of the colony follows those messages to the new food supply. The colony’s resources are withdrawn from the failures and made available to the successful.
And this mechanism can be found in all living systems. A scientist discovered how baboons at the lower end of their group pecking order create large amounts of hormonal poisons that kill brain cells, causing their hair to fall out, wiping out their immune function, and leading to chronic illness. This, of course, further decreases their power and status with their baboon peers. But those at the top of the pecking order make more of the hormones and brain chemicals that cause well-being, self-confidence, and better health. And, in addition to better chemistry, these winners also end up with better food, the best living areas, and the most desirable sexual partners.
Researcher Marvin Zuckerman found that depressed hospital patients–those who actually needed the most care–were least likely to attract the compassionate attention of their caregivers. Their complaints, anger, body language, facial expressions, and other negative behaviors actually drive away those who might give them the care and nurturing they need.
However, patients who are cheerful in the face of terrible illness or even impending death attract better care, and more nurturing. The nurses and doctors tend to gravitate more to them than to their grouchier counterparts.
So there is competition for resources at all levels in all living systems. Built into each system is a mechanism whereby the group automatically withholds or withdraws resources from individuals who “fail.”
Moreover, unsuccessful individuals – through internal automatic self-destruct mechanisms -- withhold from themselves resources like neurochemicals and hormones that would cause them to feel and function better!
This leads to a condition called “learned helplessness”. Your mind and body teach themselves (by reinforcing the relevant thought patterns and emotions) to put you into a downward spiral, where it becomes increasingly more difficult to be resourceful in the face of stressful challenges.
Learned Helplessness vs. Learned Resourcefulness
In contrast, when people are able to solve a problem, they not only overcome the problem, they also thrive in other ways as a result of having successfully dealt with the problem!
In a laboratory experiment, rats were wired to receive a painful shock at random intervals. A button was placed in the cage that, when pressed by a rat, would stop the shocks for all the rats in the cage. The rats who discovered the purpose of this button would rush for it as soon as the shocks began. They remained healthy and active. But the rats who never discovered the “off” button had no control over their situation. They eventually gave up and passively resigned themselves to painful shocks that came from out of nowhere. Even though they received the same numbers of shocks for the same duration as the button-pushing rats, they became physical wrecks. Their hair fell out; they developed ulcers, and lost weight. Even when researchers provided an escape tunnel leading to an area where there were no shocks, these rats were too stressed and confused to notice.
Similar experiments have been conducted on many different animal populations, including humans. In every case, individuals who fail all tend to develop this same sort of learned helplessness, which causes external resources to stop flowing to them and also causes their own body to shut down internal resources. As a result, they give up.
But those who succeed – those who are alert and resourceful in the face of adversity – prosper and attract more resources. Their bodies produce what they need in order to be healthy, clear-minded, and successful.
Are You Circling the Drain, or is there Hope?
Does this mean that if you’re in a slump, maybe even in somewhat of a downward spiral, that you’re doomed?
No. There is abundant evidence that people can reverse the unhelpful thought patterns that put them on the road to failure in the first place.
The process starts with awareness. I’m talking about the simple (and for most people, very difficult) act of being conscious of what is going on in your own mind and with your emotions at any given moment.
Although different schools of thought use different terms for it, the field of psychology universally recognizes two aspects of the human mind. The conscious mind is the part of your mind you’re using right now to read and (hopefully!) comprehend this article. You use your conscious mind in conversations with others, when you’re thinking about a specific issue (like running loan scenarios for a client), and to make decisions about what your next action step is for a project you’re working on. Your conscious mind is what you probably think of as your “self”.
But there’s also a subconscious (or unconscious) mind. For one thing, it controls autonomic body functions like breathing, blood circulation, and digestion – millions of decisions essential to your life and health that are made without your conscious awareness or involvement – including the production and supply of those hormones and brain chemicals that have such a dramatic influence on your mood and your resourcefulness.
(Neuroscience – which is a completely different field from psychology – offers a separate, but somewhat parallel model. At the risk of oversimplifying, many of the functions of what psychologists would call the conscious mind are performed by the left brain, while the right brain largely corresponds to the functions of the subconscious[ii].)
The subconscious is the repository of memories – especially the ones you’re not currently using. Have you ever, in a quiet moment and for no apparent reason, vividly remembered something that happened years ago? That memory popped up from your subconscious. (It’s also where your dreams come from.)
Your subconscious has processed, interpreted, and stored every moment of your life. From these past experiences, it has created “scripts” that correspond to certain types of stimuli.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you were attacked by a dog when you were a child. That would have been a pretty traumatic experience, and even though, as the years progressed and you grew into an adult, you encountered countless dogs that bore you no particular ill will, you would probably still feel some anxiety or even panic whenever you were in the presence of a dog. That anxiety is a script (based on an interpretation of the original dog attack experience) created by your subconscious in order to protect you from harm.
Your subconscious mind also generates your mood and emotions. If you’ve ever woken up in a “bad mood”, that’s your subconscious mind at work. You may not be aware of any reason to be in a bad mood, but unless you do something to change that mood, your attitude and “body language” and your emotional predisposition to be at odds with the world will almost certainly lead to conflict with everyone from your spouse to the guy at the car wash. You will have had a “bad day” – probably without being aware of how much you and your original mood were responsible for the unpleasant experiences that filled your day.
The Best Part of Waking Up …
Considering the enormous influence the subconscious mind has on our well-being and quality of life, you’d think we’d pay a great deal of conscious attention to its input, but we don’t. That’s the crux of what I mean when I observe that most of us are not fully conscious (or aware) as we go through our daily lives. And I think that matters – a lot.
Let’s look at one of the examples I gave at the beginning of this article and examine it more closely, in light of what I’ve been saying about consciousness (awareness):
Example: You just found out that the borrower for whom you spent more than an hour working up loan scenarios has decided to go with a competitor. Picture yourself in that situation (it shouldn’t be hard; these kinds of things happen to everyone to some degree). What are your thoughts and feelings in that moment when you first hear the news? What physical sensations (headache, muscle tension, sinking feeling in your stomach, nausea, etc.) do you have?
Do you feel despair or worry? Do you think about how the loss of the loan will affect your income this month? Does that thought produce a cascade of concern about how you’re going to pay your bills?
Do you feel a loss of confidence, like maybe you’re not a good enough salesperson to win people over, or that your pricing or product range puts you at a disadvantage? Do you feel like your competitor out-talked or out-charmed you with the prospect? Does this experience make it harder to motivate yourself to call the next lead or prospect? Do you even start wondering whether you should stay in the mortgage business?
Do you feel annoyed, or even angry – at the client, at your competition, or at your company? Do you now resent the effort you put into the proposal you prepared for the client? Do you feel like the client wasn’t fair with you, or that the situation wasn’t fair, or maybe that life isn’t fair?
After 20 years of coaching loan originators, I can tell you that these are all fairly common reactions to situations like the one I described – maybe even more common in today’s environment, where the perception is that there aren’t as many opportunities to begin with, and the loss of even one opportunity seems to hit harder.
But think about these possible responses I just described. What do they have in common?
For one thing, most of them place the cause of the undesirable outcome outside yourself: Your company has lousy rates, your competition has better rates, your prospect is ungrateful and has no appreciation for the work you did. The world isn’t fair. And even to the degree you may be looking at yourself as a cause in the matter, then it takes the form of blame: You’re not smart enough, or persuasive enough.
Consider the difference in the point of view: If circumstances and factors beyond your control are responsible for your problems, you’re powerless to do anything about them. But if you can take responsibility (not blame) for your problems – or at least for the way you perceive and respond to them – you can then face those problems from a position of power and resourcefulness.
What Would a Resourceful (Successful) Person Do?
Given the same circumstances of losing a loan opportunity one had worked hard to get, how would a resourceful person respond that this outcome? Well, you might first examine what happened to see what you could learn from the experience. You might even call the prospect and, acknowledging that you understood that they had made their choice, ask them if they would be kind enough to take you through what happened from their perspective, so you could better understand what you failed to do and what you should do differently in the future.
If the loss of this loan truly was the result of a pattern of losing transactions because of your company’s pricing (and for no other reason), you might seriously consider moving to a company with better pricing. You might also consider re-evaluating your Unique Selling Proposition, since clients are apparently not seeing you as unique and valuable enough to overcome a few hundred dollars difference in closing costs. In other words, the only differences they see between you and other loan officers are your prices. (And somebody will always have a lower price than you.) A resourceful person, realizing that loan officers have little or no control over pricing, will look for ways to become valuable enough to the client that pricing differences are not the sole deciding factor.
Another approach a resourceful person might take would be to consider the lost loan from the perspective of economic demographics. Are you generally competitive on this type of loan? If not, perhaps your time would be better spent finding loan opportunities where you are competitive.
And I could go on, but I think you get the point. A resourceful loan originator, faced with adversity, will look for the seeds of opportunity hidden somewhere in the “problem”.
Tend Carefully the Garden of Your Mind
More than 100 years ago, an obscure English writer named James Allen wrote a book called As a Man Thinketh. This book, along with Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, has become a classic in the self-improvement lexicon. James Allen compared the human mind to a garden:
Man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild, but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed-seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.
Just as a gardener cultivates his plot, keeping it free from weeds, and growing the flowers and fruits which he requires, so may a man tend the garden of his mind, weeding out all the wrong, useless, and impure thoughts, and cultivating toward perfection the flowers and fruits of right, useful, and pure thoughts. By pursuing this process, a man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life. He also reveals, within himself, the laws of thought, and understands, with ever-increasing accuracy, how the thought-forces and mind elements operate in the shaping of his character, circumstances, and destiny.
Philosophers have argued for centuries the question of whether or not we are the “Captains of our Fate”. I suspect that argument will continue for long after you and I are gone, and I can’t honestly say I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt which side is right.
But I do know this: If you really think your success or failure in this market (to use one example) is beyond your control, the game is over for you.
On the other hand if you believe your response to these circumstances will make a difference in whether you succeed or fail, then you will act as if the choices you make will matter to the outcome.
Let’s recall the scientific evidence I referred to earlier in this article. We know that when an organism experiences failure, its biochemical mechanisms will literally begin to attack itself. And we also know that when an organism experiences success, it produces chemical substances that make it even more successful, more resourceful. In human beings, this choice between two directions is made in the human brain. And for humans, it is ultimately a conscious choice.
I know people – and you probably do too – who seem to be naturally successful. As a result of their life experiences and their genetics – the way their brains are wired – these people are predisposed to be energetic, enthusiastic, optimistic, and resourceful. Generally, they do very well.
However, the vast majority of us – and I certainly include myself – do not come by this overwhelming sense of optimism naturally. We’ve been battered and bruised somewhat in life – let’s face it; we have known failure, and it has taken its psychic toll on us. As a result, we have unconsciously acquired certain mental programs and scripts which kick in whenever things aren’t quite going our way.
For the most part, these scripts run below our conscious radar – fleeting thoughts in the back of our mind that tell us things like:
· Oh, crap, not again!
· You idiot!
· Damn it!
· I hate this
· This makes me sick
· Here we go again
· You can’t win
Most of these programs got started in childhood, and they are triggered whenever something happens that reminds us in some way of something else that happened long ago. Most of the time, most of us try to ignore that critical voice in the back of our minds, and try to soldier on. But that’s a mistake, because those “negative” scripts continue to play in the background, and actually trigger the biochemical responses that make us feel tired, sick, and defeated. And that, of course, makes it even more difficult to stay “positive”. It becomes a vicious cycle.
So what can we do about it? The answer is simple, but not easy: we have to wake up; we have to become more conscious. We have to notice that little voice in the back of our mind and engage it constructively. What you’re dealing with here is essentially a set of bad habits – a particularly deeply ingrained set of bad habits. And bad habits are not so much overcome as they are replaced with different, more resourceful habits.
When you catch yourself running a destructive or unproductive script in the background of your mind, you can thank your subconscious for attempting to help, and say something like this: “We’re going to try a different approach: I’m smart, capable, imaginative and resourceful. I’m finding ways to make this situation better. I’m getting stronger, smarter, and more successful every day.”
You didn’t get the way you are overnight, and it’s not going to change overnight. The most challenging part of this transformation will be remaining vigilant for the counterproductive scripts you’ve been living with unconsciously for most of your life, and being patient and consistent about replacing harmful programming with healthy and resourceful thinking. It may not be easy, but you’ll find it immensely rewarding in two respects:
First, as you address what Zig Ziglar used to call your “Stinkin’ Thinkin’”, your body will respond by producing more of the neurotransmitters (like endorphins, for example) that improve your mood, your attitude, your mental capacity, your imagination, and your energy. With mind and body working together, you can turn that downward spiral into an upward one.
And secondly, I mentioned earlier people who seem to be naturally successful and optimistic. These people are what we might call unconscious competents – they may be doing all the right things, but because these things come naturally to them, they’re not really aware of what they’re doing to make things work so well for them.
If you aren’t one of these naturally “lucky” people, and you take responsibility for remaking your mind into a personal success machine, you will have become a conscious competent – and you will not only be successful, but you will also know exactly what you did to become that way.
Now that’s satisfaction.
For a free download of my online seminar, How to Succeed in this Terrible, Awful, No-Good, Lousy Market, go here.
And for a free, private, one-hour coaching session, go here.
[i] For an excellent article by Bill Harris on this subject, and information on the tools he has created to enhance your ability to be more resourceful and better manage stress, go here.
[ii] For a fascinating discussion of brain science, see Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight, the story of a neuroscientist who had a stroke at the age of 37 and recovered from it. Her experience gave her a much deeper insight into the respective functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.