October 11, 2015

Reflecting On Our Blessings

As my family and I celebrate the holidays this year, we truly feel that we have gone through a rebirth from the many challenges we have faced in the past few years. Objectively, our path to get our film into the market has been strewn with obstacles, some of which resulted from our inexperience and others of which resulted from the fact that we are trying to do something very different from the kind of film traditional studios produce, finance, and/or distribute. Similarly, my efforts to battle the day-to-day challenges of leading Dossia have presented challenges I did not encounter when I led a more established business at Pitney Bowes.

Oddly enough, we are more energized and happier at this time than ever before. As I reflect on this strange feeling of happiness as a result of the adversity we have experienced, I think of a quote from Helen Keller:

“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery, of hardships.”

Why are we happier after overcoming adversity than in avoiding adversity? Black poetess Maya Angelou gives us one insight to the answer:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Her comment would suggest that the self-knowledge that we can overcome adversity, by itself, strengthens us. Criss Jani, a black poet, philosopher and singer, expands on this point a little more when he says:

“I praise adversity, not to be pessimistic, but rather to strengthen myself. The more familiar that you are with it, the less likely you are to have a breakdown when it occurs. You become more reflective of its purpose, you understand God’s reason for it, and are then able to make the best of everything that you are handed. The darkness is only frightening after constant sunshine.”

He points out that fear of unknown adversity often is more draining that the actual encounter with that adversity. Nicholas Nassim Taleb, in his new book Antifragile, almost likens it to receiving an immunization, which contains a weaker dose of the virus against which we are trying to protect ourselves in order to develop the immunity to the strong and actual virus. We become much less fragile if we have experienced and overcome small adversities all our lives than if we had a completely adversity-free life. In essence, intermittent adversity that we overcome strengthens us to deal with future adversity that, under normal circumstances, would be overwhelming.

The second reason confronting and overcoming adversity makes us happier is that it causes us to see the opportunity adverse situations present us. Stephen Covey, in the first chapter of his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said that the essence of being proactive, the first of his seven habits, was to understand that it was not what happened to you that mattered, but you did in response to what happened.

What is it about our response to adversity that enables it to be converted into opportunity? Criss Jani gives us one answer when he says:

“Disasters work like alarm clocks to the world, hence God allows them. They are shouting, ‘Wake up! Love! Pray!”

Adversity is like an alarm bell that tells us to think differently, and usually more expansively, about what we need to be doing. This is the process that occurs when people conclude that they have “hit bottom,” and are ready to rise again.

We learn to be more humble and empathetic. We learn to celebrate what we have, rather than being unhappy about what we do not have. We also learn that others have often suffered what we have suffered, and have found solutions that can be useful to us.

We also redefine adverse or mundane situations to identify the opportunities they present. When we moved back into our renovated house four Decembers ago, it was during the horrific Fall 2008 financial crisis. My wife Joyce asked me to clean out our garage, since it was filled with furniture and other items we no longer needed, and we could not park our cars in the garage.

In cleaning out the garage, I discovered donation opportunities that I did not know to have existed:

  • I gave away baseball equipment to the Darien Little League, but, more importantly, learned about entrepreneurs in Poland who could repair and reuse a torn 50-year-old baseball glove for which I had no apparent use. From that experience, I learned about the unique opportunity to donate other used leather goods, like worn shoes, to an organization called Soles for Souls, which helped poor people in Latin America get shoes for the first time and save themselves from parasitic diseases that entered their body through bare feet.
  • I gave away used tennis balls to the local nursing home to help them give more mobility to elderly residents using walkers, who could move more easily and safely with tennis ball on the four legs of the walker.
  • I gave away used soccer balls and Frisbies to Any Soldiers, Inc., which helped our soldiers build goodwill in the villages of Iraq and Afghanistan, which probably saved many lives and improved the lives of village residents.
  • I gave away old computers and printers to an individual who refurbished them and sent them to developing countries to improve their education systems.

The exercise taught me that I had very valuable assets that we were not using for maximum benefit. It caused us to have our son James sell used books and other items in our basement, and to seek out similar unused assets in other people’s basements and attics. He ended up helping the Boy Scouts and other charities extract several hundred dollars from sales of donated items through eBay, Amazon and Craigslist during his senior year of high school.

There are many examples of accidental opportunities discovered in the course of failing in pursuing another opportunity. The most famous of these are the discovery of the Post-It note at 3M when a researcher was trying and failing a new adhesive formulation, and the discovery of Viagra as a treatment for erectile dysfunction when it failed as a treatment for angina.

Every situation, however adverse, presents opportunity. Seve Ballesteros, about whom I wrote in a previous blog, practiced and eventually excelled in hitting from roughs, wooded areas, sand traps, and hills because he knew that hitting into these hazardous locations often gave him the best next shot to the hole. He focused more on the shot after the one he was planning, and saw opportunity in targeting an adverse patch of ground to which to hit.

The Newtown tragedy, which occurred on December 14, 2012, brought no short-term good, because it was a senseless taking of many young lives, and it destroyed the wellbeing of so many families. However, if, because of its horror, it results in a more in-depth look at the effect of guns in our country, some good will come of it. I have heard arguments on both sides of this debate for decades, and it is one about which advocates feel very strongly.

I would only say that what has shocked me, in the aftermath of this tragedy, is the degree to which pro-gun legislators in Congress have eliminated funding for rigorous public health research to determine, through rigorous scientific studies, what would make the biggest difference in reducing the number and size of these mass killing incidents. JAMA article

What would most honor the memory of the victims of Newtown and other firearms related tragedies is to fund serious efforts to get the greatest minds together to figure out what is most likely to work, as opposed to listening to many people who have other agendas or who are advocating positions unsupported by evidence. Too much legislation gets adopted hurriedly because people in elective positions feel a need to look like they are doing something, as opposed to taking a little more time, finding out what the evidence tells us, and doing something that truly will work.

The best gift we can give our children this Christmas is an optimistic frame of mind that gets them to see the positives in every negative situation or set of circumstances. I am currently reading a wonderful book called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Achor describes the extensive research, which demonstrates that having a “happy” frame of mind, based on a combination of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, predicts and causes success, as opposed to being caused by success.

One of his funnier and sadder sets of observations is the experience he has had with Harvard students who should feel very happy, since they have reached a pinnacle of success as individuals whose college credential will give them a long-term benefit. Instead, many of them get depressed because they see the many people around them who have equal or better academic achievements and think of themselves as failures. They forgot that, as Harvard students, they are already in the top .1% of all students in the world in academic achievement and have bright futures because of that.

My parents reinforced a belief that I could be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to pay the price. That belief that nothing was beyond my reach was the best gift they could have given me, and it has benefited me long beyond their lifetimes. It is a gift I am passing on to my children and, I hope someday, to their children.

To all who read this blog, please have a wonderful Christmas and please use this time to reflect on the wonderful things we all have, as opposed to what we do not have. Our futures have the potential to be far better than our pasts, if we can make ourselves believe that, and act upon our beliefs!