Predictably overcoming adversity is a skill you can learn. It is an investment that pays dividends in many ways. It insulates you from the natural ebb and flow of life’s challenges. Additionally you can utilize it to intentionally test the boundaries of comfort and bring qualities to your life you never thought possible. Adversity adaptation then can be as protective as it can be liberating.
Jocko Willink’s chapter “Good” in Tools of Titans outlines a very high-yield way to approach learning this skill. I feel that it is one of the most, if not the most valuable section in the book. I’ve said that about One Small Breath and Meditation as well. However, the value in “Good” is unique because it is more disruptive. For many, saying “take small steps” or “go meditate” is already in their wheelhouse. Fewer people I would argue have “Good” in their arsenal of life tools. Additionally, as Jocko does, he breaks his idea down into very concise, very clear directives. It’s portable, applicable, and user-friendly.
To get the full Jocko experience I recommend not only listening to his full interview on The Tim Ferriss Show but to also listen to his own podcast about “Good”. It’s moving.
His idea is that when adversity presents itself, you should have one response. “Good”. Car accident- “Good” it’s a chance to learn to drive more defensively. Bank account overdrawn- “Good” now you have the motivation to figure your budget out. The person you’re dating breaks up with you- “Good” now you can learn about yourself to improve your quality as a partner OR learn what didn’t work between you to make a stronger choice next time.
One word, “Good” is your passport to a lifestyle of predictable, intentional improvement. You guarantee yourself a net positive trajectory for the rest of your life.
“When things are going bad, there’s going to be some good that will come of it.”
The backbone of “Good” is effectively a Growth Mindset. The Growth Mindset was developed by Carol Dweck Ph.D, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She identifies two ways people can approach the idea of human ability. In the Fixed Mindset our success is related to inherent, static qualities we each have. In this way, a successful person is destined to their fate. Those who feel they are unsuccessful are right where they should be. Alternatively a Growth Mindset allows for our success to be the product of change and modifications that are within our control.
Jocko sells hard on a growth mindset. Many of the concepts he speaks to in the book, his interviews, and his own book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win are the result of his experiences in the military. His background as a combat leader and then trainer of combat leaders has given him a perspective on approaches that are more high-yield than others. In his world, an ineffective technique could mean people die.
By intentionally investing in a paradigm that looks for the positive in any situation, you set yourself up to have the greatest chance of finding growth and change. A person who laments and broods on their misfortune usually only finds change when it surprises them or crisis inspires them to a unique solution. For many people, their lives jump from crisis to crisis. They almost create a system that promotes crisis because that will be the only mechanism where change will occur. That is not a very sustainable system, despite its tendency to sustain for a very long time. Sometimes even among generations or throughout entire cultures.
Finding “Good” in Adversity
Tim nor Jocko are prescriptive on how to find what positive outcomes may be on the table. Tim gets into it a little bit with Fear Setting and Fear Rehearsal.
Here I turn to professional development text, namely Good to Great by Jim Collins. A hallmark of many successful businesses is the ability to adapt and to avoid assuming they have achieved perfection. He illustrates this in a number of the qualities of great companies he explores. Implicit in them all is a very clear focus, a commitment to a slow, progressive process, and an openness to self-evaluation and critical-thinking.
This offers an understanding of how to engage your life after “Good”. Almost as a trust fall, feel confident that eventually you will remember this moment of adversity happened and will be able to see how it became a growth point. You know that because you are a person who finds growth points. By making a pact with yourself to be of that mindset you can release your hamster-wheel of anxiety and know that it will all work out.
Now this confidence won’t come easily. You likely need to create a plan of testing the waters out before you get there. Try test it with something very low stakes. When something negative happens, don’t rush to correct it. Instead buy into the mindfulness approach: just let it be. Try to use the opportunity to be present and experience what your mind, body, and world do with the information. Like the episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza decides to do the opposite of his usual intuition, what happens when you try something new.
An example I will share from my own life was having my order messed up at a restaurant recently. I’d gone to a place where I really enjoy the burgers. There model is focused on allowing you to build your own burger. The ideal burger, every time. I ordered my masterpiece- medium-rare burger with mustard, mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomato, and cheddar cheese. My mouth literally just starting watering! My burger arrives. I’m brimming with excitement. Memories of Fourth of July barbecues, family reunions, and backyard birthday parties flood my mind. Amazing that you can access all that for a somewhat reasonable amount of money.
Except it wasn’t amazing. The patty was medium-well at best. They forgot the pickles. It was American cheese. There would be no further nostalgia today. Memories blocked. Frustration building. Every part of me wanted to go into the kitchen Gordon Ramsey-style, throw the patty on the counter, grab some pickles, stuff it down the cook’s shirt, and call them a donkey. Well maybe not that big, but SOMETHING. Then it occurred to me, I had been given an opportunity.
This burger was not my ideal burger. However it was something different. This exact burger is probably somebody else’s ideal burger. That actually may be how the mix-up happened: there likely is someone in the room hating their pickled, raw, orange-dyed cheese mess. I could exercise my sense of justice here and send it back. They would not care. However I would not grow.
Instead sitting here and eating this error-burger would offer many opportunities to learn something. For one I would learn how this particular burger tasted. I could officially confirm it is not in the running for ideal burger. I could just as likely learn that some aspect of this version is really good! Who knows, maybe a life-changing experience is ahead of me. I’ve been surprised by those before. Eating my same burger would offer me no chance of that discovery.
Additionally, playing to my emotional side rather than my intellectual side, I could use this as an opportunity to practice not reacting to disappointment. Disappointment strikes regularly. We probably all experience it of varying intensity at least once a day. Practicing tolerance can be hard in a moment when you are REALLY disappointed. Maybe, by sitting here and eating this other person’s burger, I can allow myself an opportunity to improve my tolerance for when big disappointment happens.
When I decided to do this it opened up another door. I realized that to truly pay respect to sitting with disappointment, to wholly say “Good” to this burger, I needed to also avoid indulging in justice behaviors. Part of me wanted to tell the waitress “I wanted to let you know they messed up my order. I’m fine with this but in case you wanted to know.” Maybe she had other problems with the chef and this would be another data point to prove her side. My mind also contemplated sharing with people at the table that I had my order messed up. However that would not be “Good”. That would be “hey everyone, look at what I’m doing, see how special I am for tolerating everyone’s mess” or “I’m really not “Good” but I’m trying to be. Instead I’m “Good” with reservations of “Bad”.” I decided I would be most proud of this accomplishment if I could leave the room and continue my life without anyone but me ever knowing about the mistake. Well… until I just wrote this. Damn. That didn’t quite work out as I planned it.
Don’t be “Mr. Smiley Positive Guy”
Jocko makes a very valuable point to note that this isn’t a license to manufacture some falsely positive personality. That doesn’t pay respect to the challenge you are facing. Minimizing the challenge is not part of the prescription. The idea is to create a change. To learn. To grow and progress thanks to this opportunity.
I think there are two additional disclaimers here. One is that people may not be comfortable finding a silver-lining in their challenges. For some that belittles the adversity they have endured. Survivors of abuse may fall into this category. This sentiment is taking a larger and larger role on the center stage of our media and popular culture. Some people find it revolting to consider changing themselves in response to the harms brought to them by others.
I don’t have a great answer for this. Those people are right. All thoughts we have are right for us until they are not. If applying a growth mindset to something negative in your life doesn’t sit well you probably shouldn’t use that lens right now. There may be some aspect of your life that needs you to be present with adversity for now. My only urging is to try to stay aware of what your current mindset is costing you. Make sure you can sit and confidently say “I am voluntarily experiencing that cost to create a greater good in my life.” Spend regular time checking in with his because that act will make sure you don’t get swallowed up by adversity and find yourself in regret.
The power position for any person is to be able to allow themselves exposure to adversity for the sake of intentional progress so long as they have the knowledge that they will pull out of adversity if needed. That last part is the hardest. That is the muscle I am proposing you exercise when making something like a burger grounds for growth practice. Improving your ability to sit with the present and familiar with what are the factors that signal your need to eject.
The other piece to speak to is that there are two voices here. Justice and “Good” are not misaligned. We all need to have a clear understanding of our personal moral and ethical boundaries. When those are compromised, we have to be ready to hold the line. In that way it is possible both to recognize the breach of our ethics, act to identify or correct the source of it, but also take the time to find our own “Good” in it as a growth point.
Someone broke into my car a few weeks ago. We left the doors unlocked overnight and one of the kids had turned the overhead light on when leaving the car. It was a beacon in the night for the neighborhood burglar (yes, it appears we have one). Justice did need to be served. Police, HOA, and neighbors needed to know. What was done was wrong and violates my internal values of how you treat people. After attending to those justice points, I chose to leave that muscle behind. I instead looked for my growth point. It led to a very provocative internal monologue about safety, progressing human morality, income disparity, the cost of addiction, the role of a parent, and the naivety of perceived safety. In the end I found an answer that I felt represented the most important of those ideas for me to grow. It was the one where I felt the most provocation and distance between where I was and where I wanted to be.
Today your life is going to give you an opportunity to engage “Good”. You may have to ask for it. Are you a person who gets excited for progress reports? If you have a job, when is your next performance review scheduled? Why isn’t it today? If you are in a relationship, when is the next time your significant other will let you know how you are doing? Will it happen on a Hallmark-sponsored holiday when good news is the only allowable topic? Will it happen during your next fight when emotion creates the necessary collateral to earn “honesty”? Why isn’t it today? If you are someone who has money, when do you next audit your budget and finances? Is it during our annual financial stress test every April? Is it planned for the moment your card gets declined? Why isn’t it today.
Each of these represent an opportunity to test-drive your ability to engage good. Maybe one of these ideas today has left you uncomfortable with the idea of a Growth Mindset. Maybe you have evaluated your progress and are feeling nervous. Maybe you are completely disregarding all my words because it doesn’t pass muster for you.
I look forward to your feedback.