The Often Overlooked Opportunity within Adversity

Potential troubles lurk around every corner, whether they stem from unexpected environmental jolts or individual flaws and mistakes. Whatever the source, what matters is how we deal with them. When surprises are the new normal, resilience is the new skill.” Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1)

Another journey around the ‘big ball’ is coming to an end. For many of us, it’s been a long and eventful road to get to this date. Below are some thoughts from the past years (mixed with research and words from wise people) on adversity and why we might want to incorporate gratitude into suffering. As hard as it may often be.

Hardships, challenges and even failures are an inevitable part of our human condition, and quite often they end up defining us in the most profound ways. This was the case with me, and my guess is that you can find similar experiences when examining the turning points of your life. Even though nearly always being poorly timed, uninvited and usually delivering a heavy burden, adversity may offer us the unparalleled gift of growth in the form of newly discovered, profound sense of strength, purpose and adaptability (2). Indeed, re-imagining adversities and failures as opportunities (and something which are a natural part of the human experience) enables us to enter them with healthy curiosity and mindfulness.

In evolution, progress does not stem from the state of balance but comes when the organism is challenged and pressed to find a new way. Stress and adversity, however, are conditions which expose us to greater consumption of energy and therefore tax our finite resources. Energy provides the means to ensure that biological beings continue to survive. The foundational principle of sustaining and ensuring the continuity of life is based on conservation of energy and efficient use of scarce resources. Therefore, all organisms (including us humans) are indeed programmed to seek out a comfortable state, and to remain in preservation mode until the balance is disturbed and we are forced to seek alternative means and response models (3). Staying in this place of equilibrium saves valuable energy to sustain life, but also hinders the organism from the benefits which delving deeply into its resources can bring.

The value of adversities and failures is that they create a dent in our usual routines and propel us to re-evaluate our strengths, as well as seek out new creative solutions. This way, adversities and setbacks can sometimes afterwards be even seen as a gift, as they may eventually enable unparalleled growth. However, these benefits of encountering adversity are not automatic, and in retrospect we also tend to romanticize suffering. Studies show that whether we benefit from struggling through a major traumatic event or suffer permanent damage comes down to our ability to achieve positive psychological adaptation (3b). In this, it’s not only our inner qualities but the amount of social support we have access to, that matter.

Indeed, if resilience and mental strength were merely questions of encountering suffering, the whole human race would be wise and courageously living its purpose, right? As the 18th century writer, Joseph Addison, once said: “To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”

Positiivinen psykologia resilienssi kestävyysAmerican psychologist and philosopher William James already over hundred years ago speculated that there is energy hidden beyond our conscious reach which can only be accessed when truly needed (4). One of the most breathtaking things about human beings seems to be that, when facing significant hardship, we have an extraordinary adaptability and capacity to survive through almost unbearable conditions. How far are we capable of being stretched? We simply do not know before we get to that place. However, instead of merely harming the system, an adversity that is faced with a resilient, open mindset can often serve as an impetus for even greater resilience, as well as a sense of empowerment and purpose.

Depending on the individual´s mindset, any event can be seen either as an opportunity or an obstacle. Furthermore, research conducted by eminent Stanford researcher Dr. Carol Dweck and her team, indicates that a person’s beliefs are a significant predictor of any future action (5). Whether you think you can do something or you don’t, you are likely to prove yourself right. An age-old Finnish construct called sisu (which relates what I have named the action mindset) relates to taking action against the odds, displaying extraordinary courage in the face of adversity, reaching beyond one’s observed capacities and seeing into what might be. There is more to us than what meets the eye, and having an action mindset means to see beyond what Aristotle describes as our actual reality and its limitations. Instead of stopping where we feel our abilities end, we push through the barriers. This barrier might be lack of trust in oneself, physical pain (for example during a sports performance), uncertainty and fear of failure or rejection, among many other examples.

Viewing adversities as opportunities for growth can enable us to embrace them with curiosity and therefore, harness the potential and incredible momentum for change they hold within. So, let’s be bold, try out new things, push the barrier a bit, lean forward in the wind and trust that the process will eventually take us where we need to go.

Wishing everyone a great New Year 2015! In Rumi’s words: May you be a light, lifeboat or a ladder, help someone’s soul heal. I would add: When you do that, you yourself may also find peace.

Ps. While finding peace, you can also find more about sisu and creating safe spaces for one another on my new TEDx Talk titled ‘Sisu: Barriers into Frontiers.’ : ) : )

How has enduring adversities and tapping into sisu made you stronger or better? Or has it? You can join the conversation below, on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for reading : ) // Emilia


(1) Moss Kanter, Rosabeth (2013, July 17). Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill (this is the wonderful article that gave an inspiration for this post. High thank you to Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter!

(2) Joseph, P. (2013, March 12). What doesn´t kill us. Huffington Post.

(3) Johnson, A. T. (2010). Essential concepts for biological engineers. Journal of Biological Engineering, 3(1), 3-15.

(3b) Tedechi & Calhoun (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry 15(1), 1-18.

(4) James, W. (1914). The energies of men. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company.

(5) Dweck, Carol (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (p. 37-60). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

7 thoughts on “The Often Overlooked Opportunity within Adversity

  1. I hope anyone interested in the concept of SISU will see the movie “Gravity.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s a movie about SISU – what it looks like and what the absence of it looks like. “World War Z” is another film that features SISU in its lead character. Masses of people all over the world are seeing SISU on the big screen without knowing it. I hope you can help them take what they see in those popular movies and translate them to their own lives.


    1. Hi Lindsay! Thank you for dropping such a great comment and a suggestion! In exchange, I would really love to recommend the movie Gattaca. Phenomenal directing, acting, screenplay and it has also SISU written all over it.

      Tons of warm wishes! Really GREAT to have you with us on this sisu journey.



  2. When I was doing research at Bell Labs, we used to joke about “insurmountable opportunities.”

    Umberto Eco said, “Whereof we cannot express a theory, we must narrate a story instead.”

    I suppose there is an ineffable Theory of Insurmountable Opportunities that would make for some good story-telling.


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