This Habit Will Prevent You From Making Any Progress
“Valor withers without adversity.”
Bad things happen to everyone.
And the bad news is not uniformly distributed, either. Some people bear more than others.
Adversity strikes early and often.
Many sayings and quips try to persuade us that adversity is just a stepping stone — that there is a way to bounce back, stronger than ever before.
Of course, we can rise up after adversity. And we don’t need to look very far for examples.
Still, adversity is unavoidable. But some of us have a habit that derails us even more than the adversity when it hits. Sometimes it is not the initial pain that causes us to stumble.
Escape Is Not Defeat
“If all else fails, retreat.”
— from The 36 Stratagems
This habit reminded me of a principle used in warfare that Jocko Willink discussed on his podcast. Jocko and his partner discussed the ancient essay called the 36 Stratagems.
The final strategy of the 36 Stratagems is this:
“If all else fails, retreat.”
If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat, then retreat and regroup. When your side is losing, there are only three choices remaining: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance.
Most people allow the prospect of defeat to lead to a final defeat. Most people accept adversity as the death blow. They allow the initial pain to determine their fate. And when it happens one time, it becomes easier to do it over and over again.
But we don’t need to surrender. Surrender is complete defeat. Compromise is half defeat. But escape is not defeat.
As long as we are not defeated, we still have a chance. We can escape. We can accept adversity for what it is — a hole to climb out of instead of a grave to lie down in.
There’s another way to say this — more bluntly — just don’t die.
As Jocko said, “Never surrender.”
“I Had to Fold the Laundry With My Teeth”
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
— Helen Keller
Some people wallow in a little adversity — it forces them to surrender.
Others — like my wife — never surrender.
In June 2010, my wife gave birth to our first child. I had quit my job seven months earlier and started law school six months earlier. My wife had taken responsibility to support our family financially. She was pregnant but was working full-time up until she gave birth. She took a few months to spend time with our son, using up all of her protected medical and family leave. When the protected leave finished, she went back to work so she could continue to make money while I went to law school.
The day after Halloween, in 2010, created a giant spike of adversity in our lives.
My wife shattered her wrist in a serious accident. The surgeon told me that the bones in her forearm were just “a pile of mush.”
But my wife refused to surrender.
She used up all of her protected medical leave that year during the maternity time with my son. She worried about her job and our family if we had no income.
So she went back to work just days after a serious accident took away her right hand.
- She hand-pecked the keyboard so she could type with her left hand.
- She skipped the pain medication so she could think coherently and perform on her job.
- Even though the doctor gave her a note that excused her from working, she never even used the note and kept working.
My wife refused to give in. She did so much that it is hard to even list everything. But she told me later that she did the laundry using one hand and her teeth. I had no idea but she did it and moved on.
She could have let things go and gave in to the circumstances. She could have surrendered. But she was not going to let the pain and adversity stop her from her ultimate purpose.
She didn’t even tell me everything that she had to go through.
After nine surgeries in three years, she could finally use her wrist again. It is not back to normal, but she can function.
Retreat, Not Surrender
“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”
— Sun Tzu
I have faced this myself. I previously had recurring hip pain that proved so painful, I could not support my own weight. I would collapse while standing upright. When the pain came, I almost gave up. It was debilitating.
It takes a certain mindset and perspective to realize that adversity does not equal failure.
A setback does not mean that we must surrender.
I have been researching Herb Brooks for an upcoming project. Herb coached the 1980 U.S. gold-medal winning Olympic hockey team. The Soviet team won the gold medal for the past four Olympic games in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976.
The last U.S. team to win was in 1960 — 20 years earlier. Herb Brooks actually was a part of that 1960 gold-medal-winning team, but he did not receive a gold medal. Herb Brooks was cut from the team just days before the Olympics started. Herb and his father watched his former teammates win the gold medal from his couch.
In 1980, Herb Brooks had to face his own demons when he had to cut his team from 21 players to 20 just days before the beginning round. The man he cut from the team — and the man who would miss being a part of one of the most famous sporting events in U.S. history , the “Miracle on Ice,” was Ralph Cox.
Were the cuts painful for both Herb and Ralph? Absolutely.
But Herb’s adversity created a hunger in him to account for what he lost.
And Ralph later stated in an interview that being cut actually improved his life as a player and an individual. The adversity at the time caused him to re-evaluate what he was doing and where he was going.
Later, Ralph called Herb the best coach he’s ever been around. And Ralph ultimately had an extremely successful career.
Surrender — not a chance. Retreat and keep moving ahead.
Even famous people have epic adversity and failures. Magic Johnson, the famous basketball player who had to quit playing professional basketball due to a serious disease, attempted to host his own late-night talk show called, “The Magic Hour.”
The show did not even last a single year.
Magic was told that the show was canceled on a Friday morning. In a recent interview, he told the interviewer that he gave himself one day to wallow in his disappointment.
And then he got back to work the next Monday. But this failure taught him something important. It taught him that he needed to become a better communicator. So he took voice lessons and hired a coach. Magic improved what caused him to fail. And now, Magic’s business empire is incredible, spanning multiple industries. His businesses employ thousands of people, from white-collar workers to inner-city kids. Magic had the opportunity to quit — to surrender. But he did not quit or surrender. He just retreated and lived to fight another day.
Adversity does not mean defeat. And adversity does not mean that we need to surrender.
Imagine if Herb Brooks never coached. Or Ralph Cox gave up. Or Magic Johnson just retired and never pushed past the failure.
Or if my wife surrendered to pain, fear, and doubt. I certainly would have never started writing.
If all else fails, retreat.
Don’t assume that a loss must result in surrender. Don’t get into the habit of assuming that every loss is a sign of defeat. Remember: you cannot lose until you surrender.
As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance.
No surrender. Retreat if necessary. But move forward.