Why Your Worst Struggle is Your Greatest Opportunity, and How To Use It
“What is taken away once, is given back twice.” – Mike Abbott
You are probably wondering who Mike Abbott is. Mike Abbott is the father of Jim Abbott, an 11-year Major League Baseball veteran and Olympic gold medalist. Jim also threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees, one of 239 total no-hitters in Major League Baseball history since 1901.
Jim was born with no right hand. For all too many, this would be an excuse — a reason to quit, or not even to start. It’s a handicap, a disability telling you that you are weak and unable to perform to the same level as “normal” kids.
Mike Abbott refused to let a handicap define his son — and to let his son allow it to define him. Mike’s quote is a modern take on a quote from a passage in the Bible (Job 42:10), and Mike’s use of the phrase couldn’t be more accurate. What Jim may have lacked in physical abilities manifested strengths in other areas. For example, he was forced to leverage and build his creativity. With his father’s mentorship, he developed a pitching technique and workflow where he would lay the left-handed glove on his right hand, and, after throwing a pitch, he would seamlessly transfer the glove to the left hand to play defense.
Given his experience, he understood perspective and gratitude, and he developed an intense sense of resilience. These skills, amongst others, gave Jim a competitive advantage over the kids (and future athletes) he competed with in many different sports and also allowed him to develop his unique physical abilities to the highest level.
Jim became a standout pitcher and quarterback (yep, quarterback) at Flint Central High School in Flint, Michigan. He went on to win the James Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the United States, while playing baseball at the University of Michigan. He was the first baseball player to win the award. He won 87 games as a Major League pitcher and finished third in voting for the Cy Young Award in 1991.
Jim Abbott’s worst struggle became his biggest opportunity. His adversity was his competitive advantage. This isn’t unique to Jim Abbott. We all face adversity every day in various ways. If we develop the right skillset to help us use adversity to our advantage, we can learn to take advantage of opportunities that manifest.
Here are three principles that you can begin to learn today to take advantage of your struggles:
Develop a Growth Mindset
In her seminal book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck breaks down her research focused on the power of perspective and belief in determining future performance.
Dweck’s studies found that human beings fall into two categories of mindset: fixed mindset and growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, one believes that their abilities, character and intelligence are fixed — we “are who we are.” This view leads to avoiding challenges, giving up when confronted with struggle, and feeling threatened by the success of others. Those with a growth mindset take a different approach. They believe that effort is the path to mastery, failure is an opportunity to grow, and criticism is critical to the learning process. Sound familiar?
The key takeaway from Dweck’s research is that regardless of the mindset we currently possess, we have the ability to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset through practice and a shift in the story we tell ourselves (Martin Seligman calls this our “explanatory style”).
Action: Identify your mindset. Record yourself for one minute today after a challenge or frustration. How do you respond? Do you approach the problem constructively (growth) or by shutting down/blaming others (fixed)?
Focus on What You Can Control
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I recommend adopting a stoic response when adversity shows itself. Stoic philosophy, as characterized by philosophers and leaders like Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (and more recently Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday), teaches us that we cannot control what happens to us (the external), but we can control our response to these events (the internal).
Action: The next time you hit traffic going to work in the morning, think about what is more productive: flipping out in your car over the horrendous traffic, or calmly thinking about how you can try to leave earlier tomorrow morning. Once you begin to practice a stoic approach to adversity, you’ll feel much differently about how adversity affects you.
It sounds simple enough, but studies show that we don’t express enough gratitude (known as the “gratitude gap”). Gratitude can have a measurable impact on your health, happiness and overall well-being. It is a matter of what we choose as our center of attention. Oh, has work been “super busy” for the past couple months? How about being grateful you have a job that helps to provide value to your family?
Action: Develop a five-minute gratitude practice. Right before you go to bed, choose to do one of two things:
Write down three things that you are grateful for today.
Talk to your significant other about one thing that you appreciate about them.
These concepts are not new. They aren’t earth-shattering. They serve as mental exercises to make you better and more agile so that you can live the life you want to live.
The next time you find yourself talking about your weaknesses and struggles as reasons not to take action, or when you listen to a friend tell you that it can’t be done because of an obstacle, apply your new principles. Think of Jim Abbott. Think of someone in your life who’s persisted in the face of adversity.