The wisdom of adversity and misfortune

“But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you into the opposite lesson, making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.” … Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

During a recent outing to one of Seattle’s many brewpubs, I swapped stories with my good friend about hospital visits. Most people I know have had them, and a rarefied few have not. In my case, I have been hospitalized at least a half-dozen times, mostly for stitches, but also worse.

I told my friend some of my greatest learning moments came with contemplation lying in a hospital bed. There is nothing like pain one feels in the ugliness of a hospital room to focus the mind and to allow one to make sense of all the things that preceded the unforgettable trigger moments.

South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal
South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal

South African born psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal has written a book on this theme called the Gift of Adversity. Thinking back on his own Apartheid-era life, surviving a near fatal stabbing, and his professional experiences, Rosenthal argues that innovation, resilience, and understanding emerge  from our own adverse experiences and by gaining wisdom from those hard times. Writ large, economists will even refer to collective behaviors among entire generations, such as young people who came into adulthood in the Depression era, and whose lifelong buying patterns and decisions to live more austerely can be quantitatively measured.

Using examples of individuals who endured suffering yet who came out stronger, Rosenthal sees opportunity in these struggles for all of us. “Well, when adversity comes, the last word that comes to mind is gift, because it just looks like an unmitigated disaster. But, how many times have you heard a friend or somebody say, ‘You know, at the time, it seemed terrible, but in retrospect, it was for the best.’ … The first step is really to accept that the adversity has happened. … We have to somehow come to terms that it really has happened. Then, we have to analyze the situation, every adversity is different, and respond accordingly.”

My own experiences mirrored these points, almost too perfectly. Both involved small misfortunes with lifelong rewards.

Lesson No. 1: When I was 14 and not fully mature, I did something that was likely one of the dumbest acts of my life. I will not say exactly what it was, but it substantially disrupted life at my often-violent and chaotic junior high school, in University City, Mo. I was soon on my way for an expulsion as the second-to-last-day of classes was ending in June 1979.

Coming back to campus I encountered four guys who I did not know. At least three were students. The other may have been a high school student. He was older, a guy with a cast. They were tough. I was not. They were experienced in the art of violence. I had few such fighting skills. They were skillful manipulators, and I fell for small talk that drew me close. It turns out one of them had been blamed for the incident. That is the story I heard second-hand, and the group was bent on physical vengeance.

I do not remember everything that happened, but I do remember feeling a floating feeling. I was cold-cocked in the face by one of the four wearing a cast. I was bleeding profusely from a cut on my eyelid and could not see out of my left eye. I was lying on the ground not sure what had happened. I felt warm blood on my hand.

I remember the four of them mocking me and telling me if I was happy now about having the heat fall on them. It was a perfect example of the violence I had witnessed many times before at this school, often with the tense black-white racial undertones, and I am sure that tension influenced this assault too. They walked away, never having been arrested, never having been questioned by anyone, ever.

Insult piled upon injury. I had to go back to school, get kicked out by a furious principal who did not express any concern about me having just been assaulted on school grounds, and then have teachers sign my expulsion papers. One thug laughed at me in the hall and yelled, “What happened to you.” I shot back, in my un-masculine voice, “What do you think happened.” He turned cold, came close, and threatened, “Yo, want another one, mother fucker.” Luckily I walked away from that one.

I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.
I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.

My mom, a new teacher that year in the same district, took me to the emergency room in Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where I was put into a shared room and monitored. My eye pressure was dangerously high because vessels were ruptured from blunt trauma, and I was at high risk of blindness in my left eye. The doctors prescribed having both eyes covered for more than a week to keep them from moving, lying in a bed, and having no physical activity.

I remember the slow passage of time and mostly the sounds of the ward, the voice of my few visitors, and the stories of a young man next to me going into eye surgery, not sure what would happen.

The school principal came once, talked briefly, and somehow waived my punishment as a result of being a violent crime victim. He never told me or my mom what the school or school district had done to investigate the assault. My mom told me years later she was too afraid as a new teacher to make waves with her new employer. No police officer ever took my story. The whole thing was wiped under the rug.

Lying there, in a flimsy hospital gown, feeling like needles were piercing my eyeball, I came to the realization of how precious my sight really was, and how close I had flirted with genuine disaster.

Lesson Learned: This was the clearest teaching moment ever in my life. Never, ever, do stupid things. Such acts have unforeseen consequences, particularly things that put you in a weak position with uncaring bureaucracies and with men who use violence to settle a score. If you act badly and unwisely without thinking, the sword of blunt justice will be swift, and it will be lasting. Also, without any allies or friends, one can be quickly abandoned by any organization if you are perceived as lacking advocacy skills and are vulnerable. So, do not present yourself as weak or easily exploited. Finally, and most importantly, always know exactly who you are dealing with when you confront strangers in strange circumstances. Trust your instincts, and keep your wits about you, always. Your instincts will always know who is a friend and who is a foe. Worry about bruised feelings later, from a safe distance.

It took me a whole summer to recover, and I could not engage in full physical activities for three months. I wore an eye patch half the summer. Decades later, I still have damage to the back of my eye that my most recent visit to an optometrist confirmed. He could see the damaged areas after my pupil was dilated.

Lesson No. 2: In my last month of my journalism master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in July 1993, I was playing pickup soccer at the UNC-CH campus. It was supposed to be friendly, but of course men are fiercely competitive. A guy who I was marking intentionally head-butted me with the back of his head into my face. He broke my nose instantly, and it began to bleed profusely. I walked myself to the UNC-CH hospital, as it was close by.

This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.
This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.

I waited about three hours for a resident to attend to my situation. The plastic-surgeon-to-be had been up about 28 hours and was in a terrible mood. After shooting cocaine painkillers into my nasal cavity area, he stuck a metal rod up my nose and proceeded to move things back into place. I recall screaming like a wild animal so loudly that it clearly disrupted patients in the entire wing. The exhausted and overworked resident was furious with my uncooperativeness, as he called it. He stuck the rod back in and went back to work.

A nurse came in and saw the procedure. She simply held my hand. I stopped crying. I instantly calmed down. My level of pain subsided dramatically. The compassionate act of human touch proved more powerful than any medicine. After the resident stuffed both of my nasal passages with some sort of medical gauze, I thanked the nurse. She gave me a caring look that said, everything’s going to be OK.

That night I wrote a poem about the war in Bosnia, then raging at the time, and I put my small problem into a larger perspective of suffering felt more severely by others around the world.

Lesson Learned: Human compassion and human touch are among the most powerful healing agents in the world, often more powerful than medicine and actions of medical specialists. The mind, when it needs to, can calm down and can process a stressful situation. Set the calming effect in motion, and show mindfulness of yourself and others who may be less fortunate.

Comment: Author Rosenthal, who sees the importance of adversity, profiles the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He was the only member of his family to survive the genocide, staying in four different camps, and went on to receive acclaim for his widely read treatise called Man’s Search for Meaning, original published in German in 1946 Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl
Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl

Frankl’s own horrific experience taught fellow psychiatrist Rosenthal critical lessons also, that one can find meaning even in the midst of terrible adversity and that no single group of people is pure good or evil. Both types of people can be found in all groups, everywhere.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,” wrote Frankl. “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

In no way did anything I experience come close to the challenges Frankl and other tough and lucky individuals have endured from such crimes.

I do know that in my case, my invaluable teachers came disguised as sterile wards and rooms of hospitals, giving me opportunities to contemplate larger truths. In one case, I created my own folly but could use my intellect to evaluate my mistakes. I also benefitted from being in hospitals, where I seldom felt kindness and felt great stress and also fear. This was clearly a place to avoid at all costs. I was doubly motivated to stay healthy—mind, body, and soul.

The wisdom I gained at those small junctures far exceeded anything I received in any university setting. As Robert Greene’s opening quote aptly notes, our bad luck prepares us for misfortune and gives us the strategies to overcome the roadblocks we build for ourselves or encounter from others. Those who are blessed mostly by good luck will eventually see their luck change, and when they do, they will be overtaken by those who have adapted and learned already.

So be thankful for those learning moments. They are your teachers, and you profit immensely by employing that knowledge wisely in the future.

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Robert Greene’s insights into power and mastery

Robert Greene, popular author
Popular author Robert Greene

How is it that a classics major, a guy who reportedly held 80 jobs, and a not-so-successful screenwriter became the big man of big ideas in a span of 15 years, now doing lectures at places like Google? Today, writer Robert Greene is known by everyone from corporate CEOs, to rappers like 50 Cent and Jay Z, and even to retired dictators like Fidel Castro.

Many people are most familiar with Greene’s seminal 1998 work, The 48 Laws of Power. The book is a compendium of principles of success for the modern-day prince and even low-level office worker on how to succeed. Some of those frequently mentioned laws include “Court attention at all costs,” “Crush your enemy totally,” “Learn to keep people dependent on you,” and “Pose as a friend, work as a spy.”

He also wrote other popular books drawing on the same formula of turning to the past and historic examples to shine relevance on the present and also on achieving success.

Greene’s works also include The Art of Seduction (2004), The 33 Strategies of War (2007), The 50th Law (2009) that involved collaboration with rapper 50 Cent, and more recently Mastery (2012). Greene is a man clearly on a mission. I recommend anyone who is interested in organizational behavior or simply how to get along better with a rival or coworker read one of his works.

Rebooting those ‘stale’ classics and lessons of history

The 48 Laws of Power, in essence, reboots the well-read and well-studied writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, historic Chinese military strategists like Sun Tzu, and tactics of leaders such as Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. These are texts and persons that liberal arts majors by the hundreds of thousands have studied, yet few others have stitched together to have such contemporary modern relevance for everyone’s day-to-day life. As someone who has read many of these classic works and who studied history, nothing here is new to me, and thus not surprising.

Having sold well over a million copies of The 48 Laws of Power alone, Greene is today the subject of professional jealousy from those who have not achieved his notoriety and also praise from those who practice his stratagems that have appeared repeatedly in history. (This is just one of many summaries of those laws found online, and they are worth downloading and reviewing.)

Some professional groups, like the American Public Health Association, even published the laws of power, and quizzically asked public health leaders, “So, now that you’ve read the laws, how appropriate are they for you, as a health care administrator?” Having worked in the field, I can assure you many of these laws most certainly apply to public health bureaucracies and managerial aspirants in them who are more obsessed with power games and personal ambition than with promoting public health. But this is not news to anyone, in any profession.

As Greene told the LA Times in 2011, “These laws … people might say, ‘Oh they’re wicked.’ They’re practiced day in and day out by businesspeople. You’re always trying to get rid of your competition and it can be pretty bloodthirsty, and that’s just the reality.”

48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
The 48 Laws of Power

The ‘dark side’ or the ‘real side’?

Consider Greene’s dark view in the opening to The 48 Laws of Power. “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power. In fact, the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.”

For Greene, The 48 Laws of Power was a personal journey that built upon his fascination with Greek and Roman history, and the lessons drawn from that era. In Greene’s case, his failures in Hollywood led him to attempt to duplicate Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River to launch a civil war against his rival Pompeii (dramatized brilliantly in the HBO miniseries Rome).

A statue of Julius Caesar in Rome (taken in 2006). Like Caesar, Greene also had to cross his Rubicon to achieve mastery and success.
A statue of Julius Caesar in Rome (taken in 2006). Like Caesar, Greene also had to cross his Rubicon to achieve mastery and success.

Greene notes how he arrived at his own Rubicon to reboot the tired, old classics into a modern bible for aspiring climbers and those trying to cope with amoral people and broken organizations: “My situation is much less intense, but I will follow Caesar and not only write the proposal, but take three months to do it right. I would have to borrow the money and cut my ties with the film world. As Caesar revealed to me, the more I had to lose, the harder I would work. The treatment turned into the best-selling The 48 Laws of Power and represents the turning point in my life.”

For those who are not familiar with history or its lessons, they may be missing Greene’s larger and longer long view of human history and behaviors that transcend time and culture. He told Forbes that his secret goal is to make “reading, studying the classics and philosophy something hip, so that young people were inspired to step away from the TV and the Internet and challenge their minds, rethink the world and return to our origins.”

We already knew a lot about the laws of power

When I posted a section of Greene’s writing on my Facebook page, describing people who are psychopathic and display passive aggression to the point of becoming warriors at this art, one of my colleagues responded, “OMG. If this does not describe one of my co-workers, I don’t know what does. Thank you for this.”

For me, many things Greene discusses have been well trodden by writers from William Shakespeare to Mark Twain, and anyone who has worked as a news reporter knows the realities that always lie beneath the surface veneer, particularly among those who exploit others and use power.

This is not to say students of history are cynics. Great students of history also are great leaders, notably Abraham Lincoln, who used his deep knowledge of America’s founding fathers and the actual intent of the U.S. Constitution’s authors to persuade voters that they did not intend slavery to remain a permanent and immoral institution in the country. Lincoln’s passion for history and his knowledge of power and human ambitions in fact made him one of the greatest leaders ever.

Mastery, by Robert Greene
Mastery

Mastery takes a more optimistic tone

I was deeply impressed with Greene’s delightful 2012 book, Mastery. The book uses profiles of contemporary masters and historic “geniuses,” such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, John Coltrane, Leonardo di Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and others. (Many examples, but not all, are white men.) Why did they break down barriers, have astounding creativity, and achieve brilliance that crossed boundaries of thought.

Greene’s answer lies in the deep, thoughtful, apprenticeship type work one does before one becomes a master. He shows that through this applied study, the most innovative work happens in sports, science, research, art, military endeavors, and more. For Greene, through an applied apprenticeship that normally lasts five to 10 years, learning real skills and innovative thinking occur at the neural level, where great insight comes from.

“The goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character—the first transformation on the way to mastery,” he writes. These involve three modes:

  • Step One: Deep Observation—the passive mode
  • Step Two: Skills Acquisition—the practice mode
  • Step Three: Experimentation—the active mode

During the acquisition mode, an apprentice will log at least 10,000 hours of practice, before charting his or her own course as a master. “This number has an almost magical or mystical resonance to it,” Greene writes. “It means qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has learned to organize and structure large amounts of information. With all of this tacit knowledge, it can now become creative and playful with it.”

For Greene, mastery is more than becoming simply proficient. This is about deep creativity and achieving one’s life purpose, which he suggests is a challenge that will confront most of us. “No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviated because of the lure of money, or more immediate prospects of prosperity. … Not seeing clearly ahead of you, you will end up in a dead-end career. … There is no compromise there, no way of escaping the dynamic. You will recognize how far you have deviated by the depth of your pain and frustration.”

The answer, according to Greene, lies in pursuing the path used by masters time and again, which he acknowledges is full of challenges and pleasures. “Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it,” writes Greene. “It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their life’s task.”

Franklin’s lesson in power and mastery

According to Robert Greene, Benjamin Franklin was a master who had great social intelligence.
According to Robert Greene, Benjamin Franklin was a master who had great social intelligence.

One the masters cited by Greene is Benjamin Franklin, because he was an innovative inventor, writer, and businessman who possessed great social intelligence. Greene shows that this latter skill is absolutely key to becoming successful and a master. Franklin is also one of my many role models. He excelled at nearly everything he did and had amazing people skills that always left a positive impression, like influential people I have known in my life.

Clearly, Franklin was one who learned about power well, in the most classic sense. Greene notes that as a young man, Franklin was terribly duped by Pennsylvania’s governor when he went to England and found himself practically penniless, without promised letters of introduction.

A copy of the daily schedule of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin thought deeply and then grew. He resolved never to make an error of character judgment again and think about a man’s intentions carefully before making a response. And he always resolved to work at building his networks and turning enemies into allies, if possible. It worked time and again as he kept having success after success, but after great work and careful deep thought. Greene also shows that Franklin, as a master, also always stayed curious, and some say youthful until his 80s. The rest is, as they say, history.

Franklin perhaps is a Machiavellian case study in early American power, by becoming a revolutionary, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and “founding father.” But by achieving excellence through the path of apprentice to master, he became much more.

On my wall, I have hanging a clip from Franklin’s daily planning calendar. On one side, he wrote the question for the morning: “What good shall I do this day?” For the evening hours, his calendar ended with the evening question, “What good have I done today.”