“What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude toward it. Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity.” – J. Sidlow Baxter
There is a Chinese proverb that has guided my thought process for many years. The story goes as follows:
An old man raised horses for a living. One day, one of his prized horses ran away. Hearing of his misfortune, a neighbor came to comfort him. The old man replied “May be good, may be bad, who knows.” A week later, his horse returned—with another beautiful horse. This time, the neighbor returned to congratulate the old man on his great fortune. Again, the old man replied “May be good, may be bad, who knows.” The next day, his son went out for a ride on the new horse. The wild horse threw the boy, breaking his leg in the process. The neighbor came by once again, this time to give his sympathy. And yet again, the old man replied “May be good, may be bad, who knows.” Weeks later, the Emperor’s army arrived at the village to recruit all of the young men to fight in the war. The old man’s son could not go off to war, and was spared from a certain death.
It’s a great story, with so many lessons. Like the old man, we are all on a path with many different twists and turns. It’s how we handle each situation that will determine our levels of joy and satisfaction in life.
Negative things will happen: It is part of the human experience. Are we able to accept, learn and grow? If we follow the old man’s lead, the choice is entirely our own to make.
What We Control
Stephen R. Covey, in his famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explains the concept of the “Circle of Concern” vs. the “Circle of Influence.”
Concern is an inevitable part of the human experience: Throughout our lives, we are constantly facing new things that may cause concern. What it comes down to is the ability to sift through the noise and understand which of those elements that concern us we can also influence. Spending time focusing on those elements which we can directly affect—those which are entirely in our control—will make the difference between a successful outcome and a frustrating situation.
That’s where the magic happens.
Focusing on what you can influence is a mental model based on removing yourself from the emotion of the situation. When an obstacle comes your way, ask yourself: What do I have control over? What attitude can I choose to take that will bring a positive solution my way?
If you cannot influence a part of the problem, it’s time to move on: Acceptance may very well be your only choice.
Accepting a problem, though on the surface may seem like defeat, is quite the opposite: Acceptance is another choice which is entirely in our hands.
Again, we’re in power. When we identify where our power lies, it is a liberating experience. It is similar to focusing on your strengths instead of dwelling on your weaknesses. Knowing and understanding where your power lies is a huge part in overcoming any struggle.
End of an Era
This week my son graduated 6th grade. In Canada, that is the end of his grade-school years. The virus forced schools around the country to cancel the end of the school year. Along with the elimination of classes came cancellations of graduation parties and ceremonies everywhere.
My wife and I felt sad. My son would not be seeing most of his friends again. He will be attending a new high school. He is the only student from his entire grade attending this school.
Rather than sulk in consequences well out of his hands, my son helped his teacher gather pictures from his schoolmates and put together an album as a souvenir. His incredible teacher also visited every single student at home to bring them a graduation gift and express her appreciation for them as her students. And a group of parents organized a party in a park—with appropriate social distancing measures, of course—giving all students and friends a chance to celebrate one last time.
They took a tough situation and made the best of it. I am sure my son will remember this year for the right reasons now: He turned an obstacle into an opportunity. He made a choice to lean into acceptance and in that choice, lay a realization of how great his power truly is.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
There is nothing easier than making assumptions. We tell ourselves stories and play out scenarios that aren’t always factual. It’s a dangerous game that can often lead to missed opportunities for learning. Yet we all fall into making assumptions.
I recently had a very interesting experience that shattered many of mine.
I made a new connection on LinkedIn, which is something that happens regularly. It felt standard. This person reached out to me after looking at my background and, as we had many things in common, suggested we meet in a park to share ideas.
In the past, I would brush this off really quickly. Meeting a stranger in a park was not on my list of priorities. With the crisis, I had more time on my hands, and decided to take a chance. That meeting developed into an incredibly impactful relationship that has given me a ton of new perspectives. I am very lucky I was able to see past my assumptions and develop a cool, new relationship. We just really never know, even when we assume we do.
Give It time
In the end, it all comes down to time. Can we be patient enough to see, over the longer term, if an obstacle will in fact become an opportunity? Are we able to change our perspective and learn from a seemingly challenging moment?
It takes some faith and some experience. I have come to realize I need to get out of my own way and trust the process: Things happen and they “may be good, may be bad, who knows.” But it often pays off in a big way.
Shawn Johal is a Scaling Up Certified Coach currently working with several entrepreneurs and their businesses to help accelerate their growth, while finding personal balance and happiness.