The Key to Overcoming Anything

A truth of life is that each of us will face hard times. Loss, disappointment, and failure will visit each of us at some point or another — the question isn’t “if,” but “when.”

What sets resilient people apart isn’t whether or not they’ve faced a tragedy — it’s how they have decided to overcome it.

You see, we have a choice. We can let ourselves be overwhelmed by tragedy, letting the tragedy strip away the remainder of what we have to give to the world. Or, we can choose to rise above it, letting the tragedy temper and hone us like fine steel, so that we can make an even greater contribution to the world.

The key to overcoming anything is making the choice to do so.

In academia, there is the tradition of giving a “last lecture,” where professors are asked to speak on the things that matter to them most as though this was the last lecture they would ever give. When Randy Pausch gave his “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon, it wasn’t a thought experiment — he’d recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

He wrote a book, titled The Last Lecture, talking not about his own life and legacy, but about how each of us can follow our own dreams. In it, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” And how Pausch chose to play his hand is telling. The Last Lecture itself is an incredible act of resilience, an incredible choice in the face of tragedy.

A year ago Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, lost her husband. During a commencement speech at UC Berkeley last May, Sandberg shared for the first time publicly how she had weathered that loss.

Sandberg said, “I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning.”

None of us can control what happens to us — but we can control how we respond to it. We can choose to experience joy, gratitude, and faith in the world.

Choosing joy and meaning is not the same as pretending to be happy. It’s not going to magically melt away the pain you’re feeling. Instead, what choosing joy and meaning does is to reframe the tragedy within the greater context of your life, rather than letting it define you. It lets you decide that you’ll continue to make a contribution, rather than shutting down your talents.

The key to overcoming anything is to make a choice. The situation may be beyond your control, but how you react to it is up to you.

When tragedy strikes and you find yourself standing at a crossroads, think of everything you’ve gone through to get you to this moment. Think of all the other times you were unsure and afraid. Think of all the other times life has beaten you down, and yet you stood back up.

And then choose to stand back up this time, too.

You’ll make it through.

Jodie Shaw is Chief Marketing Officer for The Alternative Board, a global company providing small- to medium-sized business owners and leaders help and advice with facilitated monthly business advisory boards together with one-on-one coaching. She is currently writing her first book, All Leaders Make Mistakes. Read the introduction on LinkedIn Pulse. Comments always welcome.