Why Adversity Can Be The Best Thing For Your Career

For many an entrepreneur, wholly unglamorous stuff–poverty, chores, embarrassing losses–has been the key to later success.

Why Adversity Can Be The Best Thing For Your Career
[Photo: Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar]

We speak of looking up to people we admire. And so often, when we look up to successful people in our line of work, it seems like they must have always been at the top. But the reality is so often the very opposite. As Fast Company has learned by interviewing a variety of creative and successful people over the past year, failure often contains the seeds of success. Indeed, some of the most successful people started out at the very, very bottom–in a slum or tiny village, even–and still treasure the lessons they learned from those years.


So if you’ve been stuck at the bottom in some sense in 2015, try looking at it as a blessing in disguise. Here are six ways to embrace and learn from adversity.

Own Loss Like A Boss

There’s a temptation, sometimes, to sweep low points under the rug. But you may get better karma from owning a loss, and wearing it on your sleeve. Broadway producer Kevin McCollum was of course disappointed when Something Rotten!, the musical he produced, didn’t win the Tony for best musical. But he ran a hilarious New York Times ad celebrating his show as a “Loser!”–and won a lot of good will for it. Similarly, Brian Helgeland, director of the movie Legend celebrated the fact that he won a Razzie–awarded to the worst screenplay of the year–for The Postman, and even became one of the few recipients to demand a trophy for the distinction.

Stay Hungry

A benefit of starting out a lower rung is that it instills you with a drive to succeed. This, certainly, is the case of Enio Ohmaye. Previously a senior scientist at Apple, he’s now an executive at EF Learning. But he’s never forgotten the summer he spent as a busboy in Monticello, New York. He lived in a ramshackle house and was berated by the wealthy people he served. Now at the top, he is still attentive to the experience of people at the bottom: “When I interview people,” he says, “I afterwards often ask the receptionist how those people treated them.”

Stay Angry

Nathan Martin is the founder of a Pittsburgh-based creative agency with a wide range of major clients. But inside of him, he says, is still a bit of the younger Nathan Martin, who was the “singer/screamer” in a touring punk rock band. The transition was very gradual, but logical; his work in a subversive art collective evolved, over time, into culture-jamming work for corporate clients. Without his punk rock history, Martin’s stunts would lack their edge. “I understand the perspective of both Nathans,” he says, when asked to imagine confronting his younger, dreadlocked self. “They’re both right for their time and place… In some ways I still really respect the dreaded younger Nathan.”

Find Nobility In Drudgery

Driven people can resent the time they have to spend doing normal, lowly, human things, like housework. But for several successful entrepreneurs, a connection with that earthy, physical work is essential to their creativity–and success. Curvel Baptiste of William & Park finds that his best ideas come to him when sweeping (vacuuming just doesn’t cut it). The creativity flows, he says, “when it’s just me and that broom, with no noise, no clutter.” Recently, a friend needed help coming up with a name for her business. “Hey, why don’t you come over and sweep?” she asked. And for Cynthia Kallile of The Meatloaf Bakery, doing laundry is the greatest way to unwind and recharge after a long day. “It’s a ritual for me,” she says. “It’s something I can control and manage.”

Embrace Adversity At Any Age

At just over 40, Jan Ihmels confesses he’s chosen to become a first-time entrepreneur at “the worst stage of my life.” He’ll sleep on a mattress in the office. He juggles work along with joint custody of his two kids. He struggles to find time to date. All while launching a language-learning startup, There are times it seems downright undignified for a man his age. And yet he says he wouldn’t trade it for anything. “To do the thing you love is a great thing,” he says, happy with his career for the first time in a long time. And he feels he is setting a good model for his children; his 10-year-old son, especially, has shown a precocious interest in technology.


Remember What Necessity Is The Mother Of…

Ije Nwokorie is the CEO of the hip creative consultancy Wolff Olins. But his youth in rural Nigeria was downright humble. He loved his childhood–and it instilled in him lessons in creativity he uses today. “I was living in a place where everything had to be creative,” he recalls. “Having a toy was a creative act, because you had to make it.” He recalls the entrepreneurialism of one boy in his village, who used razor blades and scraps of tire rubber to make personalized stamps for paying customers. Nwokorie carries into his current work the belief that everyone is creative. And Ambarish Mitra of augmented reality startup Blippar likewise learned a great deal from formative years in a poor place. It was only when he ran away from his childhood home and spent a year living in a Delhi slum that Mitra got the new perspective he needed to launch a successful tech career.


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.