The Adversity Paradox, J. Barry Griswell and Bob Jennings


“Fascinating insights into the ways that successful people have not only overcome adversity but made a friend and ally out of it. This book offers readers a great opportunity to consider how they will emerge from the major challenges we face individually and as a society. Griswell and Jennings have a deep understanding of the experiences of success arising from adversity, and their observations are unique and encouraging to us all.” David J. Skorton, President, Cornell University

“As Griswell and Jennings point out, there really is no substitute for hard work.  We have to build endurance of character the same way we build endurance of speed or strength, and it always pays off.” Wayne Gretzky, NHL Hall of Fame Player, Businessman, and Coach

Carrie: How did you become interested in writing a book on dealing with adversity?

Bob: A little context is in order to give you the full answer.  Barry and I come from extremely different backgrounds. Barry is from Atlanta and I am from Des Moines. He comes from a really tough background where money was extremely tight; I’m from a middle-class family.  He received his undergrad from Berry College in Rome, GA and his master’s from Stetson University in Florida. I have an engineering degree from Iowa State and received my master’s from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Out of college he went into financial services, I went into construction sales.

Over a number of years we each moved our families numerous times, Barry in the south and eastern US and me to South America, Texas, and the West Coast. We first crossed paths about 18 years ago when we relocated to Des Moines while pursuing our careers.  We, along with our spouses, became close friends socially and playing competitive tennis together, but there was no real business connection other than we were each leading and growing sales organizations for world-class companies—Barry for  Principal Financial Group and me for EFCO, companies we both would eventually lead. From time to time we would compare notes, things like compensation and benefits, employee training, and sales methods.

Given that we were each growing sales organizations there became one area that was extremely important to us and that was employee and agent recruitment, selection and retention. We talked about this on a number of occasions, and we noticed an interesting thing: if there was one marker that we felt would predict a person’s ability to be successful in our organizations, it was a demonstrated ability to overcome adversity.  Our own backgrounds and career experiences, different as they were, supported our observation. Even though Barry and I would not compare notes again on this subject for more than ten years, we each employed it in our respective company’s methods for locating and bringing along those with this all-important identification marker.

Now fast forward to the year 2003, when my co-author was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association, which recognizes and honors people who’ve come from humble beginnings and gone on to great success. The Association inducts ten new members a year and includes the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Craig Barrett of Intel, George Foreman, Bob Hope, Wayne Huizenga, Colin Powell, President Ronald Reagan, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Oprah Winfrey. The marker of overcoming adversity was once again in front of us, and we heard some very incredible stories.

Now, having so much affirmation of what we had thought and felt for many years, we decided to research and document in a book how the experiential learning gained from overcoming life’s worst experiences could catapult an individual to incredible success.

Carrie: Who will benefit from learning from what you call “the adversity paradox”?

Barry: The backdrop for our book is business, and our original intent was a book benefiting everyone aspiring to be successful in business – students, entrepreneurs, those just entering the workforce, managers, corporate leaders, and those with languishing careers.  The Adversity Paradox is still primarily a business book, but the stories people told us of overcoming adversity are quite diverse and can inspire anyone.

As Bob mentioned, when we were looking for people for our respective sales organizations we looked for candidates with a track record of having overcome adversity. Over time we’ve seen fewer and fewer people who would fit that profile.

The experts believe this is because each successive generation has been more prosperous.  This means not only that people have more material goods—bigger houses, more cars, more TVs, and so on—but that they have been able to use some of that prosperity to shield their kids from the hardships and potential adversities prior generations may have endured. We think this is a good thing, but the down side is that fewer people are gaining the experiential learning overcoming adversity may provide.

What has not changed much is the work environment. It remains as full of competition, land mines, and yes, adversity, as it ever has.  The bottom line is that the work environment is much less forgiving than the environment many grow up in and it may be the place where many individuals get their first real dose of adversity. Learning how to make adversity your friend is what our book is all about and we believe it will benefit many.

Carrie: What are the keys to befriending adversity?

Bob: In writing this book we collected and studied over 200 biographies of people we could classify as having lived the adversity paradox, and we interviewed the best of those. We complemented the interviews with a great deal of research, primarily in the areas of moral development and the psychology of positive thinking. We also relied heavily on our own experiences.  From all of this material, we concluded that there are three essentials for befriending adversity, and they’re the same three essentials required to move from a low trajectory to one of great success.

The first of the three essentials is self-accountability, a no-excuses approach when addressing setbacks of any sort. Without exception, everyone we talked to who’d learned from the adversity paradox owned up to any role they’d played in creating the setback (if any) and immediately got back on a path of success. Facilitating this approach was a belief that there is no such thing as “luck.” Occasionally the word “luck” would come up in our interviews but when we would drill down we always found the definitions never had anything to do with being at the right place at the right time. In some of our interviews we were told outright that there was no such thing as “luck,” but more common were definitions of luck like “preparation meeting opportunity” or luck being “the residue of hard work.” Most importantly, those we interviewed had replaced “a belief in luck” with “control of their own destiny by holding themselves accountable.”

The second essential came from our research. We came away with an understanding of the profound importance of having a positive attitude. It’s absolutely mandatory. Why is this? Optimists are healthier, they do better academically, they do better on sports teams, they do better at work, and some studies even suggest they fare better in relationships. They don’t participate in pity parties, they don’t spend their time wallowing in their failure—they spend their time moving forward.

The third essential came from our own experiences and it involves three simple words: “and then some.” “And then some” is exactly what it says: it’s the practice of giving every task before you your full effort and then some.  It’s consistently going above and beyond expectations and requirements. What Barry and I would go on to realize with the power of this simple concept was that applying it to individual tasks is just the beginning. The real parlay is figuring out how to apply it to the building of your own individual human capital, to the full-fledged process of self-improvement.

Carrie: Much of The Adversity Paradox is devoted to self-improvement, or as you call it, increasing your individual human capital.  Can you tell us what things make up your human capital and also tell us a little about some of those you interviewed to demonstrate how overcoming adversity positively affects your human capital development?

Barry: Yes, we spend much of our book on human capital development so I won’t go into detail here, but briefly, there are five human capital components:

  1. Learning to conduct good and accurate Introspection.
  2. Values Behavior, which many would call ethics, but we see it more as moral development.
  3. Work Character, which includes one’s physical and cognitive work ethics but also the development of one’s unique skills to lead.
  4. Purpose and passion, or finding a purpose you’re passionate about.
  5. Thirst for Knowledge, which many would refer to as lifetime learning.

We heard some terrific stories from the people we interviewed, and each one illustrates how the human capital components are gained as a result of overcoming adversity. We feature people like Lee Liu, perhaps the classic story of the immigrant coming to America with little more than the shirt on his back and going on to become CEO of a large company. Or Doris Christopher, who at the age of 34 started the Pampered Chef in her basement with a few thousand dollars borrowed against an insurance policy, and who grew the company into a $600 million per year business. Or Bill Doré, who grew up in Louisiana the son of an illiterate father and went on to create the largest offshore construction company in the world.  Then there’s Peter Dawkins, the former vice chairman of Citigroup.  Some may know his story of overcoming polio as a kid and going on to win the Heisman, but our interview uncovered a much more interesting story: here was a troubled kid who carried a switchblade and nearly failed junior high but went on to be a Rhodes scholar, earn a doctorate from Princeton, and be very successful in business, too.  These are just a few of the stories we had the privilege of hearing and which we’re honored to share in The Adversity Paradox.

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There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. I totally agree with this book’s principles!

  2. I am a team leader for 2 departments in the hospital I work in. I think this book would be very good for me.

  3. This book reminds me of Napoleon Hill’s principles of success. Sounds like a winner!

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