Why Adversity is Good For You


Hardship is underrated. Last night, while my husband watched Deadliest Catch and I tried to concentrate on reading in the next room, I was drawn to the melodrama of the television. A young man had “quit” the job of deckhand on the crab boat and spent the remainder of the ten day trip in his bunk watching movies while the rest of the staff slipped on the icy decks, hauled in crab pots and spouted expletives for the camera. I wasn’t impressed, but John was intrigued. “It’s just like a ski area,” he said. When the going gets tough, the weak fold. And the weak ones are usually the young ones.

I know what he meant.

Kurt Hahn, educator and founder of Outward Bound, believed in hands-on, challenging experiences as a means to build character. I worked for several summers at Outward Bound, teaching teenagers to face difficult trials in the mountains, and saw his philosophy perform wonders. The human spirit needs challenge in order to grow. We need hardship. When life gets tough, we rely on our past experiences for solace; we can tell ourselves “I’ve been through tough times before; I can make it through this.”

Sisters of Laya, Bhutan

More often in modern society, we blame others for hardship. Whole lawsuits are built on this phenomenon. Adversity is something to be avoided at all costs. But, as Kurt Hahn claimed, “there is more in you than you think”.

When we alleviate all our discomfort, looking always for the easy way, we fail to grow in important ways. Tough situations carve out a deep well in our psyche, to be filled later with growth and reassurance. We call this “depth of experience”, and without it we are shallow hot-house flowers that wilt at the first sign of heat.

When I visited Bhutan a few years ago,

Layap Children at Play

I was impressed by the hardiness of the people. What would take us Western trekkers three days to walk, the Bhutanese traveled in a day. Living in a rugged, high-alpine environment with only trails and yaks to carry their burdens, the children could still break out with heart-melting smiles at the prospect of a game of soccer. Hardship seemed to strengthen their joy, not diminish it.

This is even more important for kids, who thrive under challenge. As parents, it’s tempting to smooth over the rough edges of our kids’ lives. And while safety is always crucial, parents can do too much to save their kids from failure and hardship.

John recently told me that he doesn’t worry about physical pain anymore. When he was sick, he described his daily pain as 10 out of 10. Occasionally it would dip to a 9 or even an 8. An 8 was a very good day. This went on for the better part of a year. Pain meds didn’t help, and he refused to take serious drugs. He told himself he could get through it, and he did. Fifteen minutes at a time.

I, too, learned resilience and fortitude. These aren’t lessons anyone wants to learn, but you don’t have to wait until your husband is on his deathbed either. Small discomforts and daily challenges carve out deep trenches that we can later build foundations upon. It does us good to invoke challenge.

So go try something new. Work through a frustrating project. Practice patience when you want to walk away. Go camping in the rain (not too hard to do if you’re anywhere near Seattle this month). Give something up. Serve someone else.

How have little hardships helped you? What service have you performed or expedition have you endured that helped you later in life? What is your philosophy on adversity?

6 responses »

  1. Kim, thanks for the post. While I would hate to say that it takes pain to make a strong person, it is our most challenging moments that we discover the core of who we really are and what truths we hold most dear. We all too frequently look for the fix before we look at what we are learning.

  2. Kim, I did try the camping in the rain bit. Just me and the boys (ages 3 and 4) and let me tell ya it was a character builder for sure. I did bail at about 5am though and hauled everyone to the car and back home to warm up. There was only an inch of water or so inside the tent and the kids were huddled up against me, one on the front and one on the back. You think sleeping on the wet ground is uncomfortable? Try it with eight little limbs poking you all night!
    I do agree about letting kids experience challenges though. As someone who employed more then a few “young adults” it was a challenge to find someone who had much experience doing anything except playing video games and watching TV. More kids need to get out and experience the world for what it is rather then experience the world their parents carefully lay out at their feet.

    • Jarred,
      Oh camping in the rain. What fun. The best part is when the water starts to pool in the corner of the tent and you can’t keep the edge of your sleeping bag from getting wet. Good times. Thanks for your comment. It’s true what you say about “parents carefully” laying out the world at their kids feet.

  3. Ahhh…camping in the rain. It seems like every time we went camping growing up, it would rain. That wasn’t nearly as bad as the time I thought it would be a good idea to go camping a week after I had major surgery. I spent the whole night moaning in pain and uncomfortableness.

    To answer your questions- I lived in Ecuador for a while, and it was a really hard time- not what I had expected/planned. But I stuck it out anyway- even though I could’ve gone home. So when I started school (which is by far the most horrifying and traumatic experience I have ever gone through), I kept thinking, “I didn’t leave ecuador…I will not quit school. And here I am. 3 months to go.

  4. Pingback: Surfing: The Power of Trying Something Hard | Kim Kircher

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