Turning obstacles into opportunities

By Leon Gettler

Thomas Edison summed up how to turn obstacles into opportunities: "I have not failed," he said, "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

The ability to soldier on in the face of adversity and turn setbacks into new ventures and opportunities is the defining feature of the world's most successful people.

Take Beethoven for example. He started losing his hearing when he was 26, and for the next 20 years he shaped the future of music. Beethoven came to rely completely on his inner ear and much of the power in his work comes from those middle and low-frequency notes, which he could hear better when music was performed.

Or think about JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Rowling became a billionaire from her writing, but her life wasn't always a success story. After being rejected from Oxford University and losing her mother to multiple sclerosis, she married a journalist with whom she had a child. The marriage ended in divorce about a year later. What got her through was focusing on writing Harry Potter. It became the reason for her existence. She submitted the manuscript to several publishers who rejected it, but like Edison and Beethoven, she kept going. The rest is history.

Richard Branson is another example. He did poorly at school and struggled with dyslexia. Branson himself says being dyslexic and ordinary at school made him think differently from other people. It forced him to develop people skills and street smarts that made him such an impressive entrepreneur.

"Over the years, my different way of thinking helped me to build the Virgin Group and contributed greatly to our success," he writes. "My dyslexia guided the way we communicated with customers... For many years I ran the Virgin Group without knowing the difference between net and gross profits - we had some odd board meetings! Despite such problems, we were all able to work together smoothly because I had learned the art of delegation by my teens. This isn't a skill that comes easily to some, but when you're dyslexic, you have to trust others to do tasks on your behalf. In some cases that can involve reading and writing, and so you learn to let go." As we now know, Branson turned this obstacle into a big advantage.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Leonard Schlesinger, Charles Kiefer, and Paul Brown say obstacles should be welcomed, because you quickly identify what doesn't work and you get feedback about what you're doing wrong and how to do it better. "Successful people work with what they have at hand - whatever comes along - and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon," they write.

Look at obstacles as opportunities. Do they show you a new way of doing things that competitors haven't picked up?

What have you learnt from your greatest obstacles?


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