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Interview With a Philosopher: The Crucible of Adversity

05/16/2014 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

How do you view adversity? What role does it play in your life? Do you always seek to avoid it? Or will you sometimes take on a challenge that you suspect may be very difficult?

Today, I get to talk to Jan Rutherford, one of the smallest gentlemen and biggest thinkers ever to serve in the US Special Forces. He's the author of the book, The Littlest Green Beret, and is the founder of Self Reliant Leadership, LLC, focused on work with leaders that can involve such things as wilderness expeditions, talks, and retreats.

Tom: Jan, I loved your book, and its account of all the challenges, struggles and bouts of adversity you experienced to become what you call "The Littlest Green Beret."

Jan: Thanks, Tom. I hoped my experience could be inspirational for others who take on big tasks that at first may look impossible.

Tom: You served in Special Forces for six years?

Jan: Yes, both as a medic and as an "A" team executive officer.

Tom: You say you didn't fit into the expected pattern of physique for our most elite warriors.

Jan: I was 5'4' tall and 101 pounds when I first tried to enlist, then managed to join up at 109 pounds, and go into active duty at 114, soaking wet, which you sometimes are in military training.

Tom: Ha! So, your success wasn't a sure thing.

Jan: The only sure thing was that it would be the hardest thing I'd ever tried to do. And there weren't a lot of people betting I would succeed.

Tom: You faced a lot of adversity.

Jan: Absolutely.

Tom: What's your general perspective on adversity in life?

Jan: I like Napoleon's claim that "Adversity is the midwife of genius." I think of adversity as a crucible, which the OED defines as "a melting pot, for metals, etc." and adds that the word can be used figuratively for "a severe trial." A crucible is any difficult test or challenge, some sort of place or situation where we may face the intense heat that can forge something new in us, one that forces us to change, or to make hard decisions. As Jules Evans says, "God sends adversity your way like a boxing coach sending you a sparring partner."

Tom: Adversity, which most people see as a thing to avoid, the philosophers have seen in a positive light, in terms of what it can help us to accomplish and to become in our lives.

Jan: Exactly. The difficulties we face can give rise to such virtues as resiliency, and discipline, patience, and courage. Of course, you explored these issues in your own book, The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, and looked at how such virtues factor into both business achievement and personal happiness.

Tom: Yes, I'm happy you know about that book, one that I did with a small publisher. The stoic philosophers had so many insights that we need now, in our time of economic turmoil and massive uncertainty. They were thinkers who taught us to distinguish well between what we can't control and what we can control, and to concentrate our emotional energy on the latter.

Jan: They had important insights and techniques to help with this. And I appreciate their focus on the inner nature or the character of the individual. We can't always control our circumstances, but we can build the inner character for responding well to those circumstances. And this takes time, energy, courage, humility, and discipline - the qualities I see involved in what I like to call "self-reliant leadership." When we learn to deal with adversity properly, when we build our characters well, we become self-reliant in an important and positive way. And then we're better prepared to serve others. It's all about inner growth for outer service.

Tom: We should clarify that when you speak of self-reliance, a phrase used a lot by the quintessential American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson over a century ago, you don't mean to imply for a second that we don't need others emotionally, socially, or spiritually, or to get big things done.

Jan: No, not at all. The self-reliant person is just the individual who is best prepared to enter into positive and productive relationships of mutual value, and accomplish things with others that could never be done by one person working alone.

Tom: In your work, you really stress that wisdom, as well as strength, or virtue, can come from the crucible of adversity.

Jan: Yes. Developing practical wisdom, just like character, can't be purely intellectual, or theoretical. The attainment of real wisdom comes from living through difficulty, and seeing difficult situations from multiple perspectives, where we have the opportunity to demonstrate such character traits as optimism, persistence and determination. Aristotle advised us to: "Acquire virtues by practice." The same holds true of wisdom. We need to embrace adversity for the lessons to be learned, as well as the qualities of character to be acquired, which often means resisting comfort, and making the necessary sacrifices.

Tom: You hold that this is what it takes to make a real leader.

Jan: Always. True leaders shine when things look bleak, because they've been through crucibles of great difficulty in their own experience, and can bring the confidence and determination resulting from that experience to new challenges. The crucible we face during times of duress and pressure can bring out our best character traits. Risk, peril, and hard times are uniquely suited for the creation and display of character strengths with a sense of individual responsibility. The heightened awareness and the skills developed can then transfer directly into professional and personal pursuits. Adversity can show how critical problem solving abilities are affected while learning how to channel focus and resolve to provide optimum outcomes. You really can't learn such things any other way.

Tom: Great philosophers throughout history seem to have understood the importance of this, and yet it's something we need to be reminded of in every generation. Inner resilience is the secret to outer results. And that inner resource can only be cultivated and developed through difficulties.

Jan: And, of course, in recent times, the pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term 'flow' for the peak experience of masterful athletes and others who operate at the top of their game, reinforced the need for a disciplined practice in our inner approach to outer circumstances when he once wrote:

A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening 'outside,' just by changing the contents of consciousness. We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well. To develop this trait, one must find ways to order consciousness so as to be in control of feelings and thoughts. It is best not to expect shortcuts will do the trick.

Tom: Well said. Some other recent researchers have termed this nearly magical ingredient for success "grit" and have identified it as more important for life satisfaction and professional achievement than intellect or skill.

Jan: That's something of which we all need to be reminded. The role of character, and wisdom, and virtue, in business achievement is often seen as an almost peripheral matter of "soft skills," but there is a direct correlation to organizational success and personal happiness. Paul Stolz's work on improving our "adversity quotient" has shown a positive correlation with organizational improvements in agility, morale, retention, engagement and performance. How we deal with the difficulties and sufferings we inevitably face in life - our crucibles - can be experiential, self-reliant tools to help us learn, adapt, and prevail.

Tom: I agree. And it's important stuff to think about. Thanks, Jan, for your work, and this chat on adversity.

Jan: My pleasure. If anyone would like to see more about what I do, it's at the site, http://selfreliantleadership.com. And I'd love to sign off here, if I could, with a quote from Lao Tsu, in the Tao Te Ching:

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.