Capitalising on adversity

Sep 24 2008 by Charles Helliwell Print This Article

In the current climate of economic uncertainty, nervous tension stalks the jobs market at every level. Entrepreneurs, employees, freelancers and part-timers are all spending a lot of their time navel-gazing, as they attempt to predict and contain whatever the future has in store.

It only seems like yesterday that we lived in a 'how-do-I-capitalise-on-me' culture. Now it is 'how-do-I-protect-myself' culture. Protective consolidation is IN; creative opportunism is OUT.

The aim now is solely to hang onto to what we have, as opposed to seeking out something new and whilst this might be a new experience for many, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that there are many historical precedents which have proved this behaviour to be fundamentally at fault.

Invention, Creativity, Ingenuity, Risk and Opportunism have always thrived during times of strife and crisis. As Harry Lime (Orson Welles) reminds Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) in The Third Man, Italy under the Borgias was notorious for warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but still produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.

At the time that Columbus set off to discover the New World, Spain was economically exhausted from years of conflict in Europe. Yet his promise to discover a quicker trading route to the East Indies offered hope within the confines of considerable risk.

But what his underwriters didn't know was that Columbus had already discovered the existence of the trade winds, significantly mitigating any risk that he would run out of water and provisions and perish before he found land.

In more recent times, Colossus, the world's first programmable, digital, electronic, computer was born out of adversity and the work of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, although it only came on line at a time when Britain had turned the corner in the war.

Examples of invention, creativity and ingenuity in times of uncertainty are too numerous to mention, even though the historical precedents have already been set. So, why is the current economic crisis any different ? Well, it isn't, and neither is the reaction of most of us.

Human behaviour is generally more risk-averse than risk-inclined. In other words, we would rather hang onto to what we have now than explore what we might be capable of.

In 1916, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 28 became stranded on ice-bound Elephant Island following the loss of their ship Endurance in Weddell Sea.

With no communications and absolutely no hope of rescue, Shackleton decided to set out with five other men for South Georgia where he knew there was a whaling station Ė a voyage of 800 miles in some of the coldest, most dangerous seas on earth. His means of transport was an open lifeboat.

Astonishingly, he arrived at South Georgia almost two weeks later and returned Ėas he had promised Ėto rescue his remaining crew.

So was Shackleton any more risk-aware, or risk-inclined, in sailing across the Southern Ocean in an open boat than Columbus was in setting off for the New World ?

They both had commitment and self-belief in abundance. Yet the biggest difference was that Columbus gave himself an edge. He knew about the trade winds, which mitigated some of the risk of sailing into the unknown..

Shackleton had no such safety-net. He only had his own unshakeable self-belief in himself and his colleagues to drive him forward into the unknown. In Shackleton's case, his beliefs were grounded in a commitment he gave to his men left behind on Elephant Island, that he would return to save them.

This unshakeable self-belief is within us all, should we wish to discover it and exercise it. It comes from looking at ourselves openly, honestly and without prejudice; seeing what is there as opposed to what others might tell us that we would prefer to see.

In times of adversity and uncertainty it is always better to see ourselves for what we are and face up to all the vulnerability and doubt which comes with it. Each tomorrow is another journey into the unknown. Far better to go into it with an open and inventive mindset than one which views success as just surviving another day.


About The Author

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.