How Extremely Successful People Turn Obstacles Into Assets

We aren’t big on clichés like “every time God closes a door he opens a window,” or “there are no problems, only opportunities."

People who succeed at work and in life believe and act as if "everything is a gift." Well, maybe not every single thing imaginable. But assuming that everything is a gift is a good way of looking at the problems and surprises you'll encounter in any endeavor, such as getting a new venture off the ground, obtaining buy-in with your boss, or launching a new product line in an ultra-competitive market.

Why take this seemingly Pollyannaish approach? There are three key reasons.

First, you were going to find out eventually what people did and did not like about your idea. Better to learn it as soon as possible, before you sink more resources into the idea, venture or product line, etc. You always want to keep potential loses to a minimum.

Second, the feedback could take you in another direction, or serve as a barrier to your competitors. You thought you wanted to start a public relations firm but a quick survey told you potential customers thought the field was saturated. But more than a few of them said they would love someone who could help with their internal communications.

Third, you got evidence. True, it was not what you were expecting or even wanted, but that still puts you ahead of the person who is just thinking about doing something (like opening another p.r. firm.) You know something they don't, and that is an asset. You are ahead of the game.

But what if it's really bad news?. It's a disappointment. You were absolutely certain that your boss would approve your idea for a new software program, and she said no in a way that is still echoing down the corridor. No reasonable person can define what you've encountered as anything but a problem, and most people will try to solve the problem. ("Maybe she will like the idea if I go at it this way instead.") That's fine if you can. The problem has gone away and, again, you've learned something that others might not know. (The boss hates Y, but she loves Z.)

But what if you can't solve it? (She hated "Z," too.) Accept the situation to the point of embracing it. Take as a given that it won't ever change, and turn it into an asset. What can you do with the "fact" that it won't ever change? Maybe it presents a heretofore unseen opportunity. Maybe you build it into your product or service in a way that no competitor (having not acted) could imagine. Could you do it on your own? Could you take the idea to a competitor and use it as your calling card to look for the next job?

The thing to remember is this: 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.

Paul B. Brown is the co-author (along with Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer) of Just Start: Take Action; Embrace Uncertainty and Create the Future recently published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Please note the Action Trumps Everything blog now appears every Sunday and Wednesday.

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