Transforming Misfortune into Possibility
How one answers this question – what to do when crisis or misfortune strikes – is what separates extraordinary individuals from the ordinary.
As I sat down to write this post, I intended to write about Novak Djokovic’s disqualification from the recently concluded U.S. Open tennis tournament. I was planning to write about the myth that emotions are hardwired and that we have very little control over them. I had a great quote from Victor Frankl around which I wanted to center the piece: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I was planning to argue, as I do in my book, that emotions are constructed and that we have the ability and responsibility to control them and to choose how we respond to our environment. Perhaps I will write about that in the coming weeks. But as I began to type the first sentence, I realized that the real story of the U.S. Open wasn’t Djokovic’s act of hitting a tennis ball out of anger and injuring a line judge. It was the story of Naomi Osaka.
Osaka is twenty-two years old and is currently ranked number nine in the world. She was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. Although raised in the U.S., Osaka represents Japan when playing internationally. This weekend she won the U.S. Open singles tournament, her third Grand Slam victory. The victory itself was not much of a surprise. At the start of the year, expectations were extremely high for Osaka. In particular, everyone had their eye on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. The prospect of the young Osaka winning a gold medal in her home country was tantalizing to say the least. And then suddenly the world changed. The French Open and Wimbledon were postponed and canceled, respectively. The Olympics were pushed to 2021. And a rising tennis star was left to wonder what to do.
How one answers this question – what to do when crisis or misfortune strikes – is what separates extraordinary individuals from the ordinary. The ancient Stoics taught us this. Seneca said, “A good person dyes events with his own color...and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.” Andy Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel, said the same thing of organizations: “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” Both Seneca and Grove are referring to what Nassim Taleb calls antifragility, a term used to describe the property of something that actually gets stronger from stress.
Incredibly, Osaka had the wisdom and maturity to dye the events that were unfolding with her own color and turn what could have been a disastrous year into an opportunity for growth. She decided to use her platform to support social justice. She began by attending the protests in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd. When the Milwaukee Bucks decided to not take the court in the NBA playoffs in response to the Jacob Blake shooting, Osaka followed suit. She announced she would not play her semi-final match in the Western & Southern Open, causing the entire tournament to be put on hold. For the recent U.S. Open tournament, Osaka announced she would wear a face mask to each of her matches with the name of a different Black individual who had been killed. When asked by a reporter what message she was trying to send, Osaka wisely responded, “Well, what was the message that you got? [That] was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.” Osaka may not have had the year she expected or even wanted. But she has made it her year, and it’s not yet over.
This wasn’t the year most of us wanted. So what? We all have a choice. We can wallow in the disappointment and allow our circumstances to define how we experience life. Or we can find a way, no matter how difficult and challenging the situation is, to grow and become stronger.
A quote I’ve been reflecting on from Montaigne: “I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself...I roll about in myself.” From the book I’m currently reading, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. It’s excellent.
The book I’ll be reading next. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. I’m a student of organizational culture. And there is perhaps no better modern example of organizational culture than Netflix.
Last week I wrote about the notion of rest ethic and the importance of idleness. Check out this recent opinion piece, Is the Lockdown Making you Depressed, or Are You Just Bored? According to the author, in one experiment, people were asked to spend just 15 minutes in a room alone with their thoughts. They were also given the opportunity to self-administer a negative stimulus in the form of a small electric shock. Incredibly, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to do so.