John C. Maxwell: The If Factor

UPDATED: January 16, 2014
PUBLISHED: January 16, 2014

Once there was a young woman who complained to her father about her life and how hard things were for her. Adversity was overwhelming her, and she wanted to give up.

As he listened, her father filled three pots with water and brought them to a boil. Into the first he put carrots, into the second he put eggs, and into the third he put ground coffee beans. He let them simmer and cool, then asked her to feel the now-squishy carrots and examine the hardened eggs. Then he told her to taste the rich drink made from coffee beans and plain water.

“When you face adversity, how do you respond?” he asked. “Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”

Life is filled with adversity. We can be squashed by it. We can allow it to make us hard. Or we can make the best of it. I detail these outcomes in my latest book, Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn, from which this lesson is adapted.

We generally can’t choose our hardships, but we can choose how we respond to them. If we respond positively to difficulties, the outcome potentially will be positive. If we respond negatively to our difficulties, the outcome probably will be negative. That’s why I call our response “The If Factor.” Here’s what I mean:

1. Adversity introduces us to ourselves, if we want to know ourselves.

If we are courageous, difficult times can create an opportunity for self-examination and self-discovery. Unfortunately, many people choose to hide. They build walls, close their eyes, run away, medicate themselves and find other ways of escaping reality. If that is your response to adversity, you will never understand the situation or  yourself.

I love a story speaker Tony Robbins tells about two victims of chance—one who wins the lottery and another who is paralyzed in an accident. Three years later, why is the paralyzed person the happier of the two? The lottery winner had looked outside himself to make changes in his life. The paralyzed person, in contrast, is introduced to his potential self through adversity. He rises to challenges he never knew he could face. And he comes to appreciate the good things in his life as he never did before.

2. Adversity is a better teacher than success, if we want to learn from it.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.” That’s not necessarily true. With adversity, the teacher will come whether the pupil is ready or not.

Philosopher and author Emmet Fox said, “It is the law that any difficulties that can come to you at any time, no matter what they are, must be exactly what you need most at the moment, to enable you to take the next step forward by overcoming them. The only real misfortune, the only real tragedy, comes when we suffer without learning the lesson.”

It requires the right mindset and a deliberate intention to find the lesson in a loss. If we don’t embrace those things, all we end up with are the scars.

3. Adversity opens doors for new opportunities, if we want to learn from it.

“Most of us are taught, beginning in kindergarten, that mistakes are bad,” noted Kim Kiyosaki, co-founder of the Rich Dad Co. “How often did you hear, ‘Don’t make a mistake!’ In reality, the way we learn is by making mistakes. A mistake simply shows you something you didn’t know.”

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a legend dating to the 1870s. As the story goes, a worker at Procter & Gamble forgot to turn off a machine that was mixing soap. He packaged the “ruined” soap anyway, and hoped for the best. The company was soon flooded with letters asking for more soap bars that floated. A manufacturing mistake led to an opportunity, the creation of Ivory soap. Learn to take advantage of the opportunities adversity presents.

4. Adversity can signal a coming positive transition, if we respond correctly.

In 1915 the people of Coffee County, Ala., were devastated after boll weevils destroyed their cotton crop—their economic lifeblood. What would they do?

Grow peanuts, suggested scientist George Washington Carver, who also found that the versatile legume could be used to make soap, ink, plastics and cosmetics, opening the local economy to a brighter future. Carver viewed the crop failure not as a disaster but as an opportunity for transition. Like Carver, we can use adversity as a catalyst for change.

5. Adversity brings profit as well as pain, if we expect it and plan for it.

In the movie Black Hawk Down, a vehicle filled with wounded American soldiers lurches to a stop amid a hail of Somali bullets. An officer orders a soldier to get in and drive.

“But I’m shot, colonel,” says the soldier.

“Everybody’s shot,” responds the officer. “Get in and drive!”

We should all expect pain. But I think what distinguishes successful people is that they plan for it, and by doing so, benefit from it. I once heard FedEx founder Fred Smith recount an interview between Olympic gold medalist pole-vaulter Bob Richards and some younger Olympians. Richards asked, “What did you do when you began to hurt?” None of these athletes were surprised by the question. They expected pain and had a strategy for dealing with it. As Richards summarized, “You never win the gold without hurting.”

6. Adversity writes our story, and if our response is right, the story will be good.

Consider the tales of golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. Nicklaus narrowly lost the U.S. Open in 1982, and pundits thought the legend was too old to win another major tournament, but he went on to a victory in The Masters four years later, at age 46.

Contrast that with Jacklin, who melted under pressure near the end of the 1972 British Open. “I had the heart ripped out of me,” Jacklin later said. “I was never the same.”

What story will you write? Adversity without triumph is not inspiring; it’s depressing. Adversity without growth is not encouraging; it’s discouraging. Adversity can create a story of hope and success. I hope that is the tale you write.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.