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In 1981, psychologist Salvatore R. Maddi, Ph.D. and colleagues started a 12-year longitudinal study to answer the question: Why do some people crumble under stress while others seem to thrive? To find the answer, the psychologists studied the high-stressed employees at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) who survived the downsizing of the company from 26,000 employees to just half that in one year. The research team found that two-thirds of IBT employees who were subjected to an environment of constantly changing job descriptions, leadership, and company goals suffered a decline in performance, leadership, and health as a result of extreme stress. Conversely, the other one-third thrived, maintaining their “health, happiness and performance and feeling renewed enthusiasm.”
The researchers found that the thriving employees felt invigorated by the heightened stress level because of their “hardiness.” These employees had the ability to turn lemons into lemonade — or as the report phrased it, adversity into advantage — through three key qualities: commitment, control, and challenge. Commitment motivated them to stay focused and engaged, rather than become isolated. Control made them feel like their struggle would lead to positive outcomes, unlike the other group that became passive and had a feeling of powerlessness. And lastly, the group accepted the challenge as a new learning experience, rather than a burden.
Throughout life, we are confronted with challenges that we can either take on as an opportunity or as a sentence. The recession is an example of a recent lemon that forced many of us to take stock of our lives, downsize, and possibly change direction. At a more relentless frequency, individuals may also get served negative relationship, health, or financial circumstances. Our hardiness, grit, adaptability, and perspective are some of the ways we can use these unwanted circumstances as an opportunity to help us fulfill our goals. A great example of a person who turned his circumstance into opportunity is Woody Roseland.
Training for his high school football team, Woody felt a pain in his left leg, a pain that wouldn’t go away. At first they thought that it was a knee ligament, but as the pain persisted, ultimately he learned that there was a malignant tumor in his left leg bone. He had osteosarcoma (bone cancer) at the age of 16.
His first limb-salvaging procedure was a knee replacement, which doctors were hoping would remove the tumor and eliminate the cancer. Unfortunately this was not the end of the story. He needed chemotherapy, which he finished during his senior year.
Right after Woody started college, the cancer recurred, and was found in Woody’s lungs. He endured a grueling series of chemotherapy treatments and lung surgery, only to have it come back again — four times — with four more courses of chemo and surgery. Then he began experiencing leg pain once again. A new and large cancerous tumor, four inches in length, was found in his leg. This presented an unwelcome challenge for Woody, his family, and his medical team. Every choice involved a high level of risk. Which would provide the greatest reward — the best chance at achieving the goal of keeping Woody alive and healthy?
Together, Woody, his family, and his medical team decided that the calculated risk most worth taking was to amputate his left leg above the knee. With a high-tech prosthetic, Woody regained his ability to walk. And with determination and humor, Woody took back his life, continuing to press on through his college coursework toward a major in business marketing, which he plans to earn in the next year. Finding that his perspective on cancer and life resonated with others, he started a “side-hustle” in public speaking that has become his own business and a central focus in his life.
Woody travels around the country, speaking about his experience and raising money for cancer research and other pressing social problems. He has his own website, he blogs on The Huffington Post, he has started a video production business in addition to his work as a speaker, and he has spoken at TEDxMileHigh. He has appeared on CNN and ESPN. His willingness to continue to risk has brought enormous rewards and a career that he never could have imagined as a high school junior on the football field. And his determination to take targeted medical risks continues to keep him living his life to the fullest. Woody is currently feeling great and working hard to make up for the time he lost because of cancer. In his free time he enjoys bike riding and playing golf, as well as sharing craft beers and baseball with his friends.
Woody discovered a whole new set of values through the course of his past few years. “I’m more concentrated on how I can achieve the goals I have set out for rather than the negatives, because there will always be reason to feel down about life. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent,” Woody says. “Your happiness is, and always has been, about you deciding to be happy… At some point it comes down to a simple decision: happiness, or unhappiness. So if a one-legged, scar riddled, chemotherapy infused, medical-debt-having guy like me can figure it out, I like your chances.”
Putting your values into action can help you choose happiness in the face of the challenges of your own life. Which will you choose?
You can read more about Woody and many other college and career role models in KEYS TO COLLEGE SUCCESS 8th edition by Carol Carter and Sarah Kravits, published by Pearson Education.