One of the things that life guarantees, regardless of who you are, is that you will experience times of uncertainty. That uncertainty can bring on fear, doubt and depression.
Still, there are ways to not only keep those feelings from overwhelming you but learn to survive – and thrive – during challenging times. I know this to be valid because I’ve used such strategies in my life to go from being born in a segregated hospital to becoming an officer at two Fortune 500 companies and on the boards of several others.
First, let me begin by outlining three of the most difficult times of my life that led to uncertainty:
My father dying unexpectedly from a heart attack while attending church. I was 10-years-old, and his death left my 35-year-old mother to raise five children alone.
The unexpected major surgery I had to have on both knees at the same time when I was 20-years-old. I was attending college on a basketball scholarship and wondered whether I’d ever play again. Basketball was to be my ticket to a better life.
The unexpected demotion I got at work after I was put in charge of my first major project. I was on the fast track at the time and had a wife and two kids to support.
I will always remember the shock and disbelief I felt in each situation. It was surreal when I first learned of each – I couldn’t believe what I was being told. Once the shock wore off, then came the feelings of fear, uncertainty and doubt. (I refer to them as “FUD.”)
I would be lying if I said they didn’t get the best of me at times. However, I learned how to overcome them with the support and teachings of some great people like my mother, my wife and people I refer to as “Earthly angels.”
Here are the three things I learned to overcome adversity and move forward:
Determine what is within your control. After the shock wears off, focus on the “knowns” instead of the “unknowns.” This will help you keep the fear and doubt at bay and give you a sense of direction. For example, when my father died, my mother huddled the five of us together and told us we were going to make it by working and getting our education. She said it wasn’t going to be easy, but we were going to make it. She worked two jobs as a cook and maid, and we worked jobs such as mowing lawns, raking leaves, throwing newspapers and working at restaurants and theaters. You name it, we worked it. There was a time when my oldest brother and I thought we couldn’t work and go to high school at the same time, but we got over that and did both.
Look back in order to move forward. When faced with a major challenge, think back to others that you have overcome. Doing so gives you the confidence to handle the one you are facing. For example, David had the confidence that he would win against Goliath because he had successfully fought lions and bears that tried to attack his lambs. Thinking of past successes removes the fear, no matter the size of the obstacles.
Help someone else. When you assist someone else who is facing even greater challenges than you are, you will see the difference it makes for that person. It gives this person hope that someone else is watching and caring. Caring about others causes people to care about you. For example, after my knee surgery when everyone thought (including me) that I wouldn’t play again, I went from big man to little man on campus. My girlfriend at the time (now my wife of 35 years) let me know that she saw me as more than just a basketball player – she saw me as a person who was capable of much more. Another example is when I got demoted. I went from James who was an up-and-comer to James who was a down-and-outer. When I was popular, I had more lunch dates than I could handle. After the demotion, I couldn’t even sneak up on people for lunch. But there was someone I didn’t even know about who was working on my behalf because he knew what had happened to me wasn’t right. He convinced one of the VPs that I was in the right and the people who demoted me were in the wrong. That VP then promoted me to a much higher position in his group. In between my demotion and promotion, I was in the Big Brother, Big Sister program. I was helping my little brother, who was 15-years-old, through a very difficult time. Making a difference in his life was also making a difference in mine.
Remember that we will all go through times of uncertainty, but you don’t have to dwell in that place. There are strategies, as I’ve outlined here, that worked for me and will work for you. Focus on what you can control, gather confidence from past successes and turn to your strengths.