The role of adversity in developing a person’s full potential has been well documented. My friend and renowned blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer (the only blind man to summit Everest) even wrote a book on it called The Adversity Advantage.
One night while Erik and I were a few days into our climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, he told me he actually was happy he had lost his vision! I was stunned. But he said it made him stronger. And better. And he would not be the man he was today if he had his sight. Going blind can destroy some. But it forges greatness in others.
In a sense, adversity is the vaccination for the worst disease a human being or an organization or an entire society can catch. It’s a disease that rips the soul out of a person yet leaves the heart still beating. It leaves people alive physically but broken mentally. It leaves weakness instead of strength. It leaves dependent individuals instead of independent ones. It results in playing a game of “pass the blame” when things don’t go as planned. It’s a disease I would not wish on anyone. It’s called “entitlement mentality.”
The online definition states, “An entitlement mentality is a state of mind in which an individual comes to believe that privileges are instead rights, and that they are to be expected as a matter of course.”
It just sucks the initiative, the self-determination, right out of a person.
A hardworking, self-made man or woman pulls themselves up by the bootstraps. They work hard. They never give up. They fail many times before they succeed. They have a family. And, driven by love, blinded by love, these parents desire to ensure that “my kids don’t go through what I had to go through.” Be it loss of a parent, or other forms of adversity, they seek to shield their kids from the pains they had to endure. And their hearts are in the right place. This is born out of love and nothing else.
But what many fail to realize, myself included, is that by depriving our children of hardship, we deprive them of the very experiences and learnings that shaped the parents! If a child grows up getting everything they want, having every sharp corner in life covered by Mommy and Daddy, then suddenly this is how life really is in their belief system. A good life is no longer a privilege, but a God-given right. They shouldn’t have to work for it. Living in luxury is an expectation. And there is anger if one doesn’t get it, and get it easily.
This can go well beyond a disease of individuals; it can infect an organization and even a society. YPO (Young President’s Organization), which caters to learning and development of family businesses, quotes statistics that only 14 percent of family businesses survive the third generation! This is driven solely by the fact the third generation grew up “rich” and lost the values and ethics of the founder. The first generation built a business purely out of passion, hard work, and incredible tenacity. The second generation saw this firsthand, have memories of watching their parents work the late nights, and continue the traditions and values. But the third generation didn’t see this. And this generation is the one that is hardest to survive. Because they don’t understand sacrifice. They suffer from entitlement mentality. And the business collapses.
Many immigrant nations like the US were built on the backbone of people taking enormous risks, with no guarantee of success, to create a better life for their children and grandchildren. They faced treacherous travels just to get to the “new world.” They endured harsh conditions and hostile environments just to have a chance for determining their own future. No assurances of success. No “rights” whatsoever. You got what you earned. What you worked for.
However, as life improved, successive generations, like the family business example, lose touch with the sacrifices made. They take things for granted. They are born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth and lack the perspective on how life really is. When one sees an individual in any number of western or developed nations stating they deserve the “right” to earn $25 per hour working on an assembly line, or they deserve to be able to stay in their small town, own a car, buy a house, watch the latest big-screen TV, and have a job guaranteed to them, well, this is a form of classic entitlement mentality. And no political leader is going to save them. Once you think a privilege is a right, and you are angry for not having it, you are lost. Because the self-determination is gone.
Buddhism teaches that the first noble truth is, “Life is suffering.” The second noble truth is, “All suffering is caused by craving or aversion.” So if a person refuses to accept that life is, indeed suffering, and they desire the material things they believe they deserve, well, it becomes nothing more than a vicious cycle.
Beyond my Buddhist friends, some of the most well-grounded people I have met are current or former military personnel. And it makes sense. Those in the military understand suffering and death at a visceral level. They understand the pure joy of just being alive. It brings to mind a poignant scene from Oliver Stone’s classic movie Platoon, when another soldier is giving perspective to Charlie Sheen’s character just before a major firefight: “Listen to me, boy. If you get out of this alive, the rest of your life is gravy.” One can only truly appreciate life — simply being alive — when one has confronted death head-on.
So adversity is the vaccine. Not purely adversity, however, but the perspective it brings. Many people who suffer from entitlement in simple fact don’t understand reality — the reality of how the world lives. That life is about suffering. That life’s greatest moments are in the achievement of something that took effort. There is no lasting joy in getting everything in life handed to you.
Perspective is all around each of us, should we choose to see it. Let’s look at some world facts to start:
• 800 million people in the world, or 10.7 percent of the world’s population, goes hungry every day. So in simple terms, if you can eat each day and satiate appetite, you are already in the top 89 percent.
• 25 percent of the world has no electricity in-home. So if you can turn a light on in your house, welcome to the top 75 percent of the world.
• A full 1/3 of the world lacks access to sanitary conditions and clean water. This can even include developed world locations like Flint, Michigan. So if you can turn on your water and not fear getting an illness from it, you have moved up to the top 67 percent.
• 60 percent of the world has no Internet access. So if you have a smartphone, or a computer that gets online, or if you can go to a local Internet café, welcome to the top 40 percent of the world. Already well over half this planet has it worse off than you do.
• 91 percent of the world doesn’t have a car. So just by having one car in the family, let alone more than one, you have leapt into the top 10 percent of the world in terms of standards of living.
• Add in “Have I ever traveled to a foreign country as a tourist?” and the number rises to the top 8 percent of the world. Add in “college degree holder” and you are now into the top 6.7 percent. That’s right. Over 93 percent of the world doesn’t get the opportunity for a college education.
• Add it up, and if you have a car, have traveled, and have a college degree, chances are you are in the magical “one percent” US politicians love to talk about. You have a better life than 99 percent of the globe. And yet still some of us are unhappy? We feel entitled to have more?
My wife and I used to see Topher along the roads in our neighborhood. He is hard to miss. He walks around carrying a heavy Styrofoam cooler filled with ice cream that he sells for P22 (about 44 US cents). He carries a bell he rings to draw attention. I guess there isn’t anything that distinctive about a walking ice cream salesman.
Until you notice he only has one leg.
That’s right. He hops along on one leg, with a crutch, ringing a bell and selling ice cream in the blazing Manila sun. Day after day. Seven days a week.
My kindhearted wife wanted to learn more about him, so one day she pulled up in the car and asked Topher if he wanted to come to my office and sell all his ice cream to my employees. We would treat them. A small gift for my people; a little helping hand to Topher.So in they all come to the office, and we bought out Topher’s entire stock of ice cream. And we sat and talked to him. Talk about getting a dose of perspective. Wow.
Topher is 32 years old. Married and three kids. When he was 30 he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his leg. At the time Topher was a commissioned salesman selling ice cream. He didn’t have any medical coverage. Very little money. He could not afford complex surgery or chemotherapy. So the hospital gave him the “discount” life-saving solution: They could just chop his whole leg off at the hip, and hopefully they would have taken care of the problem.
What was Topher to do? Live or die? So he told them to take his leg off. And that’s what they did.
He went home jobless. I mean, who is going to hire a one-legged ice cream salesman and expect him to carry his own cooler? So there he was, unemployed, missing one leg, and laying on a bed. If anyone had a reason to lie around and cry and complain, it is Topher.
But there were bills to pay and kids to feed. And Topher is a man of responsibility. It’s amazing. He has zero entitlement mentality. He is not angry at anyone. This is life. He knows he has to forge his own path. He doesn’t expect free health coverage or unemployment benefits. He isn’t mad at the doctors or God or anyone. Life gave him some tough crap to deal with. He will deal with it. He will keep on smiling!
So he goes out on his own to do the only thing he knows how to do. He takes what little money he has, and visits an ice cream factory nearby that makes low-cost ice cream. He cuts a deal with them to buy the ice cream at the wholesale price of P15 and resell it on the street for P22. He can’t walk fast but he can walk and carry the cooler with his crutch to help him. He walks about five miles a day. All day. On a good day he will make about P300 profit, or about US$6. He is surviving. Barely. He feeds his family and pays the rent and gets help from no one. And he doesn’t expect any, either.
I have to admit meeting Topher shook me to my core. In a world of entitlement, where people blame everyone else, expect a good life “automatically” and are so bitter and angry when they don’t get it, here is Topher, a 32-year-old hero. A man of steel. Forget Superman, because here he is every day walking the streets of my neighborhood!
At the end of the discussion, I decided my employees, some of my children and I could personally use a daily dose of perspective. To be thankful for the opportunities we have been given and realize nothing is a right.
So as a result, Topher now works for me. He has a steady paycheck and a support system. He may be missing a leg, but the man has heart and desire. And I can’t teach that.
Topher still sells ice cream because he loves it and loves meeting people. So if you are driving around Alabang and happen to see a one-legged salesman walking along, please stop, say hello and buy an ice cream from him.