Harvard professor offers advice on using adversity to your advantage
Tuesday, January 14, 2020
While hard work is the key to success, sometimes hard work isn’t enough. You also need an edge — and sometimes, adversity can provide that edge. Factors that may appear to be shortcomings can be turned into assets if you know how to flip the circumstances.
Laura Huang, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of “EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage,” explains how to turn weaknesses into strengths and find your edge.
Understand what truly determines your success
“Success hinges on never giving up, while knowing how to flip circumstances to create your own advantage,” Huang explains. Sure, you’ll fail over and over again, but in the process, you’ll learn how to persevere and be creative, and she says you’ll also spend time reflecting deeply and finding your unique edge. “Hard work provides the wood for your fire, so to speak, but you need other things — like matches, more kindling, an ability to deal with environmental factors — in order to build your fire and sustain your success.”
Huang uses the example of Cyrus Habib, the lieutenant governor of Washington. He worked hard to get where he is today, but she says he also knew that hard work — by itself — wouldn’t be enough. “Having lost his eyesight at the age of eight, each of the accomplishments he had achieved to date — becoming a Rhodes Scholar, a Truman Scholar, a Soros Fellow, and so on — also required him to be creative and develop a warm approach to making connections with those around him.”
Instead of being hindered by his blindness, she says he took another approach. “Habib nurtured and learned to use his sight condition as part of his narrative as a way to connect with those around him,” she explains. “He championed himself and his ability to navigate the world as a legally blind individual.” By refusing to let others only see his blindness, Huang says he was able to tap into his unique edge, instead of seeing it as his unique disadvantage.
Turning shortcomings into assets
However, understanding what others view as your shortcoming and using it in your favor requires two things. “The first is an ability to reflect deeply — to see and perceive what exactly the shortcoming is.” Huang refers to this as a diagnosis or assessment of the situation. “And the second is the motivation and work to actually switch the adversity into an advantage — something like a personal action plan.” By taking a step back and viewing yourself as an entity, she says you can identify your shortcomings and create a strategy for success.
This includes framing perceptions and attributions in ways that are beneficial to you, so you can direct your own narrative. “It requires introspection, but it also requires you to observe your surroundings and environment,” Huang explains.
Then, you can guide others to see what you want them to see. “In a way, you are acting like a bridge between the gap of how others currently see you and how you believe others should see you,” she says. “Bring others over to stand on your side of the perception gap, and on this common ground, you are better positioned to achieve your goals.”
Huang’s provides another example: Beatriz, a woman that she first met at INSEAD (a global business school). “I was immediately struck by how unbelievably poised and elegant she was, not just in her chic attire, but in the way she presented herself.” Huang says Beatriz is one of the most confident and captivating people that she’s ever met — but her life was not without hardship.
“Beatriz grew up in an extremely small town in rural Spain, where she helped her family farm their land. As a young adult, she moved from Spain to Germany to try and achieve more professional success.” It marked the first time that Beatriz was more than 35 miles away from her town, and she didn’t speak the German language.
“But in her job interviews, she owned it and kept at it, acknowledging her language deficiency,” Huang says. “She was able to charm the interviewers, stringing together words and phrases she had picked up and mixing them with some Spanish.” Goldman Sachs hired Beatriz as a receptionist, then she was promoted to an analyst, and then promoted to a sales associate.
“Beatriz’s story is an example of the exciting outcomes that can be achieved so long as you don’t allow your disadvantages to hold you back,” Huang says. While her language deficiency was a disadvantage, she was bold, always learning, hard-working, and had a sense of humor. As a result, Huang says she was able to use this disadvantage to her benefit.
Huang has done a lot of research on non-native English accents in the workplace and found that these individuals were less likely that their native English-speaking peers to be hired, promoted to management positions, or secure startup capital.
“This was due to lower scores on ‘soft factors,’ such as interpersonal influence, being a team player, and thinking outside the box.” However, Huang says that non-native English speakers can circumvent this perception by actively guiding their audience. “For instance, when one of the entrepreneurs in my study mentioned how she was able to ‘politically navigate a crowded supplier market in order to receive preferential pricing terms,’ she redirected the perceptions that investors had of her and obtained far more funding than her counterparts.”
In another instance, a member of the study stated in a job interview, “I know it might seem like I’m not able to communicate impactfully, but let me tell you about a time when I fought for resources for my team,” and she says this individual was rated higher than other candidates with no accent.
“By reframing their story and by showcasing their innovative thinking, ability to navigate difficult scenarios, and enduring spirit in spite of their non-native English accent, these individuals achieved far better outcomes than their native English-speaking peers.”
However, Huang says there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to finding your edge. “It’s a personal perspective — when you make it personal and authentically you, that’s when you’re best able to find and create your unique edge,” she says.
We’ve been taught that working hard leads to success. And it does. “However, hard work alone and the myth of one’s hard work speaking for itself often leaves us frustrated,” Huang says. “It’s often about the signals, perceptions, and stereotypes of others.” However, by understanding that and being able to flip those stereotypes and obstacles in your favor, she says you can find and create your own edge.
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