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Next time you hit a difficulty—use it!

The renowned actor Michael Caine was once rehearsing a play scene as a young, aspiring thespian.

In the middle of the rehearsal, a chair unexpectedly got stuck in the door of the set, blocking his path. Young Michael froze and didn’t know what to do. He told his fellow, more seasoned actor he couldn’t get past the chair without looking awkward. What was he to do?

The older actor’s response: “Use the difficulty…if it’s a comedy, fall over it, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it.”

Michael Caine went on to become one of the most well-known stage and cinema actors of his generation, and he explained to an interviewer later in life that that thought—use the difficulty—became one of the defining philosophies of his life. “There’s never anything so bad that you cannot use that difficulty…if you can use it a quarter of one percent to your advantage, you’re ahead, you didn’t let it get you down.”

Aha. The paths of life are not easy. We all have many unexpected challenges, many unforeseen obstacles to come. These hurdles will be intimidating and discouraging. Even the toughest amongst us will lose heart at times. Take that as a given. What remains in our hands is how we react and respond. That’s where the mantra “use the difficulty” comes in. It’s not about spending all our lives avoiding obstacles—which is an act of futility—but in using them to our advantage, and keeping on going.

How do we use the difficulty? Here are some ways.

First, the strategic pivot. Don’t just bang your head against the rock that has suddenly appeared in your path, pause and reflect. Can I adjust my direction? Are there better paths available to me? When Netflix saw its first business idea—DVDs by mail—flagging, it simply accelerated to streaming video—and took an early lead in that arena. When Steve Jobs was ousted ignominiously from Apple, the company he co-founded, he did not sit morosely for too long—he went on to found new companies with greater prudence and humility, and his success there eventually brought him triumphantly back to Apple.

Another way to use the difficulty is to use it as a catalyst for innovation. As I have written here before, becoming uncomfortable is actually one of the preconditions to generating big innovations. Thomas Edison, one of the great inventors of history, did not succeed all at once. He faced many, many setbacks, but what did he reportedly say about that? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” That there is the spirit of resilience and perseverance that marks out the truly accomplished.

Or take the example of WD-40, the legendary household product. It’s very likely to be in your home, as it is in mine, because it is so very good at lubrication, with so many use-cases. Do you know what the name stands for? “Water Displacement, 40th Formula. It was the founders’ fortieth attempt at perfecting the formula. When their original attempts failed, they just made notes and kept going, and in the process came up with a final product of remarkable versatility, sold in virtually every country in the world.

Every setback is also a learning opportunity. Why am I in this bind? Did I do something wrong, or did I just fail to account for life’s randomness? What can I do next time to improve my chances, and to create a safety net if I fall again? In this sense obstacles are not roadblocks—they are signposts to a new path. Malala Yousafzai faced one hell of a setback: being shot in the head by her oppressors. She responded not by shrinking in fear, but by using her newfound fame to become a global icon and champion for the education of girls.

The difficulties will keep coming—and we must learn to use them, every time. Has an unexpected illness confined you to bed? If your mind and hands are not affected, use that time to catch up with all the things in your life that you were neglecting when you were busy running around. Has your business collapsed? Use that difficulty to reflect on your own mistakes and rethink your priorities in life. Has someone let you down badly? Use the difficulty to become more discerning about people, and more wise about trust and dependency. Has a key figure in your life passed on? Even as you mourn, be grateful for that person’s role in your life and move on to finding your own strength—and gifting it to someone else.

Certainly, there are difficulties that are very, very difficult to come back from. It would be insane and egregiously wrong to tell a child or even a traumatised adult in Gaza right now to “use the difficulty,” for example. But even when the loss suffered is immense, there is something there on the other side of the awful coin. Many of the greatest acts of courage, leadership and innovation of human history have come not from the garden of tranquility, but the crucible of difficulty.

(Sunday Nation, 10 March 2024)

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