The Aurelian Column "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."

The Martial Art of Challenging Times

It’s time to be grateful for our current adversity.

Yes. You heard right. It’s time to give thanks for the challenges most of us are now experiencing. The joy of the trials and tribulations millions of us are struggling with, and the abyss so many are being forced to look into.

And why, pray-tell, should that be the case? Well, that requires a backstory about what this reporter experienced earlier in his career, and how it compares to the present day.

Some of you may remember the rise of the commercial Internet back in the 1990s. It was a heady time. A new plane of existence known as cyberspace was developing quickly. The foundations for many of today’s tech empires were being laid. And many of the personal fortunes one reads about in today’s headlines were starting to accumulate.

This reporter found himself in the center of it all. Not as an entrepreneur or engineer, but as a correspondent and commentator on the growing power and influence of the tech world. A bringer of the latest news and developments for those working in the industry as well as the general public. It was an exciting time in history, and it was an exciting beat to be covering.

In the course of this reporter’s work, there were many interviews conducted with some of the movers and shakers of the time. A few of them are still with us and are household words. Many are not. Some will be talked about in the history books centuries from now, but the names of most will be lost in the dust of ages — their contributions unheralded and largely forgotten. Yet all of them played a role in the world we find ourselves today, for good or for ill.

A quarter of a century ago, humanity was entering a new era. Yet the way it was brought about was as ancient as the Pyramids. A constant of human civilization was at work. And all the relevant participants shared the same mindset. What all of them had in common back then, from the lowliest programmer to the most powerful executive, was their love of adversity.

Yes. Love of adversity. And “love” in every sense of the meaning of the word. Why? Because it brought out the best in them, and they knew it. And those who embraced that universal truth went on to change the world.

The rationale for such an attitude is as logical as a line of well-written computer code. When one is in a challenging position -- when it seems the whole world is against you and the odds are overwhelming that you won’t make it out of a given situation in one piece -- you have but two choices: Give up or fight on. If you pick the former, you’re done. Defeated by your own hand. But if you chose to fight on, you not only have a chance of winning, you’re at your best. You’re at the top of your game and you feel it down in the depths of your soul.

And such an attitude was necessary in those days. The late 1990s and early 2000s was a cutthroat time in the tech world. A new industry was being born. And like all births, it was a bloody, messy affair. For every success there were countless failures, and some were spectacular. Among the more dramatic examples of crash-and-burn capitalism were those involving what we now refer to as e-commerce.

When one ordered goods online in those days, there was good service and bad service but very little profitable service. When receiving or opening packages, it was often a real interesting experience when one gazed at either the outside or inside of the box. It was not uncommon for a single bag of breakfast cereal to be delivered by overnight courier across the Pacific, nor was it unknown to find items like gloves, a sign announcing an upcoming lunch break, or even someone’s eyeglasses included with one’s order. Customers had to wonder what sort of chaos was at play in the offices and warehouses of these early e-commerce startups, and how long they would last in a business world that always runs on hard numbers.

It was a very interesting time, to put it mildly. In covering the tech beat of those days, this reporter was constantly reminded of an all-too-common joke. And that is that there are three kinds of tech executives: those who understand mathematics and those who don’t.

Yet among all the chaos and all the craziness, many overcame the challenges of make-it-up-as-you-go-along business planning, incompetent management, and just plain hardball competition in an industry where the rulebook had yet to be written. And like all things in nature, the weak perished and the strong survived. The latter going on to grow, propagate, and rule the world.

The winners that emerged from the pools of early Internet protoplasm did this by embracing a great truth: In times of the greatest danger, the darkest of darkness, the most desperate of desperate circumstances, all of your experience, skills, abilities, and willpower are brought to bear. Everything you’ve ever learned and how to apply it is at your fingertips. All your weapons are loaded, all your quivers full of arrows. Maps are memorized, and tactics learned from years of practice have become as natural as breathing. You’re ready for what you’re facing like you never could have imagined, and thus have become a force of nature. It’s as if an ancient martial art that had been programmed into your DNA was flipped on with the suddenness and intensity of a high voltage lever switch.

Anyone who has studied a martial art knows that among the first lessons learned is the power and danger of resistance and force. You can either meet a threat head-on or, preferably, use it to your advantage. Bend it to your will and transmute it into something to your benefit. The European alchemists of old hinted at this process in their teachings. To put it simply, it’s the difference between forcing water into a sponge or just letting go and have the sponge do the work for you.

Most of the people at the top of the heap today; the present-day captains of industry; the current movers and shakers of our world, all embraced an empowering and eternal truth: Adversity is the primary force behind anything coming into being, and that struggle is responsible for all of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. Always has been, always will be.

So as you deal with the many problems and difficulties of the present day, keep in mind that right now you’re at your best. You’re at your most effective. Your most powerful. Your most skillful. You’re at your best and you’ll never be any better. So enjoy it while you can.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy used this universal constant to channel the resources of the United States into an endeavor that, to this day, has yet to be surpassed. He outlined the reasons for this in a speech he gave at Rice University. But like so many things in history that have been reduced to crib notes and sound bites, few people these days bother to refer to the entirety of what the man actually said and meant. The relevant paragraph went like this:

“We choose to go to the Moon...We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard;
because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

"That goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

Our 35th president knew that ancient secret as well. He applied it to an entire nation, and helped the human race begin its long sojourn to the stars.

It’s not the accomplishments that make us who we are; it’s the challenges that resulted in the accomplishments that make us who we are.

So find joy and fulfillment in these difficult days and troublesome adversities. For years of great turmoil are few, and the opportunities they present are momentary on the timeline of history.

© 2020 Thomas Michael Caldwell. All Rights Reserved. This written work is not to be copied or reproduced without the permission of the author. Links to this page from other websites or social media accounts is permitted and encouraged.