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3 ways to succeed in uncertain times

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One of the things that life guarantees, regardless of who you are, is that you will face times of uncertainty. That uncertainty can bring on fear, doubt and depression.

But there are ways to not only survive, but thrive, in challenging times. I know this because I’ve used such strategies myself, as I journeyed from born in a segregated hospital to becoming an officer at two Fortune 500 companies and serving on the boards of several others.

Let me outline three of the uncertain, and difficult, times of my life:

  • 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 on both knees 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 received 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 (what I call “FUD”).

I would be lying if I said these feelings didn’t sometimes get the best of me. But I learned how to overcome them with the support and advice of some great people, including my mother, my wife and people I call “earthly angels.”

Here are the three things I learned to that helped me overcome adversity and move on:

1. Determine what is within your control.

After the shock wears off, focus on the knowns instead of the unknowns. This will help you keep 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 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.

2. Look back to move forward.

When faced with a major challenge, think back to others that you have overcome. This gives you the confidence to handle the challenge you are facing now. 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.

3. Help someone else.

When you help someone facing even greater challenges than you, you see the difference your actions make. It gives them hope that someone else is caring — and it causes other people to care about you.

After my knee surgery, when everyone (including me) thought that I wouldn’t play basketball again, I went from being a “big man” to “little man” on campus. But my girlfriend at the time (now my wife of 35 years) let me know she saw me as more than just a basketball player — she saw me as a person who was capable of much more.

When I was demoted, I went from James the up-and-comer to James the 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 vice presidents that I was in the right and the people who demoted me were in the wrong.

That vice president 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 difficult time. Making a difference in his life made a difference in mine.

Remember that we will all go through times of uncertainty, but you don’t have to dwell in that place. The strategies outlined here worked for me and will work for you. Focus on what you can control, gather confidence from past successes and turn to your strengths. 

James Dallas is president of James Dallas & Associates and the author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.