What the Most Difficult Romantic and Business Relationships Have in Common
Rethink the way you approach challenging circumstances to maximize chances at happiness and success.
Life’s circumstances often feel out of our control, and to some extent, they are. We don’t get to choose our parents, our genes or the weather, and we can’t do anything to change that. However, no matter our background, the risk we face is being trapped in the belief that we’re defined by what we can’t change, instead of focusing on what we can change.
Like a game of poker, life is an unpredictable blend of randomness, luck, skill and attitude. From the outside, it seems as if the player who’s dealt the best hand has a huge advantage. And they do — if they’re a great player to begin with. Great players — the ones who know exactly how to leverage pocket aces — also know how to win if they’re dealt the worst hand.
It’s not about the cards. It’s about how you play them, how you play your opponents and the room. It’s about knowing your strengths and weaknesses — or, as Kenny Rogers so eloquently put it, “knowin’ what to throw away, and knowin’ what to keep.” A player with a terrible hand but skillful bluff can steal the pot away from an opponent with much better cards and lower confidence.
Life isn’t always about head-to-head competition, but the same fundamental truths apply. “The Gambler” didn’t become Rogers’s most famous song because it's about a card game, after all. Knowing “when to hold ‘em” and “when to fold ‘em” is an analogy that applies to most areas in life — from business to romance.
Leveraging circumstances for success
I once had a boss who yelled more than he spoke. I didn’t want to stay at the job. I was constantly worried about being fired, but I had a family to provide for and not many options on the table. Through gritted teeth, I stuck around, and it eventually paid off. The relationship I had with that boss morphed into something meaningful, and the lessons I learned from it were extraordinarily beneficial to my career.
I’m not saying that those in a toxic work environment should just suck it up. But, while things can seem unbearable, it’s how we deal with them that matters most. It's our reactions to our circumstances, not the circumstances themselves, that define who we are.
Billionaires Richard Branson and Jay-Z never finished high school. Neither did John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford. In fact, 24 of America’s richest people never got a college degree, and the vast majority of them are self-made individuals who faced incredible adversity. Just 20% of U.S. millionaires inherited their money, while 80% created their wealth with hard work, inventiveness and perseverance.
Then there’s Harland David Sanders, best known as “Colonel” Sanders of fried chicken fame. At age 65, the Colonel lived on a $105 per month Social Security check. Not the best hand to have pulled after having sat at the proverbial poker table for over six decades. But he didn’t let that stop him from going all in and becoming a multi-millionaire and household name.
Oh, and the richest man alive today, Elon Musk, used to sleep on the floor of his office and shower at the YMCA.
Beyond business relationships
A family member of mine endured a long marriage to a man many of us thought was unusually mean-spirited. We didn’t understand why she put up with his constant belittlement and corrections. After her husband died, we learned a different side of the story. What we saw as a strained relationship, she viewed as a mechanism for personal growth. She wasn’t relieved when he was gone; instead, she missed him dearly.
Similarly, I’ve heard complaints from acquaintances about their “dysfunctional” relationships. When asked what they’ve done to make it functional (i.e. more time together without kids, counseling, etc.), they suddenly get quiet. Alternatively, they say they’ve “tried everything.” But rarely is that true. How do they define everything? What about a second honeymoon or a new spiritual path? What they’re really saying is that they’ve tried everything they’re willing to try.
I'm in no way advocating for people to remain in abusive or harmful relationships for the sake of self-improvement. The point is that there is often more than one way to intrepret something. When a person disagrees with you, is it an offense or a chance to challenge your own perspective? When you hit a hypothetical dead-end, do you automatically turn around, or do you see an opportunity to blaze your own trail forward?
Reach out for the opportunities ahead of you
There’s something else that needs to be said: Recognizing and pointing out systemic injustices is not the issue here. The playing field isn’t level, and that’s a fact. The world is full of large-scale problems, worth fighting back against, and more than enough unfairness to go around. And yet, by and large, I’ve found that leaning into victimhood cripples our ability to change not only our own circumstances, but also those that affect others.
The choice we all have is between feeling sorry for ourselves or recognizing that life will always be full of unfair challenges, which we can use as opportunities. Every snag, stumbling block, worry, mess, mix-up or even all-out disaster gives you the opportunity to use your creativity, intelligence and resources to surmount it. Not only will you overcome the issue, but you will also grow better and stronger for it.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor