How Adversity Leads to Success Some of the world's greatest entrepreneurs succeeded, not in spite of the challenges they faced, but because of it.

By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One of the biggest problems I see among the entrepreneurial crowd, especially the younger generation, is their overwhelming obsession for whatever feels good. Ironically, that's exactly the opposite of what creates successful businesses and leaders.

How you handle adversity, challenge, and competition plays an enormous role in determining how things turn out for you in life. If you try to avoid those factors I guarantee you won't be happy about the outcome. The business world will chew you up and spit you out. Sorry to be so blunt, but that is the truth.

This is nothing new. It's fundamental to all living things and deeply rooted in the basics of biology, namely natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Here's a great example. I live on a mountain range that borders Silicon Valley. The area known as Hawk's Hill is named after the many red-tail hawks that live here. These are beautiful creatures. They're carnivorous predators that mate for life and don't seem to mind being around humans one bit.

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I often watch them protect their territory in aerial dogfights with invading black crows. High winds are frequent here and it's not uncommon to see them soar high into the sky on warm air currents or use their enormous wingspans to fly against powerful winds exceeding 50 mph.

The prevalence of these raptors all across North America is largely a result of how well the species has adapted to adversity, challenge, and competition in its ecosystem. They've adapted well to human incursion by using remaining trees for nesting, manmade polls for perch-hunting, and deforestation to more easily sight their prey.

Red-tail hawks haven't just survived adverse conditions; they've thrived in them. And that's why they've been so successful.

Likewise, some of the greatest and richest entrepreneurs in the world started with nothing and built their empires using the skills, drive, and street smarts they acquired growing up under adverse conditions to face all sorts of tough challenges and come out on top.

Softbank's Masayoshi Son – the richest man in Japan – comes to mind. He's a fierce competitor who grew up in poverty and somehow managed to defy the odds and build a telecommunications and Internet giant that's now the 86th largest company in the world by market capitalization. Now he's going up against AT&T and Verizon as chairman of Sprint, which Softbank acquired a controlling interest in two years ago.

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Son was actually an early investor in Alibaba, the ecommerce giant founded by former English teacher Jack Ma in his apartment in Hanzhou, China. Like Son, Ma started with nothing, faced enormous obstacles, and still managed to create Alibaba with 17 friends and their combined wealth of $60,000. Today, Ma is the richest man in China and Alibaba is worth more than Oracle, Disney, Coca-Cola, AT&T and Amazon.

While Ma was wondering how to unlock the small business potential of a billion Chinese people, 22-year old Travis Kalanick and a few friends dropped out of UCLA to start their first company, Scour.

A copyright-infringement suit forced Scour into bankruptcy but Kalanick was undeterred. He co-founded Red Swoosh and sold it six years later for $19 million. In 2009, the uber-competitive entrepreneur co-founded Uber, which is now the second-most-valuable venture-backed firm on Earth. Kalanick is worth an estimated $5 billion.

Not to put myself in the same class, but I grew up in a tiny rent-controlled apartment. My dad was a postal worker who barely finished high school and my mom, a bank clerk, didn't even get that far in school. Yet, I survived the mean streets of Brooklyn, found my way to the high-tech industry, and became a successful senior executive.

The one thing we all had in common is that none of this stuff came easy and the only reason we did as well as we did is because we had the guts, determination, and stick-with-it-ness to keep fighting and never give in to hardship. Make no mistake: we didn't succeed in spite of the challenges we faced. We succeeded because of it.

Related: The True Meaning of 'Entrepreneur'

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Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

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