The upside of adversity in life

Last Wednesday at Unreasonable Institute’s final presentations, Roberto Carlos Rivera shared a deeply personal story. As a child, Roberto was involved in gang fights; he created hip-hop songs; and he had been kicked out of school – twice – because he stirred up emotions in his classmates. 

Now, years later, Roberto is nominated a Top Young Change Agent. Roberto was selected as an Unreasonable Fellow and leads The Good Life Organization. In his own words: “I went from a dope-dealer to a hope-dealer”.  

Listening to Roberto, a thought came to me: challenging moments in life are necessary opportunities to become a great person.


Looking at close friends and distant heroes, every single person I see as a leader has overcome big challenges in their life. I have friends who recovered from life-threatening accidents or convinced hundreds of people to join a cause before officially being a teenager. Gandhi was able to develop satyagraha because of his inhumane experience in South Africa; Jay-Z developed incredible perseverance because of his tough youth in the Bronx. 

This idea – that life challenges are necessary to develop character – triggers two observations. First, shielding children from pain may not be the best way to raise happy, fulfilled human beings. Brene Brown echoes this in an On Being podcast (mins 31:30-35:00). According to Brene Brown, American parents can be overprotective, a missed opportunity for their children to build character. “Hope is a function of struggle”, Brene Brown says, “I see students who have never experienced real adversity. How that shows up is hopelessness”.

Second, when children with seemingly dark futures ahead of them can break out of destructive patterns there is great hope for them. The struggle for life has given them the opportunity to build real character. These kids have the rough material to become diamonds. 


Have you experienced adversity in your youth? Which were the moments that define you as you are? Do you know great leaders who have not struggled with adversity?