The Adversity Quotient

Guest post by Ted Lamade, Managing Director at The Carnegie Institution for Science

A friend recently shared an article from The Harvard Crimson’s 2022 “Senior Perspectives,” which is a publication that provides an opportunity for graduating varsity athletes to reflect on their careers. This particular article was authored by a senior named Charlie Olmert.

To my surprise, Olmert didn’t highlight a big goal or an Ivy League title. He didn’t reflect on helping his team make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 or being elected captain his senior season. Instead, he pointed to a text his grandfather would send him after each game.

This quote was from the final stanza of a 19th century poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson named “Ulysses” in which Ulysses reflects on his life shortly after returning from the Trojan War. It reads,

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

After reading these lines, I immediately wondered why? Why did Olmert’s grandfather choose a poem about the hero from Homer’s The Odyssey?

The fact that he has been a Classics professor at The University of Maryland for more than three decades sheds some light, but it doesn’t explain why he chose these precise lines. As I read on though, the answer revealed itself.

While Olmert had been a star in high school, his college career had been defined more by broken bones, bulging disks, and surgeries. These setbacks were undoubtedly frustrating and disappointing. However, as a senior reflecting on his time in Cambridge, overcoming these injuries and finding a way back onto the field are ironically what Olmert valued most about his career. In his words,

“To strive, to seek, to find, and to not yield. That is what I will remember about my career at Harvard. After wins or losses, no matter the obstacle that laid ahead or failure behind, I learned to stand back up and keep going, with my teammates by my side. That’s what made it special.”

Facing and overcoming this adversity forced him to cherish the relationships he made along the way, helped him handle various challenges off the field more effectively, and grounded him in ways that may not have been possible had he been a star.

I have to admit. This is something I have given a lot of thought to over the years. It may be due to the fact that my own collegiate athletic career was also defined by injuries. It could be a result of Covid making life more challenging for nearly everyone over the past few years. Or, it might be due to something else entirely.

The fact is, everyone wants to win. To succeed. To have things work out just as we had hoped. Yet, one of life’s greatest paradoxes is that the greatest victories rarely come from success alone. Instead, they come from the moments when you are challenged, get knocked down, and bounce back up.

If true, how do we explain this paradox? I can think of no better example than parenting.

Most parents hope to help make their children’s lives a little easier than their own. Yet at the same time, parents regularly bemoan the fact their children have it easier than they did. We have all heard or echoed a version of the line, “When I was your age I…fill in the blank.”

I personally experienced this recently when my father lamented how much easier my brother and I have it these days given the fact that technology has enabled people to work remotely and maintain more flexibility. In a very respectful manner, I replied to him that he might be right, but that he too had it easier than his father. Much easier.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt that my father worked hard. He served two tours in Vietnam, went to law school, and then practiced for the better part of four decades with a stint as the General Counsel to the Navy in the Pentagon when he was my age. Yet, there is no doubt he had it easier than my grandfather.

Why do I know this?

Because my grandfather was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, including spending much of World War II in the Pacific Theater when he was my age. During the war, he spent many months away from his family, was one of fewer than 400 men aboard the USS Houston (out of more than 1,000) to survive its sinking during the Battle of Sunda Strait, and was awarded the Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism when he led a carrier-based aircraft strike against the Japanese Fleet, during which he sunk an enemy battleship even after his own aircraft had been seriously damaged.”

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Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away when I was just five years old so I only have faint memories of him. That said, from the stories my father has told me and from what I have read, he was a different breed. When they say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, they had Jack Lamade in mind. That is why there is no doubt in my mind that when he was shipping off to fight the Japanese he did so first because of a duty to this country, but also to make sure that his children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to.

So, herein lies the rub. If given the choice between having to risk your life fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific (or the Vietcong in Vietnam) versus working in today’s remote/hybrid environment, the obvious answer would be the latter. Or, given the choice between having an injury-riddled athletic career versus being a multi-year All-American, it is safe to assume the vast majority of people would choose to be the star.

But, what if I told you the answer might not be that obvious? What if I told you a case could be made for the latter?

Let me try to explain.

Each Saturday I pick up the Wall Street Journal from my local grocery store. In a sign of aging into my middle years, one of the first things I do is flip to the obituaries. If you choose to do the same, you will undoubtedly read about a life well lived.

The people profiled often emerged from a difficult childhood. They typically grew up in places like a tiny apartment with multiple siblings like Queens, New York, a small row house with a single parent in Cleveland, Ohio, or on a struggling farm in West Texas. They were often the first in their family to go to college, struggled to find a job, worked incredibly hard once they did, and eventually rose the corporate ranks, started a company, or reached the highest level of success in some other unique way. Many served time in the military. Along the way, they were not handed anything. Instead, they were faced with endless challenges. They were knocked down time and time again, only to pick themselves up repeatedly. They struggled at times, but it is clear that their success was directly attributable to these experiences.

These are stories about some of America’s greatest lives ever lived; success that most parents dream of for their children today. Yet ironically, instead of seeing the high correlation between the struggle and the success, my guess is that after reading these obituaries most parents would still likely continue bending over backwards to shield their kids from the struggle.

Frankly, I don’t blame them. My wife and I have two sons and we wrestle with this almost daily. We are constantly asking ourselves how we can do a better job of embracing the struggle, or even promoting it.

In an interesting twist of fate, after reading Olmert’s parting perspective for the Harvard Crimson, I sent him an email telling him how much I enjoyed it. He responded and we spoke on the phone a few days later. During our conversation, Olmert mentioned that he is going to work for a private equity firm based on the west coast. One thing led to another and I ended up speaking with the firm’s head of investor relations a few weeks ago.

During our conversation, I asked her the same three questions I ask every fund during our first meeting — What is your source of Edge? Endurance? and Culture? I have spoken to countless investment firms over the past few years and the vast majority answer each of the three questions individually. This woman, however, answered uniquely and succinctly,

“Our culture is both the source of our edge and endurance.”

I came to learn that this firm believes that what sets it apart is how it identifies and cultivates its people. It is their edge. In their words,

“We work with, learn from, and develop exceptional people in order to create a virtuous cycle of financial and operational wins that, in turn, contribute to greater personal fulfillment. Our ultimate goal? Climb higher, smarter, and faster to create a world where people and businesses both thrive.”

To accomplish this, this firm does something else unique. Like most of their competition, they place a high priority on a candidate’s intellectual and emotional quotients (“IQ” and “EQ”). Unlike many funds though, they have a third pillar — an adversity quotient (“AQ”). In short, they look for intelligent and well-adjusted people who have overcome challenges. Those who have been knocked down several times, but have pulled themselves back up. Those who have learned from and been shaped by the adversity they have overcome.

So how has this worked out from a performance perspective? It should come as no surprise that this firm’s least successful fund was its first one roughly twenty years ago. Since then their funds have consistently been in the top quartile.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Maybe they’re onto something.