How to Suffer Successfully, is the title of chapter four in Alain de Botton’s first book of philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life. The same idea is the theme of The Adversity Paradox by J. Barry Griswell and Bob Jennings.
The Adversity Paradox is full of inspiring examples of people who have suffered major adversity and have used the experience to improve their capabilities and gone on to outstanding success. The knowledge they gained from overcoming obstacles has played such a crucial role in their success trajectories that they now consider adversity to be an invaluable friend.
De Botton takes a more philosophical view and recognises there are ‘bad sufferers’ and ‘good sufferers’. Bad sufferers learn nothing from their adversities and react to them by engaging defence mechanisms that compound the problem such as rage, delusion and arrogance. Successful sufferers, including those identified in The Adversity Paradox, use their adversity to gain a better understanding of reality and by rising to the challenge, create a better future for themselves and others.
Whilst no sane project manager would chose to suffer sufficiently to produce their version of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, only the most naive would expect their project to run without a problem. Projects and their attendant stakeholders are a potential source of much grief and suffering, all be it at a lower level of intensity; schedule slippage test failures, cost overruns and accidents to name a few.
As identified by de Botton, bad sufferers try to hide the problems, blame others and learn nothing. Ethical and effective project managers accept their suffering and use the experience to grow their knowledge and capabilities. Quoting Proust, “Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure.”
No one likes a project that fails! However, it is only when you are experiencing the pain of failure, the opportunity to learn from the failure opens up. By using the opportunity to maximise the lessons learned, you minimise the potential for similar problems in the future. The cost of the failure is the coin by which future gains are purchased. The difficulty is developing the level of understanding needed to really achieve valuable lessons learned; finding the ‘cause of the cause’. The second more complex challenge is ensuring the lessons learned are transferred to the organisations store of knowledge and available for others to use and thereby avoid unnecessary pain and suffering.
De Botton suggests being a ‘good sufferer’ does not entail subscribing to the Romantic cult of suffering for its own sake, rather making practical use of the occasions when suffering is unavoidable to create new insights and grow in capability or knowledge. Our addition to this basic idea for the practicing project manager is to then make sure the lessons learned are effectively distilled, recorded and made available to others for the future benefit of the organisation and the profession.