Eating Sloppy Joe: Thriving In Difficult Times



(This essay was originally published in my January, 2009 E-newsletter, during the recession. How easy it is to forget how scary those times were, how tenuous. Today, our world faces different challenges, as we always will. This has been slightly revised.)

My first home was a barracks in Iowa, where Dad was going to school. Once, money was so tight my Mom broke into tears when the monthly rent money couldn’t be found. You can imagine her relief when it was found, misplaced, in our icebox.

Years later my sisters Mary and Amy, my brother David, and I practically lived on peanut butter sandwiches and “sloppy joes” when the family relocated to Lawrence, Kansas so my Dad could pursue his doctorate.  (Peanut butter and mayonnaise was one of my favorites, if memory serves – the thought today makes my stomach revolt. My Dad liked peanut butter and bananas.) Throughout my childhood, money was scarce as my parents went to school at various times and entered teaching.  Still, we always found inexpensive fun like kick the can or tennis at the public tennis courts.

My grandfather was a shop teacher in Lorraine, a town of 125 in rural Kansas, when my Dad was young. Grandpa’s teaching contract was for $110 a month with the condition that the “contract automatically expires in event sufficient taxes are not paid to meet salaries.”  But as Dad wrote about those days,

We had lots of fun as a family and everyone in town knew us and we knew everyone. Mom made the best raised glazed donuts I ever ate. In later years Mom and I even talked about opening a donut store. And can you believe she made homemade potato chips? I still have the potato slicing board. It must be an antique by now. I can remember playing pinochle. I doubt if I was very good at that age but it was a card game that Mom and Dad could play that didn’t cost anything.

Mom’s side of the family was different. They really were poor. In 1937, the midst of the depression, Mom, her brother, and parents, were tossed off the Oklahoma farm they had been leasing. They auctioned off all their belongings – from farm equipment to axle grease to the family cat – which produced a grand total of $1,432.64. My grandmother said the family was “going to the poor house.” As Mom wrote, “But for the grace of God we would have put our mattress on the top of our old car and WE would have had to go to California or anywhere my Dad could make a living for us.” No wonder she was so scared years later when she unwittingly made the ice box a deposit box for the rent money.


Fortunately, great uncle Gus offered my grandfather a partnership in a gas station, which Grandpa Jess would eventually buy outright and so move the family to town. Mom says that being kicked off the farm – traumatic at the time – is what eventually gave her and my uncle J.R. the opportunity to get decent medical care, access to a library and schools, summer jobs that allowed her to pay college tuition and eventually attain master’s degrees – the first in her family.

I was the one trying not to cry the morning Mom told me about the cavities – now I can’t remember if it was sixteen or twenty – the dentist found when she moved to town.  I imagined the fear a third grade girl would feel anticipating each time one was to be filled—with no pain killer.  My stomach involuntarily clenched and my face tightened up the way it does when I’m trying to hold back tears.

We face difficult times today. Like the past, built into these challenges are also great opportunities. No one, I least of all, would ask for adversity. No one would call for pain, especially when undeserved. Yet hard times are part of the human condition. In nature, adversity helps weed out the weak or those not prepared to adapt to a changing future. In commerce, the same is true. Companies that are frail or unprepared are likely to fail while stronger organizations rise to the top.

There are at least five reasons to value difficult times:

They force you to look at yourself in new ways. When I found myself “impacted” (a euphemism for losing your job and having to find another one in the company if you didn’t want to get laid off) at work years ago I had to rethink my career path. Losing my job transformed what I thought my future might be and gave me the opportunity to pursue a promising new career.

They sharpen your decision-making. A CEO once told me that the hardest time to lead is during good times. He said so with authority, having just taken over a company that had plunged from seeming invulnerability to layoffs, lawsuits, and lethargy. When resources are plentiful and there are many options it is easy to squander competitive advantages and to be lackadaisical about wasting assets. That is as true for an individual and a country as it is for a company.  When times are difficult we are forced to sharpen the pencil and make hardnosed decisions. Away with the horse-drawn plow, essential in earlier times but only an anchor now, holding us back. Out with the excess and the unnecessary in our lives and our organizations. In with what brings life and growth and value.

They motivate you to be your best, if you want to survive. I hate to admit it, but for a period of my career I was a survivor – just sitting on my hands hoping not to be noticed.  (Confession can be cleansing.) Instead of exercising my initiative and taking the risks needed to become my best I was a turnip. When I realized that I might be out of a job (see They Force You To See Things In New Ways above….) I got off my duff. I had a family with two young children to support. I went back to school. I set ambitious goals. I worked hard to become more than someone just drawing a paycheck.

They can build character.  It is true that hard times can bring out the worst in people, who sometimes become selfish, manipulative, and destructive.  Instead, use adversity as an opportunity to develop willpower, graciousness, forgiveness, charity, honesty, and all those qualities your minister told you about when you were growing up, but which you may have forgotten along the way.

Difficult times create opportunities. While everyone else is feeling sorry for themselves, look for jobs created by merged organizations, businesses needed as others exit the marketplace, and people who are now open to collaboration where once they weren’t.  Fill vacuums in the chaos, move forward while others resist change, and make yourself seen as the “can-do” person leaders need when everything else is a mess.

No one asks for tough times, yet adversity can have value if approached in the right spirit. These are just five reasons to value difficult times – if you think about it you’ll discover more.

Humans are amazing creatures – we are forged in the crucible of life. Now is the time to let our fire burn white hot.

For more about profound living, see

Liquid gold being poured into a cast to make a bullion bar at a Gold Reef City demonstration. Even the crucible glows under the immense heat.

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