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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Strategies to overcome adversity


By Rob Kay
Special to The Advertiser

When author and business executive Dave Hee-nan began researching his seventh and latest book, "Bright Triumphs From Dark Hours" (University of Hawai'i Press), three years ago, Hawai'i was a very different place. Our home prices were at an all- time high, unemployment was at a record low and tourists were flooding our hotels. The state coffers were brimming with cash and teachers worked a full schedule.

The book was released in November. What a difference three years makes.

Our state is in the midst of a local version of "The Great Malaise" the term that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan coined to describe the economic stagflation of 1970 to 1985.

Tourism is hobbling along by offering bargain-basement hotel tariffs; government workers are furloughed, figuring out what to do with their kids while school teachers are out of class, and housing prices have dropped like the proverbial ton of bricks.

The economic downturn has left its mark on working families who even in the best of times never really had much of a cushion. It also has turned many upper-middle-class families, who scraped together every dime they had to send their kids to private schools, into the newly minted downwardly mobile.

After a brief brain gain, prompted by a spike in new tech companies, we now have our old brain drain back. This means the most educated and promising of our young professionals and college grads are in full flight out of state.

What to do in this climate of gloom and doom?

Heenan, a former Marine pilot and no stranger to challenges, tells us that tough times mean marshalling not just financial resources. It means mustering every ounce of our own God-given intestinal fortitude, spirit, will and psychological resources to win the day.

"Bright Triumphs From Dark Hours" chronicles the lives of individuals who have faced enormous challenges, ranging from life-threatening situations from warfare in the freezing mountains of North Korea to Sisyphean tasks such as turning around New York City's moribund school system and coming up a winner.

In short, Heenan's protagonists (who include former Hawai'i residents such as Scott Waddle and Steve Case) make a mere layoff seem like a walk in Kapi'olani Park.

What does this mean to the average reader, facing life's adversities? Reading this book is not necessarily going to revive your portfolio nor get your kid into 'Iolani, but it does change your perspective.

Heenan explores the lives of those who have been to brink and back and how they made the proverbial lemonade out of the lemons they were handed.

Take the case of Patty Dunn, also a part-time Hawai'i resident, the former board chairman of tech giant Hewlett-Packard. Dunn not only suffered through a career-destroying scandal that was not of her making but faced her third life-threatening bout of cancer. In the end, she lost her job but got her reputation back, and survived.

We can gain something from these insights, even though we may not be public figures whose daily comings and goings are followed in the gossip columns or the business section.

Heenan's advice:

1. Learn from adversity. No one got anywhere by being comfortable. Look at tough times as nature's way of giving you a chance to learn. As the author says, resilient men and women don't wallow in the darkness. Accept adversity, understand that setbacks are inevitable and move on.

2. Fashion a new dream. Fall seven times and stand up eight, as the Japanese proverb goes. Construct a vision of where you want to go, and go there. It's inspiring that many of the figures Heenan profiles come from humble beginnings broken homes, alcoholic parents and poverty. The common thread was that all aimed high and transformed their lives.

3. Focus, focus, focus. When times are daunting, know what you're capable of doing, do it well and with confidence. Understand that resilient personalities are able to smile in the face of adversity. You'll get there, but it's going to take work and perseverance.

4. Start now. As Teddy Roosevelt said, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

For all of us going through these "interesting times," the lessons Heenan has garnered couldn't come at a better time.