How Stories About Overcoming Adversity Can Inspire Your Employees

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Seek out heroic stories to unleash your Inner Hero. Share heroic stories with your employees to unleash their Inner Hero.

Doing this increases everybody’s ability to face change, challenges, and uncertainty with a “Bring It On!” attitude.

I was reminded of the importance of doing these two things the other day.

When I heard that the band Fun was going to perform at the Grammys, it reminded me of a fascinating NPR interview I heard with Nate Ruess, their lead singer.

Not giving up hope

When the interview was held, Fun’s song We Are Young was No. 1 on the pop charts. In the interview, he shared how demoralizing it was being dropped from his record label after his first album. He had given up hopes of ever making it big in the music business.

Still, he soldiered on. Over 10 years later, his career was still drifting.

Nate Ruess went on to talk about the painful soul searching he had done more recently after the breakup of his previous band — yet another failure.

He spent sleepless nights ruminating about the breakup, wondering if he had some major personality flaw. He confessed to wondering “why maybe someone wouldn’t want to be in a band with me anymore. I thought, alright maybe I should just kind of give it up. … I worried how much older I (was) getting and what my threshold was.”

Then something happened.

As he was driving, lyrics and melody that would later become the chorus of We Are Young popped into his head. He thought that it would be a nice little ditty for the end of the album he was working on, but as the days went on, the little song playing in his head called for greater attention and respect.

At the time, he and his band had been trying to reach Jeff Bhasker, who has produced albums by Kanye West and Beyonce. A major player in the music industry, Bhasker was not someone who would usually take a meeting with a band of Fun’s stature, according to Nate.

Ruess reports that Bhasker “blew me off” twice, before finally agreeing to meet at the bar in the basement of the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Making the most of opportunity

Arriving early and nervous about his upcoming meeting, Nate downed a few drinks before Bhasker arrived.

Nate Reuss (center) and the band "Fun." Photo by
Nate Reuss (center) and the band “Fun.” Photo by

“I was a little lubed up at that point so I was able to shed my general self-demeaning layer,” he confessed.

Excited about his own project, Bhasker offered to take Nate up to his hotel room and share the Beyonce demo he had just produced.

During the conversation in Bhasker’s hotel room, Nate recounts with bemusement his overwhelming desire to share the ditty that had been playing in his head. “I was so inspired in the moment I decided to sing the chorus for him.”

There in the hotel room he sang the chorus to Bhasker, a cappella. Basker’s “jaw just dropped.”

They were in Bhasker studio the next day.

Nate went on to share: “It was so surreal. One of those daydreams where you think about the utmost goal you think will never happen…This whole entire year has been that.”

I remember feeling so inspired when I heard the interview, because it’s so easy to see someone’s great success and think that it was easy for them or that they were charmed. Then, when you hear how much hardship they endured, and how much they overcame, you not only respect them even more, but you find your determination rise. You realize they too started out with nothing, struggled with defeat, and had to face their fears along the way.

It’s like when I read Tony Hseih’s book Delivering Happiness. It was a reminder of how amazing success requires amazingly hard work and a willingness to face fear and challenges. Even though by now I should have guessed that sleepless nights and business near-death-experiences were all part of his story, I was surprised to read how often Zappos had been at the brink.

Using stories to unleash the Inner Hero

My sharing with you Fun’s origin story and the brief Tony Hseih and Zappos recap is to hopefully illustrate how stories—and to a lesser extent summary examples like the Zappos example — can help us access greater courage and optimism during difficult times.

When we hear how others faced really dark times and overcame them, it helps us put our challenging times in a more hopeful light. It helps us remember the feeling of determination.

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Hearing these stories helps unleash our Inner Hero. Seek out and soak your brain in stories of overcoming.

Seek out stories of “regular” people showing courage and determination to remind yourself that “regular” people like you and me are capable of extraordinary things.

It is important for all of us to keep feeding ourselves stories of people overcoming obstacles on their way to success, so we realize that–because we’re all part of the human family — we can do the same.

It’s especially inspiring to learn the origin story of people who have accomplished great things because it reminds us of Calvin Coolidge’s great quote:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

While of course many success stories involve people with amazing talent, it is their courage and determination that made their success possible…and which inspires the rest of us.

Reading or hearing such stories is especially important during difficult times.

Sharing stories of overcoming adversity with employees

It’s easy for employees to feel small and scared during difficult times.

Sharing stories of how your company has overcome challenges in the past helps them put current difficulties in perspective. It helps connect them with your lineage of heroism.

Air Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Community Of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, knows about the power of “overcoming adversity stories”. Zingerman’s is known both for the company’s great products and their great leadership practices. As a driving force behind Zingerman’s exceptional success, Weinzweig is a big believer in the use of “origin stories” about overcoming adversity as a way to inspire their employees.

In Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service , he writes about “breaking emotional bread” with employees during the new staff orientation class. As part of this, Ari shares with them about the early years of Zingerman’s, when 18 percent interest rates and a lousy economy made starting a new business a white knuckle proposition.

Shifting from “I can’t” to “I can”

During orientation, he shares with new employees stories about the sacrifices they made to get the business up and running. He shares the lengths to which they would go to make sure they were excellent from the very beginning. This included driving an hour each way, every day, to a bakery, because the bakery did not deliver their one-of-a-kind bread to Ann Arbor.

“More often than not, it’s the stories of struggles — and of successfully fighting through struggles — that stick in people’s minds,” he notes

Sharing stories of overcoming within your company as well as stories from outside your company is a powerful way to shift people from “I can’t” to “I can.” Sharing these stories regularly in meetings and other forms of corporate communication, helps keep employees inspired. It helps foster what Southwest Airlines calls a Warrior Spirit.

During these difficult times, it’s more important than ever to make such stories a regular part of your communication, especially in meetings and employee events.

So, how about starting to collect and share those stories — for your sake and for the benefit of your employees?

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


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