What George Washington Can Teach Us About Adversity

What George Washington Can Teach Us About Adversity

Adversity takes on all forms and strikes when we least expect it. In hindsight, a lot of adversity seems overblown. In the moment, however, it can often turn our world upside down.

On June 14, 1775, the Continental Army of the United States was formed. General George Washington was appointed Commander-in-chief. He was an easy choice for a leader; having the charisma, experience, and mindset needed for the dire situations to come. On accepting his new command, Washington was concerned about what he was getting himself into.

In the book 1776, author David McCullough provides a glimpse into Washington’s mindset at the time:

“If he saw the responsibility as too great for his ability, it was because he had a realistic idea of how immense the responsibility would be. For such a trust, to lead an undisciplined, poorly armed volunteer force of farmers and tradesmen against the best-trained, best-equipped, most formidable military force on earth – and with so much riding on the outcome – was, in reality, more than any man was qualified for.

But he knew that someone had to take command, and however impossible the task and the odds, he knew he was better suited than any of the others Congress might have in mind.”

Despite daunting odds, Washington stayed composed. He didn’t waver in his conviction that independence was the right decision for the colonies. He doubted himself (and his men) plenty, but never gave up. One of Washington’s strengths was his ability to see things as they were, not as he wished them to be. Such a clear mindset is crucial. We often struggle to separate the reality of a situation from the way we wish it to be. Suffering several disastrous defeats, especially the Battle of Long Island, Washington never gave up. He commanded throughout the war and, although he didn’t win many battles, he never faced annihilation or surrendered his forces. He always managed to retreat to fight another day.

There were times when the hellish state of his army got to him. As McCullough described him, “Washington was a man of exceptional, almost excessive self-command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair...” Privately, Washington griped to those closest to him. But to his men, he stayed composed and strong, two mandatory characteristics of any worthwhile leader. He also never stopped thinking of how he could turn the tide against the British.

At the end of 1776, his army was retreating south, the British close on their heels. As the British closed in on Philadelphia, widespread panic began to set in. Washington remained undaunted. Launching two surprise offensives in the dead of winter, Washington crossed the Delaware river and attacked British and Hessian (hired German soldiers) at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey. Victory was complete, and the British never underestimated Washington again.

As Washington crossed the Delaware, leading his attack, “all the troubles that beset him, all the high expectations and illusions that he had seen shattered since the triumph at Boston, Washington had more strength to draw upon than met the eye – in his own inner resources and in the abilities of those still with him and resolved to carry on.”

The war would linger on until 1783. In reflecting on Washington’s legacy, McCullough describes the man perfectly:

“He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, nor a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgement. But experience had been his greatest teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.”

Developing a Rock-Solid Mentality

Let’s talk about adversity in the modern sense. All of us encounter setbacks that cause us grief and disappointment. Some of these setbacks can hit so hard that we want to quit. We must fight this urge at all costs.

We often quit at the cusp of a breakthrough. If we kept going a little while longer, we’d be rewarded.

Instead, we’ll come so close to accomplishing a goal, and then give up.


We expect fast results.  Once adversity rears its ugly head, we become fearful. Success feels like it will never come if it doesn’t come immediately.

why people give up

We feel the need to accomplish everything immediately, and view any delay or setback as cause for total failure. We create false time constraints. The term “process” becomes an afterthought. If it isn’t easy, it isn’t worth pursuing, right? If the process is too long, too difficult, it’s fruitless. That is the mindset of a loser, someone who looks for shortcuts and loathes putting in the hard work necessary for results.

Worthwhile achievements come at a cost, in the form of time, effort, or extreme discipline. To overcome the adversity we are sure to face, we must maintain a rock-solid mindset. Our tenacity must be unwavering. Most people fear failure more than they crave success. We must think the opposite. We’ve got to want to succeed as bad as we want to breathe.

Fail Often, but Never Stop Moving

Failure is scary, but we must fight our instincts that gravitate towards familiarity and safety. We are so resistant to change, that we get anxious even thinking about it. Excuse after excuse begin to crowd our mind, until we talk ourselves out of it. Failure is even worse. Thinking of failure can often feel like the end of the world. This type of thinking defines a fixed mindset view.

To embrace a growth mindset, we must incorporate mental exercises such as affirmations and visualizations. A highly effective technique, visualization is imagining the person you are striving to become. This causes an internal reaction that helps get you through the challenges and setbacks you’ll face on your journey. Think abundance, that the world is your laboratory. Every experiment should be tested until you find a winner

Self-loathing is a major issue when it comes to giving up. We want to throw a pity party, and embrace the “woe is me” mentality. Such a mindset is prevalent in our society, as everyone feels as their problems are unique to the world. Whatever problems you face, remember the millions upon millions of people who are in a drastically worse situation than you. Focusing on the big picture helps to put your issues into perspective. Dwelling on your mistakes, weaknesses, and failures hold you back. This “stuck in the past” rut is destructive and can linger for years. Destroy it.

Understand that you have the power to mold your future into whatever you wish. Be a forward thinker. Ask yourself – What can I learn from this? Be humble and thankful for what you have, while looking forward for what you want. It could always be worse – Washington always knew this – no matter how bad the situation seems. Keeping perspective is the key to growth. Poor frame of mind is deadly, and you will lose before you even begin.

Final Thoughts

Challenges are a good thing. So is failure. Both are necessary for internal growth. We don’t learn and grow when life is easy and boring. Only when we face adversity and are tested do we understand our true capabilities. Future success is built one day at a time, by taking risks and learning from setbacks. Once we strip away the time constraints and excuses, we realize the opportunities available to us.

Like Washington, we must develop a steady resolve. Luckily, we aren’t faced with the daily struggle of our ancestors. We live during the most peaceful time on Earth. Because of this, we tend to over-think trivial decisions. Our adversity is always manageable. We must fight fear, and do everything in our power to keep moving forward.

Take a step back and understand that life is a process – each day brings a new opportunity to move ahead. Do you want to be like most people, and give up at the first sign of adversity? Or will you embrace challenges and learn to see failures as a learning experience? I choose the latter. I hope you do too.

P.S. If you liked this article, and the discussion around George Washington, be sure to grab a copy of 1776. 

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