Tragedy to Triumph: How to Grow and Thrive Through Adversity

Thursday, April 23, 2020
Catherine Hooper

Catherine Hooper

Executive Coach
The Comeback Coach


The effect that the disruption to business has had on owners and workers has been life-changing for many, and has caused many to question what their future holds. As each day reveals that life may not return to the way it was previously, the question arises, "How do I recover from this setback, and what should I do next?"

Catherine Hooper recounted the events in her life, and how tragedy forced her to reassess her priorities and create a path forward that would provide the hope and purpose to reach the next chapter. Her own journey of self-discovery and looking to the past for inspiration revealed a new mission for her life: to use her experience of overcoming tragedy to help others do the same.

In 2008 Catherine was engaged to Andrew Madoff, who was the son of Bernie Madoff, the financier later indicted for the largest financial fraud in US history. Andrew worked for his father at the family securities firm. As the end of the year approached, Andrew revealed to Catherine that he had just turned his father in to the FBI for financial fraud. He advised that Catherine should leave him, since the onslaught of media attention and criticism would be extreme and traumatic. Catherine refused to take this advice, and chose to stay by her fiancé's side.

Dealing with this onslaught of negative attention reshaped the financial markets and Catherine's life. She observed that facing such extreme scrutiny and judgement required a person to utilize their values, discipline, and character to their fullest.

As Bernie Madoff's firm was forced to shut down, Andrew had no income, and his assets earned at Madoff Securities were frozen and subject to clawback lawsuits from the defrauded clients. His name made him practically unemployable, and Catherine had to resign from consulting engagements. Savings were running thin, and life as they knew it was coming to an embarrassing and demoralizing end. There seemed to be no escape from the situation. They were running out of money and could not leave home due to reporters following them incessantly. Catherine observed that the situation her family was in at the time was similar to the one many families are currently facing with the coronavirus lockdown.

Focusing on family and friends was key to getting through the period of isolation they went through. Catherine remarked that in some ways they were blessed with an abundance of connection, with family dinners and game nights happening on a regular basis to have something to ground them and help them deal with the uncertainty during this time.

Fear of loss is the obstacle that must be overcome to create a new purpose, source of livelihood, or reputation. While the losses we face can be very real, such as the loss of a loved one, or the loss of one's life savings, many of the losses we fear are losses of things we can learn to live without. Such losses include status, associations, possessions, and the luxuries that can create a sense of dependency when one is used to having them. Determining the things that will be your new priorities during a period of loss is what can liberate you from this fear.

When you decide that this change is necessary, and embrace new priorities and possibilities, you can not only begin to recover from fear or despair, but you begin to generate the positive energy that attends possibility. Catherine recited some lines from a poem by Mary Oliver illustrative of this phenomenon:

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

Catherine noted that the most prominent and renowned leaders in business routinely emphasize the words "imagination" and "creativity". Both imagination and creativity have immense power to change what is possible, but they can only generally be cultivated in silence and personal reflection. Quiet moments of insight can often reveal to us the path we need to take when conventional wisdom or even sophisticated systems of problem solving can't.

Taking inspiration from history can also be invaluable in remembering what the human spirit is capable of enduring and achieving. Catherine recommended the book Endurance, which recounts the story of the voyage to Antarctica in 1914 headed by Ernest Shackleton. The story of the Endurance's crew abandoning ship and navigating 850 miles of treacherous ocean in a 20-foot boat is a testament to what humans can overcome. Finding inspiring stories from history like that of the Endurance and her crew can help you find greater strength in yourself.

Following the financial scandal, Andrew Madoff was unemployable and Catherine realized she needed to make money to support her family. She founded a company providing emergency preparedness consulting which supported the family and provided her with a sense of purpose helping others plan for future emergencies.

Catherine offered some simple tips to maintain a positive mindset for growth, prosperity, and fulfillment:

  • Family is the news that really matters
    • Awareness of current events is important, but your attention is best focused on things in your life on which you can make a positive impact.
  • Morale matters
    • Human contact is limited right now, but the need for human connection is even greater amid significant uncertainty. Laughter is a great way to connect with other people and encourage positivity.
  • Step outside of yourself to analyze your emotions
    • Despair and hope can exist simultaneously. Objectively understanding your emotional state can help you better manage extreme emotions and focus on the empirical facts of your situation
  • Escape the cycle of hope and despair
    • Excessive rumination can lead to an endless cycle of despair and hope. When you are experiencing hope, stop ruminating and find something you enjoy to keep you from dwelling in thought and cycling back to despair. (Catherine recommended the book, This Wasn't Supposed to Happen to Me by Bev Smallwood, PhD for additional exploration of the hope/despair cycle.)

Recovering from a tragedy or setback requires both imagination and positivity. Creating a plan that resonates with your values can only be done with an honest assessment of who you are and the changes you might need to make. Realizing your new possibilities and marshalling your discipline to achieve them are supported by a positive mindset and focusing on the things that really matter to you.

Adversity is often the foundation of strength. Often, events that are traumatizing spark the development of great abilities, and difficult times are often when amazing companies or institutions are born. Catherine recommended another book, Broken Open, by Elizabeth Lesser which further explores how people have overcome adversity of all forms and emerged stronger from the struggle.

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