The Advantages of Disadvantages

How challenges propel great performances

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 10, Issue No. 5
August, 2011

By Dan Coughlin



Many great achievements can be traced back to overcoming disadvantages.
Many great failures can be traced back to a lack of disadvantages.

Be careful about complaining about your disadvantages and about assuming that your advantages will guarantee you success in life. Disadvantages can help propel you to see your situation from different perspectives and find approaches to succeed that you might not otherwise have found. Advantages can blind you from the necessity to keep searching for better ways to pursue success.

In the 1770’s American colonialists had several disadvantages. They were being excessively taxed, they had virtually no representative voice in how they were being treated, and they had almost a non-existent military to protect them from the British military. They lost battle after battle in the Revolutionary War. However, their disadvantages forced them to focus on what they could do. When the British military attacked them in America, they kept running away. The size of their country and their commitment to outlast the British became two of their greatest advantages. Eventually the British got tired of spending money and hurting their own men while chasing the Americans in a land so far away from their main homeland. When the early Americans were piecing together their form of government, the last thing they wanted was to be under the rule of a small handful of people. So they created something truly revolutionary: representative government. This new form of governing a nation has spread around the world in the past 235 years.

When Ralph Lauren started his business in 1967 he had certain disadvantages to overcome. Namely, he had no money, no store, no name recognition, no experience, and one client. Bloomingdale’s agreed to sell his ties. However, these disadvantages allowed him to steadily focus on one part of his business at a time: 1968 first full line of Ralph Lauren menswear, 1969 first Polo Ralph Lauren store, 1972 first Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, 1972 first full Ralph Lauren womenswear line, and 1978 first Ralph Lauren fragrances. Go to to see how his business has been steadily built over the years. If he had unlimited resources and scores of stores asking for his products when he first started, he may have never created each piece of his business with such care and attention to detail. If he had tons of money to spend and stores to fill up with products, he may have moved so fast that he may have choked on his advantages.

Your Story of Overcoming Disadvantages and Challenges

The list of people converting disadvantages into great successes is endless and inspiring. Now turn toward yourself. Write down one great success you’ve had in your lifetime. Then write down the disadvantages or challenges that you had to overcome to achieve that success. Then identify how those disadvantages forced you to look at your situation differently and ultimately help you achieve success. Here are three questions to help you organize your thoughts:

  1. What is one great success you’ve had in your lifetime?
  2. What disadvantages or challenges did you have to overcome in order to achieve your success? 
  3. How did those disadvantages or challenges help you to find an alternative approach to achieve success?

Your Next Story of Overcoming Disadvantages and Challenges

Now I want you to focus on the present. There are massive challenges being faced by every business in the world right now: severely tight and conservative banks, an exceptionally sluggish economy, very wary customers and potential customers, and other specific challenges for your organization that you can add to the list.

Take the time to answer these three questions:

  1. What disadvantages or challenges is your business facing right now?
  2. What alternative approaches to achieving success are those disadvantages and challenges forcing you to consider? 
  3. Specifically, what will you do to convert your disadvantages to advantages?

The absolute key here is to see that your disadvantages and challenges may very well be guiding you to extraordinary success. The essential attitude is to stay open to where you are being guided to rather than getting mired down in complaining about the obstacles in the way of your current approach.

When I started my business consulting firm in January 1998 I had a variety of disadvantages, which I am now very grateful for. I had no business background. (My degree was in engineering and my jobs were as a college soccer coach and high school math teacher.) Therefore, I had no business industry experience. (I couldn’t build my business by being an “industry expert.”) I had virtually no business connections, except for those business people that my high school students were related to or my friends and family knew of. (The first CEO I met was at a wedding when my wife, Barb, was a bridesmaid.) Therefore, there was no one to pave the way for me through a series of clients. I did not overcome a personal tragedy, win a Super Bowl, or write a best-selling book. I had not been on a tv show. I did not even know what a speakers bureau meant.

These “disadvantages” forced me to think about how I was going to get work. Since I had no industry experience, I was forced to be open to working with people at companies from all kinds of different industries. (I’ve now worked with clients in over seventy-five different industries. My cross-industry experience has become an asset for my business.) Since I was not well-known and had no compelling personal story of triumph to share, I had to focus on developing very practical, user-friendly ideas that people could use right away to improve their performance and results. My challenges forced me to read and read and read and to observe business managers and executives for thousands of hours in the flow of their daily business work lives in order to understand what made some business people successful and others very unsuccessful. After I had spent ten years primarily as an Executive Coach, my biggest client said they were no longer going to use any outside coaches. This guided me to focus on keynote speaking and seminars and book writing. Since I had no amazing personal stories of overcoming tragedies or winning the World Series, I focused on teaching my ideas through ordinary everyday stories that people could easily relate to.

As I look to the future, I’m focused not only on the advantages that I’ve developed, but much more so on understanding what my current disadvantages and challenges are guiding me to consider as an alternative approach to achieving my objectives.

I very much encourage you to write down all of the disadvantages and challenges that you are facing right now. Then work to identify what advantages those disadvantages are forcing you to uncover. If you feel everything is perfect, then I want you to set for yourself a compelling challenge that will cause you to have to overcome certain obstacles. It’s unhealthy for your business to think you have the world by the tail and have nothing to overcome. That can actually lead you on a path to failure because you may very well stop looking for alternative ways to achieve success.

Remember: your greatest advantages may very well come from your current disadvantages.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

Back to Newsletter Page