Thriving Despite Adversity: A Lesson From Leonhard Euler

Leonhard Euler is one of the greatest mathematicians who have ever lived. Living in the 18th century, he contributed to many fields of mathematics. He was very prolific; when he passed away at the age of 76, he had more than 850 publications! Many of the mathematical notations that we use today were first introduced by Euler.

But I found something even more interesting when I read his story in Fermat’s Enigma: despite being completely blind in the last seventeen years of his life, those were his most productive years!

How could that be? How could he produce more when the situation was worse?

After reading his story, my conclusion is this: Euler had a winner’s attitude in dealing with adversity. He didn’t make excuses nor position himself as a victim. Instead, he was determined to keep going and made himself prepared.

Let’s start with the time when he went blind in one eye. He was twenty years old at that time. This is what he said about the situation: “Now I will have less distraction.” As you can see, he didn’t lament the situation. Instead, he framed the adversity as an opportunity.

The situation got worse, though. From the book:

Forty years later, at the age of sixty, his situation worsened considerably, when a cataract in Euler’s good eye meant he was destined to become completely blind. 

So how did he deal with it?

He was determined not to give in and began to practice writing with his fading eye closed in order to perfect his technique before the onset of darkness. Within weeks he was blind. 

Euler continued to produce mathematics for the next seventeen years, and, if anything, he was more productive than ever.

When the situation was getting worse, he prepared himself. He practiced writing with his fading eye closed. He was determined to take control of the situation instead of letting the situation control him.

In fact, he produced more, not less, when he was completely blind. How could that be? Here is an explanation:

Colleagues suggested that the onset of blindness appeared to expand the horizons of his imagination.

No longer limited by what he saw, he let his imagination explore new territories! He was more than resilient; he was antifragile: he used adversity to make himself stronger than before.

I found Euler’s story inspiring. Adversity is inevitable in our lives, but how we deal with it makes a big difference. We could choose to make excuses. Or we could choose to be determined and prepared like Euler to thrive despite adversity.

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