The 7 Advantages to Being at a Disadvantage

by | Sep 12, 2018 | Blog

Back in high school and college, I used to play pickup basketball all the time. If you’ve ever played pickup before, you know the drill. One or two guys are responsible for choosing teams. There are no referees, so the players call fouls (usually the offense). You play to a certain score (usually 15 or 20 by 1’s and 2’s). Winner stays on the court and the next person up chooses a new team. This keeps going until everyone wants to go home or the person who organized everything shuts the gym down.

If you know what I’m talking about, then somewhere along the line you have probably played with a person who – when given the opportunity to choose teams – would clearly stack their team with the best players. They wanted to be the proverbial “gym-class hero” and win every game. As a result, all the games were lopsided and not very much fun. On top of that, these “stacked” teams would argue every call. They wanted to win so badly that it took away from the joy of playing. When I played pickup in places like this, we would be done in an hour. It wasn’t very much fun at all, and I avoided these situations whenever possible.

But I had one group of friends from a nearby rival high school that played pickup differently from everyone else. The competition was incredibly fierce. Defense called the fouls instead of offense, and everyone was surprisingly honest. Sometimes the person choosing teams would try to stack the OTHER team against himself just to see if they were up to the challenge. It was a completely different dynamic!

I absolutely loved playing pickup with these guys! Sometimes we would play as long as 3-4 hours. Almost every game went down to the wire. And we would all play as hard as we could all the time. It was an absolute blast!

These were my type of people. And needless to say, I played with them whenever I could. Eventually, I ended up playing college basketball with a few of them. And it would seem that the mentality we had in pickup transferred well to actual games because we won a national championship in our division. I’ve played sports my whole life, and I’ve never been on a team that was more competitive and driven than that team. And I felt it kind of started with the way we played pickup.

So what was it about this style of pickup that made it so much more fun and exciting? And why did this make us a better team? And even more importantly, how would this translate into success in other areas?

I feel as though the answer lies in one central concept. You see, what made playing pickup with these guys so fulfilling was that the purpose behind playing pickup was not winning. It was rising to the challenge. Every chance these guys had, they would put themselves at a disadvantage and see if they could overcome it. As a result the games were more fun, and everyone developed their capacity to fight through struggle and overcome. It didn’t just make us better basketball players. It fed our souls. We have a longing deep inside of us to be challenged and to rise to that challenge. We were made to overcome our disadvantages. I truly believe that.

Our ability to do this is directly affected by how much struggle we are exposed to. Consequently, this ability is also a result of how we respond to that struggle. In other words, we have to conquer struggle mentally before we can overcome it in reality. How do we do this? The same way we do with anything else. We practice. So whether you are talking about pickup basketball, business, or just life in general, you MUST practice overcoming struggle if you want to get good at it.

When thinking about this in regards to business, it became blatantly obvious that businesses don’t generally care about a challenge. In fact, businesses are completely obsessed with “winning”. I understand this. After all, you have to “win” to make money. So they consistently focus on how to gain an advantage on the competition. In some cases, this can get a business into a lot of trouble, as some businesses will even go as far as breaking the law in order gain the advantage.

But the problem with this thinking is that you focus more on external conditions as opposed to internal solutions. You are at the mercy of things that are outside of your control. And this takes your focus off what you can control. As a result, you end up wasting your energy. And when you waste energy, you lose money. Guaranteed.

It’s not any different in life. We think that being at a disadvantage is a bad thing. In fact, many people make it their mission to keep themselves and others from being at a disadvantage. But not only is this an impossible task, it will take away valuable lessons we learn as part of our journey. These lessons become the backbone of our future success. And so removing them would actually create more of a disadvantage. I know it seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. Disadvantage now actually creates advantage in the future.

This brings me to the real topic of this article: creating advantage from disadvantage. Below are 7 advantages to being at a disadvantage.


1. Disadvantage requires us to become more self-aware.

You can’t fix a problem you don’t know exists. Introspection is a vital part of moving from struggle to success. We must think about what we need to do better in order to get past our struggle. How often does it take a tragedy for us to see the truth? Without sharing specifics, you’ve heard stories like this before. Maybe disadvantage has been a part of YOUR experience. If it has, you know that it forces you to think about what you need to do better. And this self awareness is key to success.

But a word of caution: we cannot BLAME ourselves for our struggles. Ever. We most definitely need to learn how to take RESPONSIBILITY for making things better. But we never blame. This is a key distinction worth talking about: the difference between blame and responsibility. They are not the same thing. Blame focuses on the past. Responsibility focuses on the future. Blame creates guilt. Responsibility creates hope. Taking responsibility simply means owning your future outcomes and being resilient about getting there. The more you think this way, the more likely you are to succeed. But you must be aware of these things first. And struggle is often the catalyst for this awareness.


2. Disadvantage requires more focus.

When we are comfortable, our potential to be distracted increases. The reason for this is we get bored. And boredom is the mother of all distraction. Disadvantage is uncomfortable, which means that instead of being bored, we are forced to be engaged. We have to be. If not, there is a chance we could get seriously hurt. Not necessarily physical hurt. The hurt could be mental, emotional, financial, relational, or something else. A physical example would be in weight training. Adding intensity will make you uncomfortable. If you are not focused on the right technique, you could potentially hurt yourself. A relational example would be having a disagreement with your spouse. An uncomfortable discussion may lead to you saying something you cannot take back if you are not focused. The point from all of this is the same, being at a disadvantage creates discomfort. And that discomfort will require you to focus.

Another word of caution here, because we can potentially find other ways to make ourselves comfortable in the middle of a struggle. This is how relationships get broken. This is also how addiction can occur. Don’t look for ways to ease the pain of struggle now. Follow principles that allow you to work through the pain so you can see the benefits down the road.


3. Disadvantage creates a sense of urgency.

When we are at a disadvantage, we recognize the need to act now. That does not mean you will see results now. It simply means that we need to get started. If I have a job that is satisfactory, then I might not go looking for one that is better. But when you lose your job, you go looking now.

In his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about task completion as it relates to importance and urgency. He stresses that the most neglected area of tasks are the ‘Important-Not Urgent’ tasks. These are things that we don’t really need to do now. But they are very important in the long term. But because they are not urgent, we procrastinate. But when struggle hits, everything that was ‘not urgent’ becomes very urgent. So disadvantage is actually an antidote to procrastination if you think about it the right way.


4. Disadvantage requires us to be more resourceful.

Have you ever seen the movie 127 Hours? If not, here’s a SPOILER ALERT warning. In the movie, Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) becomes trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. To somehow escape death, he proceeds to exhaust all options within his current set of resources. Then he realizes he has only two choices: wait until he dies, or amputate his arm. He successfully goes through with the amputation and ends up surviving the ordeal. But the journey he takes to try and solve his problem is nothing short of inspiring.

I’m not saying that we all have to go to that extreme in order to solve our problems. That’s not even the point. The point is that when we are in the middle of a struggle, the mind has an incredible capacity to figure a way out.


5. Disadvantage reinforces positive beliefs and values.

Sometimes we value things that aren’t necessarily that important. For instance, our cell phones are not that important in the big scheme of things. Yet we value them like they are irreplaceable. Family, on the other hand, is VERY important. However, we don’t always treat them that way. Somehow in the middle of our daily lives we spend more time with our phones than we do with our family.

But when we go through a tough time – a time of disadvantage, so to speak – do you lean into your family or your cell phone? The answer is obvious, yet we still fail to value what’s most important until we experience those times of struggle. So even though the tough times can be very difficult, they often lead us to what matters most.


6. Disadvantage can increase our gratitude level.

This is similar to #5, but gratitude deserves to stand alone. It has been said that our gratitude level is equivalent to the gap between our lowest low and our highest high. In other words, the lower and higher you go, the more potential that exists for us to experience gratitude. So struggle increases the capacity to be grateful.

Why is gratitude important? Because it keeps our minds focused on the good. We think about what we have instead of what we don’t have. This type of focus is empowering. And it allows us to accomplish more than we would otherwise. So you are able to dig yourself out much quicker when you are grateful.

Here’s an example of gratitude through disadvantage: I went to the Dominican Republic when I was 19 years old on a mission trip to play baseball. Everywhere we went, there was a swarm of kids who came around to watch us. These kids didn’t have much at all. Some didn’t wear shoes or even a shirt. But they always had smiles on their faces. And if you ever gave them anything, they were so happy and grateful. I gave a kid a batting glove once, and he hugged me 5 different times. When we left, he hugged me and wouldn’t let go. It must have been 30 seconds before I was able to pry him off me.

Why was he so grateful for something as trivial as a batting glove? Because he understands gratitude better than most. The struggle in his life has allowed him to see the good much more clearly. And in turn, he appreciates those good things on another level.


7. Disadvantage creates opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

It has been said that “Every setback is a setup for an even greater comeback.” No where is this more true than in the sports world. I saw a video of a high school football team who was down 27-10 with 1:30 left. They scored a touchdown, secured the onside kick, scored another touchdown, then another onside kick, and then the final touchdown with 4 seconds left. It was unbelievable! And the video went viral.

But I can guarantee you this: No one on that team wanted to be in that circumstance at that point. In fact, no coach in the history of the world wants to find themselves in this deficit. But when you are there, the opportunity is so much greater than if you weren’t. Nobody cares if you win a game 27-10. But everyone watches when you accomplish something that seems impossible.

Every disadvantage has the potential to create an opportunity for us. But we must see the opportunity for what it is, and not worry about how we got there. We must focus on the resilience it takes to get out.


There is no way to develop strength without struggle. Make no mistake of that. You cannot improve in anything unless somehow you take yourself out of your comfort zone. This is how we learn something new, how we improve our physical strength, how we improve our relationships, and how we develop a skill. So just like my friends that I played pickup basketball with, we need to be consistently and intentionally be putting ourselves in a position of disadvantage. Not in a way that is abusive to ourselves or risks our health and well-being. But in a way that exposes us to challenges responsibly. If you are not sure how to do this, consult a coach or mentor about strategies you can use. But make sure you are intentional about creating temporary, controlled struggles and challenges. That way, when the real struggle hits that you weren’t expecting, you are more prepared to handle it. Like I said before, the only way to build up your resilience is to practice being resilient.

The struggles we face are what allow us to learn and grow. But please be responsible in seeking these challenges. Don’t consistently and unnecessarily put yourself at risk. Don’t exhaust your willpower to the point of emotional and mental instability. But strategically create challenges that are just enough to make you uncomfortable. This looks different for everyone. So let me encourage you seek advice our counsel about how it would look for you.

And if you are in the middle of a struggle outside of your control, please be mindful of these advantages and begin to take advantage of them. Whether you have intentionally practiced these behaviors or not, you have no choice but to move forward now. Find a support system who will help you progress and give it everything you’ve got. I may not understand exactly what you are going through, but I understand struggle and disadvantage. So please trust what I am saying. These principles WILL help if you apply them.

Regardless of your current situation, if you truly want to be the best you can be, then learn to take every disadvantage in life and turn it into an advantage. Make no mistake, this won’t be easy. But I guarantee you it will be worth it.


*Keith is a motivational leadership coach and keynote speaker. Sign up to receive a free gift from Keith below.*