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Business Unplugged™
This blog features Carol Roth's tough love on business and entrepreneurship, as well as insights from Carol's community of contributors.

What Doesn’t Kill You Will Make You Stronger

Written By: Carol Roth | 34 Comments

This blog is extremely personal and is a bit of a departure from my normal fare.  However, mindset is so critical to success, that I felt compelled to share it with you.

My senior year at Wharton and The University of Pennsylvania was a grueling one.  I had been interviewing for investment banking and other jobs for about five months- with about 75 different companies (no exaggeration)- before, in mid-February 1995, accepting an offer to work for investment banking firm Montgomery Securities.

So, when my boyfriend at the time, Justin, suggested that I join him and few friends in Florida for spring break in early March, it didn’t take me long to decide my answer: “No way”.

I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was go to my dad’s house in the north suburbs of Chicago and relax for a week.  I was always independent and didn’t feel the need to be attached to my boyfriend for Spring Break, so I sent him on his way to Florida with his friends and returned back to Chicago.

A few days into the break, the phone rang at my dad’s house.  When I answered, a sketchy sounding man said that he was a detective and wanted to speak with my father.  My dad wasn’t home at the time, so I said that he wasn’t available and offered to take a number.   He wouldn’t leave it.

A few hours later, he called back again and I got a distinct feeling that something was wrong.  He grilled me on when my father would be available, but wouldn’t tell me what the call was regarding or leave any contact information.

After another hour, the phone rang again.  I was on edge, but this time I recognized the voice on the phone.  It was Justin’s father.

“Carol”, he said.  “Justin’s been in a car accident.”

My heart dropped into my stomach.  “Is he ok?” were the first words that I could mutter.

“No”, he said.  “He’s been killed.”

I can’t remember a lot of what was said next, but learning that my 21-year old boyfriend of a year-and-a-half, as well as another friend, had been killed by an out of control driver on a vacation where, should I had made a different decision, would have very likely placed me in that very car was a life changing moment in every sense of the word.

You often can’t control circumstances, but you can control how you react and respond to them.

To say that the days and weeks that followed were dark and bleak wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface. I didn’t know how I would pull it together and survive. But every day I reminded myself that I did survive; I wasn’t in that car.

You can say it wasn’t meant to be for me in that car. You can say that my independence saved me. Nobody will ever know.  But the “why” didn’t matter. What mattered was what I learned and that I chose to move forward.

What doesn’t kill you- literally- makes you stronger.

That was more than 17 years ago, but the lessons from that experience remain today.  Since that time, I, in my life that I am sure appears amazing to many, have endured my mother’s illness and death, my stepmother’s illness and death and my own 3-year battle with a debilitating illness. I have had people lie to me, steal from me, cheat me, harass me and treat me poorly for all sorts of reasons.  But the one choice in every circumstance that remained mine and mine alone is the power to choose how to respond and how to carry on.  I have lived the mantra of getting knocked down seven times and getting up eight. That car accident didn’t kill me, literally or figuratively, so I use that strength and the lessons learned from all of the other less-than-pleasant life moments to cope and find another way or path.

So, when things aren’t going well, I know that I can find a way to make it through.  As the saying goes, no matter the situation, “this too shall pass”.

You can plan, but you can’t plan for everything.

There is a Yiddish proverb that says, “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht”, which in English translates to “Man plans, God laughs.” While I am a serious advocate of planning, circumstances are often out of your control.  This means you need to be flexible, adaptable and willing to pivot and deal with what comes to you, even if it comes out of left field.

Rely on yourself.

While it’s great to have partners, advocates and confidantes along the way, the only person you need to fully rely upon is yourself.  You have no idea when someone that you depend upon may or may not be there, so don’t put your success or your sense of self, in someone else’s hands. Use your resources and your network, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you to take care of yourself.  Whether you like it or not, people will come in and out of your life- sometimes by choice, sometimes by the grace of God.


I hope that the next time you face an obstacle in business or life, that you are down or that you are going through your darkest days that my story and these lessons may provide some strength for you to carry on another day.  If whatever issue you have faced has not killed you, let it make you stronger.

Article written by
Carol Roth is a national media personality, ‘recovering’ investment banker, investor, speaker and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Entrepreneur Equation. She is a judge on the Mark Burnett (Shark Tank, The Voice, Survivor, The Apprentice) produced technology competition series, America's Greatest Makers, airing on TBS and Host of Microsoft's Office Small Business Academy show. Previously, Carol was the host and co-producer of The Noon Show, a current events talk show on WGN Radio, one of the top stations in the country, and a contributor to CNBC, as well as a frequent guest on Fox News, CNN, Fox Business and other stations. Carol's multimedia commentary covers business and the economy, current events, politics and pop culture topics. Carol has helped her clients complete more than $2 billion in capital raising and M&A transactions. She is a Top 100 Small Business Influencer (2011-2015) and has her own action figure. Twitter: @CarolJSRoth
  • spaley

    Wow. Super powerful and thank you for sharing this. I’m curious, since you mentioned it more than once, what was the deal with the detective?

  • SteveWoodruff

    Thank you, Carol. I’ve always thought highly of you. Now, even more so!

  • caroljsroth

     @spaley Apparently when someone close to you is killed like that, the police are supposed to notify you and since I was young, they wanted to tell my father first.  After me not cooperating and enough time going by, the father just called me himself.

  • caroljsroth

     @SteveWoodruff Thanks Steve.  I always think it’s easy to make assumptions about people’s life, so it’s good to peel back the onion from time to time. xo

  • Thank you for this post, Carol. I love the “getting knocked down seven times and getting up eight” part. 

  • Reading this post was one of the rare times when I had shivers go down my spine. I can’t imagine what that phone call was like! Yes, things that don’t kill you make you stronger, but it sure can be hell getting through the dark period and onto better times. Thanks for sharing!

  • Carol, this resonated for me on a very personal level. On 6th April 2011, I was hosting a meeting for Self Employed Women when I got a call. It was a paramedic saying my husband had been involved in a serious car crash.
    It was a horrendous experience that I can’t put fully in to words. But we were lucky. Although he had a few broken bones and was badly bruised, he was lucky to survive. But,as you point out, these things do teach us a lot about ourselves and our lives.
    They are wake up calls to design the life and business we really want to live fully. But I guess the challange for us all is to grab life without needing wake up calls.
    It is also a reminder that we often think we have all the time in the world to do the things we want with the people we want. But the reality is that we never know when something will happen to rob us of the opportunity to have the life we want with the people we want.
    And that is why we must grab our life and businesses by the scruff of the neck and shake ’em into something special.

  • commoncentsmom

    Carol, this more then it hits home, there is something I believe strongly sometimes the best leaders are those who had a rough time, survived and faced hardship that few will endure, trust me, I know that road.

  • caroljsroth

     @MichaelNeely Thanks Michael.  It’s always my mantra. 

  • caroljsroth

     @Marshall Davis Thanks Marshall.  Yes, it was a weird series of calls where I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t have imagined the “what”.  I wouldn’t have believed at the time that it would get better, but it always does.

  • caroljsroth

     @Ali_Davies Ali, I am glad that your husband emerged ok.  You never know what’s around the corner, so love your scruff of the neck visual!

  • caroljsroth

     @commoncentsmom It’s so easy for others to look at someone at not fully appreciate where they have been, so I am glad I can at least give a glimpse.  Keep on keeping on!

  • CateTV

     @caroljsroth Carol, I relate to these as HeartSets ….. sharing these personal stories w more folks will only help lift others who in turn might just still lift others … and so on ….  The old saying “If It is To Be It’s Up To Me”   … I’m a firm believer in a big part of taking care of yourself is in being vulnerable and sharing/receiving/asking about others experiences while you grow your own roots along the way.   So good to see you this weekend. Cate

  • Wow…. People just don’t know what they can do until they are tested. Of course it doesn’t hurt also to expect to be tested from time to time and hopefully not too severely or too often. This is something I’ve come to accept and it’s liberating and scary. I do wonder though, I mean part of the reason we love the stories of people who overcome adversity and succeed is because for every one of them it seems like there are a bunch who gave up. Keep reminding us Carol…

  • Lena_M

    One can respond with the power of tears…
    We are all part of “man’s plans”….but only a bare few—like yourself—has the power of  “God’s laugh”. 

  • caroljsroth

     @CateTV So great to see you too Cate and thanks for these inspiring words

  • caroljsroth

     @hackmanj You sort of expect to be tested eventually- I didn’t realize that I would have so many tests.  It was like a masters’ class in dealing with crap

  • caroljsroth

     @Lena_M There were many tears along the way, for sure.  Thanks Lena.

  • Enerpace_Elene

    Didn’t think it was possible for me to respect you more that I already did.  I was wrong!  So many of your experiences have parallels in my life too – – further proof we’re really sisters of different parents! Shine on sis! 🙂

  • caroljsroth

     @Enerpace_Elene A sister from another Mister–lol.  xo

  • Carol,
    I never knew.
    Thanks a lot for sharing that. We all have, “our stuff.” Some of it is really, really intense, like what happened to your boyfriend, (and you).
    Some of it “seems” intense at the time, but passes.
    I liked your Yiddish quote. A lot.
    I have one that I heard “somewhere.’
    “You can plan plans, but you can’t plan results.”
    While it’s great to be able to call people in our networks for ideas-and guidance, you’re right.
    It’s on us.
    Thanks. Now, I know you even more 🙂
    And thank you for all the help you’ve given me. It means a lot.

  • Absolutely wonderful post Carol! And probably one of the most important reads any business owner, entrepreneur and person in general could have. I’m a big fan of the idea that you never know what’s unfortunate in the present and I try to live my life, the ups and downs, tangled and thorny journeys and disappointments keeping that idea close to my heart (along with the faith that although I don’t often understand the path life takes me down I know that somehow I”m going in the right direction).
    Thank you for this and sharing a bit of your journey!

  • Thank you for sharing this, and I’m so sorry you had to go through this. “This too shall pass” is a favorite expression of my mom’s, and it has carried me through dark times. This is a good reminder that getting through a horrible thing like this is not only possible, but probable. Well done, Carol.

  • kathikruse

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I too have had a handful of traumatic experiences and they have all made me stronger…although I was a bit worried with the last few. I’ve been in auto retail all my life running car dealerships. As a gal, that choice brings with it its own set of challenges. Here are a few more: The death of my husband. The breakup of another relationship that I was sure was my destiny. A parent dying. Another parent with Alzheimer’s. Sister with cancer. A sister-in-law’s decent into mental illness. Financial upheavals. It’s 2012, and I have no fear thanks to the events bestowed upon me. There’s a book in there somewhere. Rock on, Carol!

  • DafnaMichaelsonJenet

    Carol, Thanks for taking the leap of trust in your readers and sharing what you’ve been through. We can all benefit from the reminder that we make the decision to wake up and be alive every day we have that option. And yes, Man plans and G-d laughs is the honest truth and what makes choosing to be alive each day so much fun.

  • bonnyclark

    Thank you, Carol. So much.  I’m in the midst of job hunting (i.e. being rejected multiple times/week). On a good day it seems trite, on a bad day it, well, feels pretty awful.  Thank you for taking to share this.  I appreciate you!

  • caroljsroth

     @FranchiseKing Thanks Joel.  The Yiddish quotes are always very insightful.

  • caroljsroth

    Thanks Laura @LauraPetrolino  I got a bit sick of people assuming that I have had it “so easy”, so I think sometimes it’s good to show that assumptions can be dangerous.

  • caroljsroth

     @jeanniecw Thanks Jeannie.  It’s fairly crazy the amount of things I have endured so early, but hoping that means more good stuff is down the road.

  • caroljsroth

    Hi Kathi- I am very sorry for your losses and glad to have another who understands the power of keeping your power.   @kathikruse 

  • caroljsroth

     @DafnaMichaelsonJenet My pleasure- I feel like it’s part of my job to share and I always enjoy it, even when re-living some of the bad stuff.

  • caroljsroth

     @bonnyclark Keep going, Bonny and let that fuel you to your results.   Keep us posted on the search.

  • Very powerful post Carol and something I can strongly relate to. Life changing moments or those moments where we are left with life changing choices make us who we are and are embedded into the very fiber of our lives and business as entrepreneurs. Thank you for being so candid and “raw” in sharing such a personal, but poignant story with us.

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