J. Barry Griswell, left, and Bob Jennings spent two years researching and writing “The Adversity Paradox.” They’ll sign copies of their book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble at 4550 University Ave., West Des Moines. Photo by Duane Tinkey
J. Barry Griswell, left, and Bob Jennings spent two years researching and writing “The Adversity Paradox.” They’ll sign copies of their book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble at 4550 University Ave., West Des Moines. Photo by Duane Tinkey

Bad is good. That is, when it comes to forming a person's character and building a career, adversity has its advantages.

It's something that Des Moines businessmen J. Barry Griswell and Bob Jennings had noticed through the years, and it really came into focus at the ceremony honoring Griswell as one of the Horatio Alger Awards honorees in 2003.

"We heard all of these stories about overcoming adversity," Jennings said. They attended the 2005 event, heard 10 more stories about successful people rising from difficult beginnings and decided it was a topic worthy of examination.

The pair's quest turned into a book project, and now they are the authors of "The Adversity Paradox: An Unconventional Guide to Achieving Uncommon Business Success," a paperback book published by St. Martin's Press.

Griswell's rags-to-riches story has become well-known in the Central Iowa business community. His father was an abusive alcoholic who left the family when Griswell was quite young and eventually committed suicide. His stepfather also struggled with alcoholism. Griswell was a poor student who often got into trouble.

And yet, he eventually rose through the ranks to become the CEO of Principal Financial Group Inc. He's now the chairman of Principal and president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines.

Jennings is a member of the family that owns EFCO Corp., a Des Moines-based manufacturer of concrete forms that are used around the world. His adolescent years were marked by fights, he showed little interest in school, and when he got his first job outside the family company, he was fired for unethical behavior.

Jennings went through more rough times trying to learn to be a salesman, first in Chile and then back in the United States, but eventually got his life in order. He earned an M.B.A. and began contributing greatly to EFCO's growth and success, but then "was separated from his company without warning," according to the book. Now he works as a consultant as the owner of West Des Moines-based Lean Management.

Given those backgrounds, it's not surprising that Griswell and Jennings were open to the idea that challenges can lead to achievement.

And yet, the American goal has always been to give each successive generation more advantages than the previous one enjoyed. That's a concern for these men.

"We've kind of softened ourselves up as a society," Griswell said. "No generation before Generation Y has had it easier, and I think we're paying the price now."

Starting with the list of Alger Award winners and adding other noteworthy biographies, the two friends and former tennis partners began assembling the personal stories and advice that make up the book. Jennings conducted a number of personal interviews; he and Griswell met together with self-help book guru Harvey Mackay, who at first told them they had one chance in a thousand of getting a book published.

They beat those odds and have started promoting "The Adversity Paradox." They talked to Drake University students, tonight (April 13) they speak at Iowa State University in Ames, and tomorrow they'll sign copies of the book at Barnes & Noble Booksellers on University Avenue in West Des Moines.

On Thursday, Griswell flies to Boston to speak at an event known as the "Gathering of the Titans."

Their promotion efforts won't last long, but they do hope the experience leads to something else. "We would each hope some follow-on work comes out of the book," Griswell said.

"Bob's business is consulting, and this might be a platform to help promote his business. I might do some speaking; I want to tell my story, tell what I've learned from life."

Griswell also has another book in mind. "My mom passed away last Dec. 31 at the age of 84, and I found a diary of her life at the age of 16, written in 1940. I want to tie in the events in that diary with everything I've learned."