When Bad Stuff Happens

Many start off with a vision of how they hope their lives will unfold, then create a plan to achieve it. We presume that effort, skill and discipline (along with a bit of good luck) will be rewarded. But unexpected events invariably intrude on our best laid plans. The path we chose for the realization of our dreams, whether by deliberate design, the urging of significant others or sheer naivete, is interrupted, delayed or blocked by unanticipated or even unimagined circumstances

Jobs are lost for reasons having little to do with our performance. Marriages fail and partnerships implode. Tragic accidents or life-altering illnesses intercede. Friendships crumble. Resources shrink or disappear. Self-doubt arises. The original plan of action goes sideways or disappears entirely. No longer are we ascending the mountain we envisioned climbing – we now find ourselves down in a dark place, in a valley where the slogging is tougher than we ever thought. We feel anguish, uncertainty, frustration or perhaps anger. We are lost or at least left feeling adrift, no longer the captain of our ship.

Failure is inevitable; success is optional. The stuff life throws at us forces us to change course. It alters the way we look at ourselves, our situations, our relationships and our possibilities. As Wayne Dwyer once wrote: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The ever-shifting challenges and obstacles of life are either magnified and debilitating or they can be the seed that grows into new adventures and greater opportunities.

Some are broken by the kind of paralysis, pain and despair that accompanies bad stuff. Paul Tillich said suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds us we are not who we might like to think we are. Our innate need for a healthy self-concept is stripped away and our worst fears are amped up beyond reason. We can become afraid, tormented or resentful, and thus incapable of finding our bearings. Annie Dillard writes in Teaching a Stone to Talk that, when we ride these emotional monsters deeper down inside, we drop even farther over the rim.

When you’re in the valley, wondering why you’re there, perspective is the first casualty. You may still have the unconditional support of family or close friends, your health is likely intact and it’s probable you’re not financially bankrupt. In other words, regardless of what happens, we always have options remaining. Provided we take the time needed to examine them and bravely recalibrate our goals and expectations. You still have the skills that got you where you were when the bad stuff happened. Your life is not determined by misfortune or failure. Rather, it’s a consequence, if not a testament, to what you learn from the bad stuff, how quickly and how smartly you pick yourself up, adapt and move on.

The biggest mistake you can ever make is to let circumstances define who you are. Zig Ziglar said failure is an event, not a person. If you take it too personally, you worry too much about what others may think. I once told an interviewer who quizzed me on my life regrets that, while I certainly had made countless errors, I regretted none of them. They made me the person I am. And I concluded long ago that I will live my entire life, from beginning to end, with only one person. Me. People will come and they will go. So I never worry that much about what others may think of me; I just get on with what I believe I must do.

We begin the upward climb by taking a pause for honest, unadulterated reflection – taking stock of where we are, why we’re there and what we’ve discovered about ourselves when those unforeseen circumstances impeded our journey and knocked us down. Now is the time to reach out to others, particularly those gifted with the skill of providing honest (sometimes brutal) feedback, good guidance and novel suggestions for making the necessary mid-course corrections.

There’s always someone whose views you can seek, someone who knows more than you think you do. Find them and ask for their counsel. Share your hopes, concerns and fears – not in search of comfort and consolation but for discovery and insight. The objective is to solicit advice and ideas for opening new windows (for light) and new doors (for escape). Talk to those who will educate you (tell you what you need to know) rather than validate you (tell you what you want to hear).

Listen to what feels right and what will make you better, not what sounds right to others and thus, in compliance, makes you an imposter or (worse) a fraud. Humble yourself: ask for help when you need it and admit you’re wrong or confused when you are. Those who go the furthest in life are the ones who experience the greatest adversity but who are willing to openly discuss their feelings of vulnerability.

If you genuinely plan to climb the next mountain, then seek the counsel of those who’ve done it before, preferably many times, and who therefore know what you may not. Experienced mountain climbers (the real ones), for example, have the expertise to understand that, if you scale more than 1000 feet in a day, you’ll likely succumb to altitude sickness. In other words, the process of ascending to new heights cannot be rushed. When the climbing can be a grind, quantum leaps are destined to fail. Incremental steps are invariably sustainable. There is a pace and a process to learning, adapting and growing; you must gradually acclimate yourself to the new realities.

Every great leader I know has an “advisory board” of some kind or an inner circle of wiser, more experienced people who are unafraid to argue with their propositions. These are the ones who keep our ego in check while encouraging us to get back on track and start the climb once again. They are the ones who enable us to reconnect with who we are deep down and what we really want to become. They are the ones who assure us there will be even larger hills to scale but that we are now much better prepared for those ascents.

When bad stuff happens, some are incapable of altering their plan. They are unwilling to consider a different course or to dedicate themselves to a cause or a career that has greater meaning and significance. They cannot find their stronger voice or accept what truly matters. Those who can are able to discover a renewed inner joy and the fuel needed to vigorously continue on in pursuit of even more rewarding experiences. They see their life as a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one.

Valleys mature us. Because maturity is the realization that life isn’t always about having great plans or noble ambitions, or presuming that meritocracy should be the golden rule. Those who have it know constraining bridges must either be crossed or burned and are fully committed to applying the lessons learned. They are renewed, refocused and all in.

David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, says the first mountain we attempt to climb is largely about defining the self. The second one is about shedding our ego and dissolving the self. The first mountain is usually about acquisition; the second one is about contribution. On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated and all options are open. Failure instructs us that the pursuit of absolute freedom without constraints is entirely unrealistic. Because bad stuff does happen.

Our lowest moments are those that offer us the greatest insights and require us to shift focus. Humans have a depth of fortitude we often fail to appreciate. When we ruminate on what may be missing, we ignore what’s already there. When we lament what we don’t have, we become ungrateful for what we already possess. All life is error prone and resilience is the bi-product of hardship. From adversity comes strength. Duress turns carbon into diamonds. Genetically, we are survivors. If we’re not taking risks and making mistakes, we’re simply not advancing. While skill is critical to achieving your vision, the will to succeed is paramount.