It can feel like your world is ending when you experience a significant failure in your personal or professional life. All of the plans that you made suddenly collapse. What you envisioned for your future may no longer be valid.
I’m not talking about the small daily failures we encounter all the time. This is more than just spilling your coffee in your lap on the way to work, although that does hurt like crazy!
I’m talking about the failures that make you question who you are. The ones that destroy your confidence and challenge your self-image. The ones that make you feel like you’ll never recover and be the same person again.
When I have deep and meaningful talks with people and learn more about their backgrounds and life experiences, I discover that we’ve all been damaged. Almost every person you know has been hurt — in some shape or form. Sometimes very badly.
None of us get through life unscathed.
Yet, you would often never guess that someone has been hurt like that in the past. Most of these people have stable careers, happy families, and their lives seem filled with joy now.
People look at them and say, “It must be nice. They have it so easy. They’ve been so lucky.” and variations of such statements. But it’s usually the opposite.
“There has never yet been a person in our history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering.” — Theodore Roosevelt
The ones who were born with a “silver spoon” and have never suffered adversity are often the ones who do nothing special with their lives. The more I get to know people, the more I find that the successful ones have struggled to overcome adversity.
Why were they able to bounce back and create a better life for themselves?
There is a consistent theme, which I will come back to later.
“I’m interested in that thing that happens where there’s a breaking point for some people and not for others. You go through such hardship, things that are almost impossibly difficult, and there’s no sign that it’s going to get any better, and that’s the point when people quit. But some don’t.” — Robert Redford
Success despite adversity — or because of it?
Oprah Winfrey is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. She’s amazingly successful, worth billions, and built a personal brand that most of us can only dream of creating. Yet, she came from a hard background of poverty and suffered terrible abuse when she was young.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” — C.S. Lewis
Elon Musk is the CEO of some of the most innovative companies in the world, Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink. He’s a smart guy who admittedly does some weird stuff, but he’s clearly successful. He bounced back after enduring bullying as a child, once being beaten so severely that he was knocked unconscious and hospitalized.
Tyler Perry was also abused as a child, kicked out of high school, and attempted suicide twice. But, he kept grinding through a challenging acting career for several years until he eventually became a successful director, writer, and actor.
These people are strong.
They are resilient.
They’ve bounced back from terrible adversity and moved on to achieve great success.
Getting back up
Isn’t that what survival is about? You can’t always avoid getting hurt. You are going to get knocked down.
But, are you able to stand back up?
You can’t let adversity or failure define you or ruin the rest of your life. Because that gives it power over you that it does not deserve and never should have.
There will always be times that feel like the end. Times of darkness where it seems like there will never be light again.
Sometimes all that will give you hope is the belief that it will eventually be ok. Even when it seems impossible, you need to believe that your life can still be amazing if you can survive this and push through to the other side.
I endured my fair share of bullying as a child. I remember one of my frequent tormenters “accidentally” head butting me so hard in my face that it shattered teeth. It left me stunned and bleeding, while other children stood around and laughed.
I remember being thrown to the ground by a couple of high school boys when I was in grade school. Beaten and kicked while they laughed until they grew tired of it and walked away, leaving me there.
I remember being teased, tormented, and called every name you can imagine, over and over again.
And yet, here I am.
At the bottom, you have to tell yourself that your life will get better.
But it will happen someday.
It never gets easier, but it does get better
It isn’t like the dark times fade away with childhood, never to return. We all experience them after every setback, breakup, layoff, and nasty life event.
Failure is inevitable.
Pain is a natural part of life.
For example, I was humbled by my first year in college. I lost my way, and it all fell apart.
I left and took any job I could find. I wandered and wondered what I would do for the rest of my life.
I wouldn’t say I liked where my life was going, so I forced myself to return and finish school. I graduated. I even went on to grad school to get my Ph.D.
“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” — Marianne Williamson
There is no pinnacle of a happy ending in life. There is no permanent bliss.
You’ll struggle with the ups and downs forever. But, you discover that everyone does.
One of my most recent dark moments of depression hit me when my previous startup failed a few years ago. I was down for months until I finally decided to reinvent my career and life — yet again.
Your life may not be what you thought it would be. Holding on to that false image for too long will only keep you down.
My unhappiest moments were when I let the “tyranny of the shoulds and expectations” take over:
Things should have gone this way.
This should have happened for me.
My life should really be like this.
I had to let go of all of that type of thinking. Let go of what it was. Let go of what I thought it would be.
I had to accept that it was time to reinvent myself and redefine my new life. Sometimes over and over again.
A tiny little spark of hope is usually all that kept me going in those dark times. I would think:
“What if my life will somehow still be ok if I can get through this? What if it could have been amazing if I only refused to give up?”
I had to remind myself that it would never be easy, but life does get better.
The consistent theme
When you get past the surface layer of what someone’s success looks like, you’ll find out what it really took for them to get there. You’ll discover what they endured and how much they suffered to accomplish what they wanted in their lives.
“The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.” — Mark Manson
You’ll also see a recurring theme of hard work, perseverance, and passion. This grit is what sets the successful apart from those who accept failure, give in to adversity, and stay down.
I’m no Oprah, Elon, or Tyler, but I am happy, and I do have a good life.
I met a wonderful woman, got married, raised terrific children, and we’re still together. I had a good career in Tech, then I started my own business, and now I work independently in a beautiful place where I’ve always wanted to live.
That young boy being bullied on the playground would never have expected his life to turn out as well as it has.
I’ll never claim to have suffered the level of adversity that many others have. I know that so many other people have experienced much worse. But my life hasn’t been a walk in the park either. I’m just glad that I pushed through the bad times to get to the other side.
I guess that I’ve always been stubborn and determined to succeed somehow, in some way. I’m still here. I didn’t let my failures define me. I didn’t let the bullies ruin the rest of my life.
They don’t get to have that power over me.
It’s probably why I can laugh when I experience minor failures now. I know it’s why I’ve been able to smile and stay calm when big, bad corporate executives used to scream at me.
“Hey, you think that bothers me? Do you think your anger over something so meaningless scares me? Please. At least I’m not being thrown to the ground and kicked unconscious.”
Take control of your future
We all get upset when we have a terrible day at work with our boss. We feel sad and disappointed when we’re passed over for a promotion. We’re depressed when we lose a job.
Every one of us will suffer losses in our personal lives too. We will have dark moments.
But, we have to keep it in perspective and consider the full context of our lifetime ahead of us. Bad times won’t last forever. Shake it off and move on to the next day.
As long as you’re still breathing, you can make tomorrow better. You can always shape your future into what you want it to be.
“I can bounce back from adversity and reinvent my life — it’s possible.” — Les Brown
By no means am I saying that deep trauma isn’t damaging. It is. Of course, it is.
I encourage anyone who has experienced it to get therapy from a highly-qualified professional. Treatment is necessary to heal.
But, heal, you must.
You deserve to live the rest of your life in a better emotional and mental space.
We all do.