When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. – Henry Ford
There are many true facts about life, but there is one that is particularly uncomfortable to look at and deal with – bad things happen. Sometimes they happen as consequences of our actions, sometimes they just happen. If this is a fact of life, is there a way to embrace and navigate it? Can we learn how to handle misfortune in our pursuit of our success and happiness?
It’s easy enough to look at the bad things that happen as a result of our actions, especially the actions that we are not too proud of. We understand the harm that comes from selfish actions that break trust or damage relationships. We understand the misfortune of failing an exam when we know we really didn’t put in the work required to succeed. There we have a clear set mandate. Stop doing stupid shit.
It’s trickier when bad things happen because of the good things we are trying to do. Embracing the philosophies of the One Thing and Deep Work comes with its own set of trade-offs. Every day, there are demands on our time, things we need to get done, people depending on us or needing us. Choosing to stay the course and go deep on the one thing can mean saying no to all those other things.
The trade-off, another fact of life is inevitable. Going down one path, means forgoing many others. It is never an easy decision choosing between two great things. We do not like disappointing or inconveniencing people. But if you have identified what you want, and have set your course, there is only one thing to really do. Sometimes you have to let bad things happen, so that you get the main thing done. It might mean delaying responding to the other things for a while or it may mean forgoing the other option completely. Many times, the fall-out isn’t so bad that it cannot be managed. A few hours or days delay won’t make the world stop spinning.
Knowing what you are all about and what is most important allows you to make the tough choices and go all-in on the things that will move you forward to your intended destination.
But what happens when bad things happen for seemingly no reason. Sometimes suffering exists and there is nothing you can do about it. The deal falls through, you are involved in a freak accident, other people disappoint you. Shit just happens. It is easy enough when it happens every now and again, it is much harder when it happens regularly or in a long stretch. Life can start to feel like a long series of unfortunate events.
It is tempting then to fold, to cross your arms and sit back. Especially when you have been trying really hard. It is very possible to do everything right and still fail. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, other times it is things completely outside your control. What do you do?
These times call for an exercise in character. Will you fold, or will you hold on? Will you let the emotion, the frustration, the anger, the despair, will you let it all sweep you away? Or will you pause, catch your breath, grit your teeth and continue?
Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records. – William Arthur Ward
You may need to take a step back to reconsider things. Are things going bad because a wrong assumption, or a mistake? Or is this just the equivalent of bad weather? Something completely outside your control? If it is just a bad time, and you are on the right path, doing the things you know you should be doing and investing in, keep pressing on.
It’s hard. I’ve blogged earlier about suffering. Writing about it is one thing, going through it is another. The past two months have sometimes felt like a real-life exercise in eating shit. I don’t have any answers on how to fix it. You just endure it and keep doing your job as best as you can. At first, it’s easy-ish to do it. Wake up every day and press on. After a while, it gets harder to stay upbeat. Eventually it just feels easier to not even try and slip into depression.
So, then you just lay down on the floor and try numbing yourself with your drug of choice. But then you have to get back up and try again. We rest, catch our breath, do some self-care, bandage ourselves up and get back in the ring.
It is easy to freak out, but in the midst of the storm, keep the one thing in mind, keep the prize front and center. Focus on the most important thing and get that done, then move your attention to the next pressing crises and do what you can to fix it. It is never easy, but you get better at it. You get stronger at remaining calm under pressure, you better at coming up with creative solutions on the clutch. You learn how to plan better and anticipate the bumps. You become more resilient.
And then you start to invert and turn the problems on themselves.
There is a book called ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday that gives some insight on how to handle adversity. It goes beyond just dealing with the crises to using the problem as a stepping stone. Is there any way you can turn this shit show into something useful? Can you turn this turd into fertilizer? Maybe you use this problem as a cautionary tale on how to prepare better. Maybe it becomes the chip on your shoulder that you harness as energy to fuel and drive you forward. Maybe you use the time to train some more, to get better. Perhaps you just use it to grow more grit, to become mentally tough. Find the gain in your pain. Find your diamond in the dirt.
It all boils down to a three-part approach to dealing with adversity. Have the discipline of perception. It is easy to get emotional about shit when it goes down. It rips away from our routine and safe bubble. It gives us something new and unexpected to deal with. Fight the urge to react, settle back return to your calm. There is only one thing you can really control, and that is how you react to the things that happen. Strip away the emotion and look at the situation clearly. What is really happening? What caused it? Can I prepare better? Can I handle this, so it never comes up again?
Cultivate the discipline of action. You have steadied your nerves, you have observed the situation clearly and gained your insight. Now take strong consistent action. Do what you must do, keep moving forward. In the midst of this storm, until the sun breaks through the clouds and until the next storm, keep on moving.