I lost 15 million dollars, my wife left me, and I was on the floor crying next to an empty bottle every night.
That’s how my favorite writer, James Altucher, would introduce so many of his blog posts. Most of his articles are about the art of the comeback. He’s made and lost millions of dollars more than once. He’s built castles and destroyed them more times than he can count. But he always gets up from the floor eventually. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
While I’m sure he didn’t want to have so many catastrophic failures, I bet he looks back fondly on how he was able to recover from them. Being depressed sucks. Feeling afraid sucks. Doubting yourself sucks. But using them to your advantage is awesome. It almost feels better to bounce back than it does to have everything go well instantly.
Don’t seek out negativity. But learn to harness it when it presents itself in your life. Let’s look at some quotes that talk about how to do just that.
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” – Steven Pressfield
We make a mistake when it comes to dealing with seemingly negative emotions like fear. We try to rid ourselves of the emotion before acting. This is impossible. That feeling is never going to go away. Instead, you have to find a way to change what that feeling means to you.
I know what you try to do with self-improvement content. You’re looking for a message that fires you up to the level that you’ll walk into a new venture with the utmost confidence.
But that never happens, does it? Instead, right when you get to the ledge, you avoid jumping. You go back to the self-improvement articles for more knowledge, insights, or strategies. But these strategies do nothing to replace the real thing.
You are going to feel afraid when you’re on that sales call. You will feel like a total fraud when you try to break into that new industry. If you come across rejection or embarrassment, you will feel that sinking feeling in your stomach. And rejection and embarrassment are inevitable.
Here’s what will happen though. If you take action, even if you nervously and gingerly take action, you will feel good about your attempt no matter how good or bad the result was.
Why? Because you’re doing what the vast majority of people won’t do and you know it. Most would rather sit their entire lives on the sideline than look foolish. The ability to even try puts you ahead of the pack.
“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius” – Nassim Taleb
Imagine someone told you that you had 24 hours to make $100,000 or they’d kill one of your family members. Would you sit on your hands and think “gosh, I don’t know what I can do to make that much in a day”? Nope, you’d pull out every single stop imaginable. All of a sudden, you’d flood your mind with different ideas to get the cash. If you ever found your back truly against the wall like that, you’d go out swinging.
This extreme example shows the value of having your back against the wall. Creativity can and will arise from truly difficult situations. But we do just enough in our lives to make things easy enough to settle. Since you’re not totally out on the streets with zero cash, you’ll settle for that mediocre job. Since you can get by and cope with your day-to-day life, you’re not inspired enough to change.
There are enough comfort-seeking mechanisms to keep your dreams at bay. What if you could put yourself in a situation that forced you to change? I read a story once about a young social media comedian. He was making decent money, but not enough to fulfill his dream. He decided to buy a house that he couldn’t afford. If he didn’t come up with the cash soon, he’d hemorrhage so much of what he had that he’d have to move out. Think he got the cash?
I love being self-employed because I’m put in a constant state of difficulty. My cash flow might drop 50 to 75 percent in a single month. I always have to stay on my toes. And if I ever got in a true financial pinch, I’d figure out a way to make that money. I’d have to. Put yourself in more situations where creativity isn’t a choice. Make it something necessary for your life and watch it flourish.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
Suffering is unavoidable. You only get to try to have influence over which type of suffering you’re going to go through. Suffering upfront is like investing in a portfolio that will grow in the future. Avoiding difficulty only to suffer later is like buying products with a credit card that continues to collect interest over time.
Suffering physically for an hour a day can help you avoid a lifetime of sickness, fatigue, and an early grave. Suffering mentally to build a business can help you avoid the prolonged suffering of having to do something you hate or tolerate for a living. Most of the traits it takes to succeed involve suffering.
Patience is suffering. Delayed gratification is suffering. Short-term obstacles create suffering. You often have to suffer through the tasks you don’t want to do to reach your ultimate goal — all the little mundane, tedious, and boring things you have to do to build a foundation for the things you love to do.
How do you develop the mindset to start seeking out short-term suffering for long-term results? Start developing self-awareness about the suffering you experience by sitting on the sidelines in life. Notice the opportunities you’re missing out on because you’re afraid. See where you pretend to be happy but instead are just coping with life. Be brutally honest with yourself about the ways you’re letting your life just slip right by.
And then do something about it.
“Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” – Cheryl Strayed
Not every negative traumatic experience is equal. Clearly. This isn’t a tone-deaf message telling you to just emotionally shrug off every bad thing that has ever happened to you. You are not a robot. You are a human being. Even the strongest among us have experiences that break us.
But humans also have the capability and potential to not just put themselves back together, but put themselves back together even stronger than before. And you can do that by trying to take ownership of all your experiences, even the ones you didn’t deserve.
Oprah was abused as a child and grew up in poverty. Part of her empathetic and understanding nature comes from those experiences. She found a way to use them to create light instead of drowning in the darkness. Many of the lessons I share now, and the way I share them, were born in darkness, much of it self-inflicted. I could make an argument that living a better life early on would’ve made it harder for me to have the career and life I have now. Who wants to hear about success from someone who never struggled or had to bounce back from anything?
I get it. I understand how much you wish you could alter the past. I’ve done that thing where you try to create this mental movie of how things could’ve gone differently, but they didn’t. I’ve wished certain things never happened to me and I wish I never did certain things. There has been so many times I’ve said to myself “Why is this happening to me?” But then I always attempt to re-group and ask myself “How can I use this?”
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” – Brene Brown
People who can’t feel physical pain often live terrible lives. Because they don’t have that signal that tells them something is wrong, they continue to put themselves in harm’s way. As much as we don’t enjoy it, pain plays a critical role in our lives.
It’s tempting to want a live a life where you feel no negative emotions. When you’re in the throws of negativity, it’s hard to see how negativity is useful to you. So you’re tempted to try to down out the pain. But this does nothing more than create apathy. Instead of fully experiencing the high highs and the low lows of life, you’re just lukewarm.
You miss out on the power of contrast. Think of some of the most positive experiences and emotions you can feel. Also, think about their counterparts. Look at their relationship with one another. To be in love, you must risk heartbreak. Often to reach love and learn enough to nourish it, you have to experience heartbreak. Would success feel good without the risk of catastrophic failure? You can’t have a comeback story without first being down and out.
Often negative emotions are trying to tell us something. If we listened to them and sat with them instead of trying to avoid them, we’d be in a better position to change them. My life didn’t change until I listened to the pain instead of trying to numb it. When I was making a bunch of mistakes in life I turned to the bottle or drugs to numb the pain just enough to make it to tomorrow. But then tomorrow would come and I’d still be faced with the same problems. Running in circles. Making the pain more acute actually inspired the change.
“Successes teach you nothing. Failures teach you everything. Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do.”
I don’t agree with this fully. You can learn from success. When you succeed, you learn what works, what you can double down on. You learn that you are as capable as you thought you were. You learn the value of confidence, hard work, and persistence. Great athletes like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady got better after their first championships.
Failure teaches you more valuable lessons. And you usually have to learn those lessons first before you succeed. You only get to know what works after you try many strategies that don’t work. Course correcting teaches you how to be adaptable and how to spot the potential for new mistakes before you met them.
Failure mainly teaches you that individual failures won’t kill you. I tell this story all the time. I tried to launch a product and got zero sales. I spent a week or so totally heartbroken and depressed. But after I got out of that fog I realized I was fine. My ambition to build my writing career was still intact. I analyzed what went wrong and vowed to do better the next time I launched. I now realized, for certain, that I could handle failure.
Don’t go out of your way to fail. This is not some Gary Vaynerchuk rant telling you that you should spend the rest of your life enjoying losing. No. You want to win, trust me. But I’ve never seen anyone accomplish anything of substance without experiencing setbacks. I love using a bow and arrow as a metaphor. You have to pull the bow back to lunge it forward
Every moment of failure in my life felt horrible at the time. But I look back on those moments fondly now because I pushed through them and I wouldn’t enjoy the success I have now as much without having gone through them.