Most people, when confronted with an obstacle, suffer some degree of shock and dismay. Even if they don’t consciously acknowledge the problem, their bodies respond in ways that make them less capable of bouncing back.
You may find it interesting to know, for example, that scientists have found that testosterone – the hormone that drives us to work hard and win – actually drops measurably in people who run into unanticipated problems. This clues the body to move into a defensive mode. We feel the impulse to slow down or shut down or run away.
Sophisticated scans have shown similar responses in the brain. The pleasure center becomes less active, as do the parts of the brain that promote the will to act and take risks.
Our bodies are designed to be energized when things are going well. But when things turn against us, they are programmed to retreat.
These are deeply ingrained instincts. Evolutionists tell us that we developed them in order to survive life-threatening situations such as famine, extreme cold, and attacks by predators.
And though these retrenching responses are necessary for survival when the threats are mortal, they can work against us when the challenges are less serious.
That is why we so often feel defeated by soluble problems – the sort of problems we run into when we attempt to enhance our lives and build our careers.
Change Is Possible
The good news is that there is plenty we can do to defeat our negative thoughts, feelings, and responses. We can train ourselves, in other words, to overcome just about anything if we learn certain skills – skills that tell the body and mind, “This is something I can handle. In fact, I look forward to the challenge.”
Think about a recent problem you’ve encountered – an unexpected situation that blocked you from doing something you wanted to do. How did you feel when you realized you couldn’t have your way? What thoughts ran through your head? How did you respond? What did you say? What did you do?
That is what I want to talk about in this essay. I’d like to tell you some of what I’ve learned about how to overcome obstacles, defy disappointments, and maintain a feeling of personal power regardless of what happens.
Stop Worrying, Start Living!
One of the best-selling books of all time is Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. In it, Carnegie makes the very good point that successful people are able to differentiate obstacles that are insurmountable and/or inevitable from those that are temporary or transient.
The wise man, Carnegie argued, does not waste his time fretting about problems that can’t be avoided. He accepts reality and moves on. By accepting reality, he doesn’t deplete the energy he needs to get past the problem at hand. He develops new skills and finds new paths and succeeds despite the inevitability of the obstacle that besets him.
I’ve written about Viktor Frankl’s brilliant book Man’s Search for Meaning several times. In the book, he explains how he overcame what for most of us would be insurmountable. Frankl, a doctor and psychotherapist working in Berlin, was imprisoned in concentration camps, including Dachau and Auschwitz, before being liberated in 1945.
His wife, as well as his mother and father, were killed in the camps. He faced starvation and extreme cold. He was slowly being worked to death, and saw his fellow prisoners tortured and killed.
Despite the suffering and inhumanity all around him, Frankl came to understand that no matter how painful the situation, life has meaning and is worth living.
These Are Times That Try Men’s Souls
In recent years, many, many people suffered serious financial setbacks that destroyed their retirement plans and bankrupted them, and in some cases left them homeless and without an active income.
These are real and serious problems. Not even in my most panglossian frenzy would I make light of them.
But none of them are insurmountable. There is no financial problem that can destroy your life.
And yet financial reversals do destroy lives. It is almost impossible to read the newspaper without encountering a story about some man or woman who, when confronted with sudden and serious financial losses, took his/her life.
A friend of mine did it.
He was in great health, had a devoted family and great friends. He had all that, plus a successful printing business and a significant personal fortune. He was a very charismatic guy – always good-natured, upbeat, full of fun, and easy to like. Then one day, his business collapsed. I don’t remember the details, but, suddenly, he was bankrupt.
I heard about it soon after it happened. When I called to console him, it was too late. Sobbing, his wife told me that he had killed himself.
I couldn’t understand why he did it. He’d had so many other things going for him that, in my eyes, his business and the wealth it produced was just gravy.
Apparently, he didn’t see it that way.
Read the biography of any of the great entrepreneurs and you will discover that each of them overcame one terrible obstacle after another. Andrew Carnegie, for example, who became one of the richest men in the country, came to the U.S. with his family from Scotland.
They spent all their money getting here, so 13-year-old Andrew had to forgo school and go to work in a cotton factory for $1.20 a week. By studying bookkeeping at night, he was able to get a job as a clerk. By the age of 15, he was working as a telegraph operator, a relatively well-paid position. Then his father died, making him the family’s sole breadwinner.
I remember my first significant experience with a financial reversal.
It was right before the business I ran with JSN made its first million. At the time, the business was in the hole by almost twice that. And I personally owed about $200,000 – four times my salary.
I was scared, psychologically burdened by that debt.
Luckily for me, JSN had lived through plenty of tough times, and he knew the value of sticking it out. “When all else fails,” he told me, “just close your eyes and walk forward.”
Bolstered by his pluck, I kept pushing myself. And one bright spring day, one of our marketing packages started working. A week after that, another one did.
And a year later, I was a relatively wealthy young guy.
That experience taught me the value of resilience – but one lesson wasn’t enough to make it a permanent, instinctual reflex. I continued to fail, and my failures continued to hurt. But having had success once, I was able to bounce back again and again – sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Without JSN’s example, I am quite sure I would have given up my ambitions for wealth and success, quit the business, and gotten a job working for some humdrum corporation.
How to Survive Defeat
Dale Carnegie believed that most obstacles can be overcome through a combination of determination, optimism, and “being conscious of your connection to some Conscious Universal Power Source.”
I don’t know if there is some Conscious Universal Power Source out there – I have my doubts – but I’m all in favor of feeling “connected” with it if it gives you the energy you need to endure your difficulties and move on.
Conscious or not, there is vast opportunity for change and growth in the universe. And the opportunity is open to anyone who will allow himself to take positive action.
There are 6 things that you can do to change the way you react to setbacks.
1. Understand which obstacles are truly inevitable or insurmountable. Keep in mind that few are. Know the difference between unexpected changes that you absolutely can’t control and those things you can overcome.
2. Don’t be emotionally defeated by inevitable change. Reframe the experience. Ask yourself, “Where is the silver lining?” Don’t stop asking until you find one. There is always a silver lining. There are usually dozens of them.
3. Consult with other people who have experienced the same problem. Don’t complain. Don’t seek comfort. Seek practical knowledge. Ask their advice.
4. Read something inspirational to make you feel better.
5. Understand that if you give in to the problem, your body will begin to shut down. It will deny you the energy you need to move on and succeed. Energy is the key. Do everything you can to energize yourself. Rest, but not too long. Meditate, but only to feel better. Walk or run or exercise, but again only hard enough to stimulate energy.
6. Figure out how to have fun.
How to Have Fun
For many years, I believed that the very idea of having fun was foolish. I noticed that I often grew bored with activities that are generally considered to be “fun,” and that this was particularly true of passive activities like watching television. I argued that most of the real fun I experienced came from working on projects I cared about.
I reasoned that to make fun itself a goal is both futile and self-deprecating. But by setting goals that are “outside yourself” (that have the aim of leaving the world and its population a bit better than you found it), you could have your moral cake and eat it too. In other words, that you could achieve a goal with a higher purpose… and have fun doing it.
I have made those arguments many times in past essays, and I’m not going to refute them here. But I have to admit that, not long ago, I did, in fact, realize that I could be having more fun in my life. And I resolved to do something about it.
Here’s what happened…
Number Three Son was forlorn about something. K and I were trying to cheer him up.
“Think about all the fun you have each day,” I said.
He made a face.
“Come on now,” I said. “Be honest. In the 16 hours you are awake every day, how many of them would you consider to be fun?”
“Honestly?” he asked. “About two.”
“That seems about right,” I said. “Two hours of fun a day. Yes, that’s seems pretty good to me.”
K was looking at me with pity in her eyes.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “How many hours of fun do you get out of a 16-hour day?”
“Sixteen,” she said.
And I knew she meant it. Sure, she was exaggerating a bit. She does get upset sometimes (like last night, when she woke up to find me clipping my toenails in bed). But on an hour-by-hour basis, she is light years ahead of Number Three Son and me in the happiness game.
And it’s not because she doesn’t encounter problems. It’s because she has trained herself to feel the pain quickly and then move on with optimism and determination. She is committed to a life of happiness. And as a result, she has it.
Fake It Till You Make It
Happiness is both the easiest and hardest goal to achieve. It doesn’t take intelligence or even an intelligent plan. What it does take is the willpower to reject your body’s natural tendency to shut down when you run into problems. You have to train your mind to accept reality and move on, energetically, to accomplish new goals.
What I learned from K is that when I get myself into some sort of difficulty, I always have a choice. I can allow myself to get frustrated. Or I can force myself to take on a positive mental attitude and push forward. (Sometimes, just pretending to be positive about a problem really can lighten your mood.) As Dale Carnegie pointed out in How to Win Friends and Influence People, complaints and self-pity only make bad situations worse.
So that became the basis of my two-step approach to being happy even when things turn against me:
Accept the problem without feeling bitter about it.
Move on quickly to accomplish something that will make me feel good.
Whenever something goes awry these days, I resist the urge to complain. I know that the only way to deal with an obstacle is to go through that two-step process. I begin to do it immediately. Then I can honestly say to myself, “Yes, it happened. It was bad. But it’s over — and now I’m doing something that’s much more important.”