The real lessons
Difficult situations always offer lessons, but the most valuable ones lie a bit deeper.
When a hurdle arises, we tend to talk about the easy-to-see surface lessons – patience, compassion, perseverance, and so on. And while those certainly have importance, they can mask more important lessons – powerful and actionable changes in approach that can produce dramatic differences in outcomes.
Lesson 1 – Probability
Accidents happen, and that’s just a fact of life. Right?
Actually, no, not right. Accidents are wholly preventable – just ask the companies who spend millions reducing accidents in the workplace. There is an entire industry of professionals whose job is to do exactly that – foresee and prevent accidents. It’s a science and a methodology, not chance or luck.
Just because we’re not controlling our own behaviors doesn’t mean life is inherently a random crapshoot. Walking through a forest with a blindfold on, and then declaring “bumping into trees is just part of walking through the woods” is foolish and incorrect – and completely preventable.
The vast majority of difficult situations we encounter in life are preventable. Prevention is really a matter of the basics – awareness, diligence, maintenance, and planning. A lot of it is in the user manuals most people don’t bother to read, or in basic How-To books. Ignoring those things, not taking proper steps, is like putting on the blindfold and then walking into the forest.
Of course there’s always a chance of an accident despite our best efforts. What we’re talking about here is Probability. Most people only do the bare minimum to avoid accidents or trouble, and then when an accident does happen they chock it up to the inherent risk of living.
The reality is that two people can use a chainsaw side by side and depending on what approach they have taken, one may have a 22% chance of an accident while the other has a 2% chance. Yes they both technically have a ‘chance’ of getting hurt using a chainsaw, and either one could have an accident (or walk away unharmed) on any particular day, but their probabilities are dramatically different. And these differences aren’t always visible, like one wearing safety gear and the other not. Instead it could simply be that one has a first aid kit and cellphone nearby in the unlikely event of an accident.
Often with just a little foresight and a few simple actions, we can dramatically change our probability of accidents occurring, and their impact. Doing the bare minimum (or less), and falling back on the stance that ‘accidents happen’ is an active blindness to the reality of how accidents work. Accidents are mechanical in nature, and therefore prevention and probability (and reduction of severity), are all well within our control.
That said, there are things – commonly called ‘Acts of God’ – that are not foreseeable or preventable. These are things like the drunk driver crossing the median, a falling object, genetic cancers and diseases, and so on. We all understand they are just part of the deal. But even in these situations there are still ways to avoid them or reduce their impact – wearing seatbelts, building a healthy immune system, early testing/detection, avoidance of certain behaviors, etc that can help us overcome even these seemingly random happenings. This is true in some cases but not all.
Regardless, all we can ever do is focus on what is avoidable, preventable, or reducible in impact. Including these ‘Acts of God’ into the overall picture of risk, as ‘proof’ of the tenuous control over our fate, is a common way to self-deceive and shirk responsibility for what we actually can control.
Think through an activity, don’t just rush into it. Imagine a few ‘sideways’ possibilities and plan for them. Read (or at least skim) the manual. Keep your property, equipment, and body well maintained. Don’t ignore the warning signs. But mostly, take responsibility for your own outcomes – assume it will go perfectly, but be sure to plan as if it will not.
Lesson 2 – Adaptation
Reacting to an unfortunate event is natural. Bees work to plug the hole in a nest, white blood cells rush to the site of an injury, the troops rally. That’s natural. But it’s also not a great way to deal with a crisis, mentally. Wanting to ‘return to normal’ to put things back to the way they were, sets up an immediate conflict in the brain. Conflict creates pain and frustration. As a result, we can end up tapping a lot of our resources in simply wrestling with the problem internally/mentally, versus actually resolving it. Worry, frustration, impatience, fear, mental anguish, etc are exhausting, and especially in a crisis they use up vast amounts of energy that are better served in focusing on (positive) steps and solutions.
The most successful people adapt. They immediately accept the problem as fact, decide that this new situation is now the new reality, and then work from that place of strength and calm to work toward a desired outcome.
The biggest benefits of this switch in mindset are in keeping both panic and despondency at bay. Accepting a new situation, even something as shocking as falling into icy water, can make the difference between life and death. It’s the inability to adapt to this new situation that has the body rush to fight against it – to panic. The quicker we can accept it, the quicker we can use our full resources to get busy working on our new goal – getting out of there.
Over the longer-term, despondency and depression can take hold if we are unable to adapt to a new (difficult) situation. Adaptation becomes critical in allowing the brain to move on from its own pity party and starting to work on solutions and even coping mechanisms for dealing with the new reality. A shift from negative to positive is critical in long-term endurance of a difficult circumstance, and that process begins with acceptance and adaptation.
Staying in reactive mode keeps the brain hoping day after day that the external reality will change. That’s not a realistic plan or successful strategy. The change has to come from within, and the external circumstances that we cannot change are allowed to be. Then from there we can use a positive attitude to affect change and move toward our desired outcomes.
Lesson 3 – Positivity
Lastly, and this is often overstated or made to sound pollyanna, but having a positive attitude and approach is critical. It becomes even more critical when the chips are down.
Our problems are often intertwined in dealing with other people, and being positive in those interactions pays massive dividends toward reaching your goals. A smile and a polite request is orders of magnitude more effective than a scowl and a demand. And even strong negotiation is best conducted with a calm demeanor and with the others’ point of view foremost in mind.
Sure, it’s not easy to keep smiling when things are not the way you want them to be, but that changes when you widen your perspective. We tend to get negative only when we focus on a small field of view, a momentary disappointment or difficult person/situation, right now. But when we take a moment to step back from it and put it in perspective a few things happen:
a. We remember how lucky we are to be alive
b. We remember how things could always be worse
c. We remember how this is just one small or temporary chapter in our lives
And it’s interesting how well the word ‘remember’ fits here, because we say it like we’ve forgotten. It’s often that simple, we’ve forgotten or lost sight of the bigger picture. In all except the most extreme circumstances, life is better than death, so that alone is a pretty important thing to remember. If we’re alive, we’re way ahead on the ‘good-bad’ scale, and that’s critical to keep in mind.
The same goes for severity of an occurrence. There are always worse scenarios than the ones we are typically faced with. The vast majority of the time the issues we are dealing with – even serious ones – are blown way out of proportion. They are often small and we’re making them big. It’s always good to keep in mind that everyone faces difficulty, and it’s very likely that others have overcome much greater odds. That should serve as both solace and inspiration.
And that brings us to the final point, that usually the difficulties we’re facing are short-lived and small. That’s not always true, but even in those more extreme circumstances we have all the ability in the world to make them feel small and short-lived. After all, life itself is short and fleeting, and we can always decide to be bigger than our problems.
Even in extreme situations facing the most dire conditions, the most successful people are those who use positivity to bolster internal strength and affect external change. All of our most heralded heroes and historical leaders are the embodiment of exactly that lesson. Surely we can learn how to use it in the daily struggles and difficulties in our own lives.
These are many lessons that come from facing difficult circumstances, but they’re clearly different than what tends to be the lasting impression in our minds.
Typically what lasts is just the dramatic story, often with an emphasis on the negative highlights, and an overall feeling of simply having ‘gotten through it’, perhaps with a tip of the cap to our own efforts or internal fortitude. We file it away for later telling over a glass of wine, adding it to our hero’s life story, having triumphantly overcome another one of life’s difficulties.
But the real value is in how the event can make us better, and in actually implementing the real lessons it has to offer.