The call I dreaded for years came at 7:03 p.m. on Thursday night last week. On the other end of the line my stepmother was inconsolable. Even before I picked up the phone, I knew: My dad had passed.
He and I weren’t close, and we lived at opposite sides of the planet. His health had been declining for years, so this was expected… just not today. But no matter how many rationalizations you offer up, losing a parent always cuts deep.
I’m grieving in my own way, but more persistent than sadness is an unexpected feeling: peace. I know that this is OK, because life always unfolds the way it should.
The deep and often tough personal development work I’ve done these last few decades seems to be paying small dividends toward accepting setbacks. Using the practices that follow, maybe you and I will even be able to love our problems one day.
Choose Radical Gratitude
“It was all good, even when it wasn’t.” —Rob Bell
My dad lived a full life of 72 years, and maybe he’s in a better place now. I left nothing unsaid while he was alive, and I know that I gave my best effort to the father/son thing. When my mother died six years ago, I wasn’t nearly so Zen about the loss.
What’s changed is that I’ve come to realize, with a little help from a crisis-filled 2020, that your problems will never stop—and that this is wonderful.
“Difficulties in your life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realise your hidden potential and power,” says former Indian President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. What a beautiful philosophy for life, no? Looking back on almost 40 years, I can see that this is true.
First you don’t get into the university program you want, but find your calling. Then you fight your way into that dream job in politics, but end up bored after two years.
Then you find the excitement of an African refugee camp, but come to know deep homesickness. Down the road, your girlfriend ends up with another man, but you find your wife and soulmate a year after.
Problems. Will. Never. Stop.
I’m so grateful for this. Without the struggle, loss and tragedy, I would not be Me. Adversity both hardens and softens you—two indispensable qualities you’ll need in order to enjoy life while you’re here. Struggle teaches you resilience and acceptance, which leads to peace.
How do you find that peace? You practice radical gratitude, and love everything that happens to you, good and bad. The alternative—fighting life—will always cause suffering.
Investigate Your Thinking
“There is no good or bad news without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” —Ryan Holiday
Watch your thoughts, because they literally create your reality. Near the beginning of the pandemic, two restaurant owners were forced to shutter their businesses. One went home to curse the unfairness, but the other went to Home Depot, bought lumber and built a patio.
The first man lost his business because he thought he was powerless. The second man thought about the opportunity in crisis, and his fried chicken sales tripled.
Many people would love to have your problems—that beautiful house (and the repairs it needs), a boring (but secure) job, teenagers (who are driving you nuts). Our mind defaults to a focus on what’s lacking.
But if you dig down to bedrock, you find that your problems, no matter how seemingly tragic, are always your thinking about the problem. Here are two ways to dig.
Tool #1: Do “The Work”
Byron Katie’s life was a nightmare. At age 43 she had three children who loathed her, a marriage on the rocks, suffered from depression, and was addicted to codeine and alcohol.
While in a treatment center, she was struck by a powerful epiphany about her destructive thinking. (Eckhart Tolle describes a similar shock of inspiration.)
“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that,” she says.
Lucky for us, Katie created a simple, powerful way to investigate and turn around negative thoughts in the form of four questions, a process she calls “The Work”:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Finally, the “turnaround” comes when you flip your negative thinking 180 degrees. The results of this simple process will floor you (here’s a real-life example).
Try it now. First, write down your thinking about that most pressing problem in your life, maybe “the government should reopen bars and restaurants.” Then, run it through the four questions. Finally, write the opposite version of your statement, and you will be surprised to see that this feels truer than the original story you were telling yourself.
Tool #2: Untangle Cognitive Distortions
“I will neeeever get into Harvard.”
“Julie always lies.”
“Yes, I made a million dollars, but it shouldn’t have taken this long.”
The human mind is evolution’s highest achievement, finely-tuned for… sniffing out problems. Under the hood, we’re all just animals trying to avoid pain and seek pleasure. This allowed our species to survive, but our operating system needs a patch.
While we tell ourselves stories about how rational we are, psychologists wink at each other, knowing that we rarely see reality accurately. Researchers call these delusions “cognitive distortions,” which break down into several categories (you can find a list here).
We create stories about our problems, which in turn create our moods. When those stories are detached from reality, we suffer. This might be reflected in the difference between feeling blind rage at being stood up on a first date, versus thankful because you’re one jerk closer to your soulmate.
Thankfully, psychiatrist David Burns created another simple tool we can use to discover our own cognitive distortions and rewrite our thinking.
First, put your finger on the thought that created the emotion. Then, talk back to it like a sassy 8-year-old. This can be done using Dr. Burns’ triple column technique: the table below. Now, when you spot a thought that hurts, try this:
|Automatic Thought||Distortion||Rational Response|
|“I’m going to bomb this job interview.”||Fortune teller error: “How can I possibly predict that?”||“I’m thoroughly prepared, a great fit for this job, and had a good sleep. Whether I get the job or not is mostly out of my control.”|
Ask yourself: Why would you tolerate any thinking that doesn’t put you in a great emotional state? Choose a more helpful story about your “problems,” and both your inside and outside life will improve.
See Your Options
“One option is no choice. Two options is a dilemma. Three options is a choice.” —Tony Robbins
Nine out of 10 times, our problems seem insurmountable because we feel forced to do something we don’t want to do. The water heater bursts, and we have to sign a 20-year rental contract. We have a minor fender bender, and we decide our whole day is ruined.
Your problems don’t seem so colossal when you understand that in every challenge you have at least three options. Tony Robbins shares a powerful tool for expanding your decision-making limits, the elegant titled “OOC/EMR.” The steps are:
O: Get clear on your Outcomes.
O: Know your Options.
C: Assess possible Consequences.
E: Evaluate your Options.
M: Mitigate the damage.
R: Resolve to act on your chosen option.
Imagine that your problem today is that three different people asked you out on a date (don’t worry, we all go through slumps). Oh no, what are you going to do?
First, get clear on your Outcomes. For you, your biggest wish is to find your soulmate slash life partner. This person should also have a razor-sharp wit, and as a bonus, great hair. Now we’re clear on what we want.
Second, you’ll want to write down all your Options (at least three), even the ones that sound impractical. “So, my choices are Jamie, Blake or Morgan?” Sure, or you could have a drink with all three. Or you could sign them up for a new reality show to vie for your love. Great! Options!
Third, assess the Consequences of each option. Choose Jamie’s sharp wit, and you lose Blake’s luxurious hair. Stick with Blake, and you miss out on Morgan’s gut-splitting jokes. Date them all? Someone’s gonna get hurt. Do the reality show? Potential public embarrassment.
Next, it’s time to Evaluate those options. Jamie is total marriage material, but about as funny as a brick. Morgan ticks all the boxes. The reality show could be good for my bank account. You get the idea. Stack all options up and compare their pros and cons.
Fifth, Mitigate potential damage. This can be the most difficult step, but also the most creative and fun part. If you let Morgan get away, you’ll never hear the punch line to that amazing joke. Jamie’s great, but just not funny. Mitigation? Pay for improv lessons! Now Jamie’s looking a lot better.
Finally, Resolve. Pick your best option (no take-backsies) and dive right in. I’ll be expecting your wedding invite.
This is a silly example, but you can see the benefits of expanding your options. When you can come up with multiple solutions to any problem, those problems that seemed so massive now fit in the palm of your hand.
Focus Your Energy
“If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
We know that problems will never stop coming. We know that with radical gratitude we can be thankful for the deep work that they are doing inside us. We can untangle our messy thinking, and we can we can get better at seeing multiple solutions to these so-called problems.
Now, it’s time to act. But where should we focus our attention? The Stoics’ rule of thumb is: Accept the things you can’t change; focus on what you can.
This is easy to say and harder to do. “Does this mean I should stop battling my cancer? Or let my business die under lockdown?” Of course not. Acceptance does not mean lying down.
Accepting what is means knowing that the disease might kill you regardless of what you do, or that your business might not make it. Focusing on what you can control means letting the outcome go (which is truly out of your control) and directing your energy to eating healthy, going to treatments and keeping a positive attitude. Or to pivoting, selling online or negotiating a rent hiatus.
COVID, the economy, the election results, world peace….
What your boss, neighbor, wife or daughter thinks/says/does…
These and 99.999% of things in the outside world are outside of our control. Most of us still try to bend them to our will (even if only in our minds), and this inevitably leads to disappointment and suffering.
What we can control is our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, words and actions. That’s it. Focus your energy here, and many of your problems cease to be.
Have Absolute Faith
“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim, you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do, you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax and float.” —Alan Watts
What if you knew with 100% certainty that your idea would work, if only you did?
Hold in your imagination for a moment your dream—a goal, business idea or perfect lifestyle. What if some genie came to you and guaranteed you’d manifest it, if only you put in the elbow grease? Would you direct the full, formidable force of your effort to the task at hand?
Having absolute certainty, of course you would.
But that’s not normally how we show up, is it? We want to be rich, for our business to succeed, to get the promotion or to win the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta (yes, it’s real), but we let our giant pumpkin problems get in the way. “I want this business to succeed, but the economy… but COVID… but my expenses,” all the while ignoring evidence of other businesses thriving in the same conditions.
It’s the idea—the mental image—of our problems that knocks our certainty down from 100% to 80, 50, 20 or nil. The antidote is to have faith, and that doesn’t need to invoke religion. Faith is simply a decision to have unshakeable certainty in your triumph, absent the genie.
Are the odds and the facts arrayed against your success? Great! You can’t have faith unless reality looks like a 700-foot-high titanium wall. But when you choose faith, your problems start to seem paper thin. You may even laugh at them.
The most vivid memory I have of my dad is from when I was 8. I had biked to the convenience store, which I wasn’t allowed to do. I remember lying to him about my whereabouts while he sat in the bathtub.
His dad radar detected the deception before I got all the words out, of course, and I’ll never forget his calm response: “Michael, I’ll be more upset with you if you lie.” Since that moment, honesty has been my most cherished value, and it’s served me faithfully.
He could have treated the problem in front of him with anger, disappointment or condescension. Instead he didn’t see it as a problem at all, but used it as a teachable moment. I’ll teach the same to my daughter one day, and in that way his legacy will reverberate for generations.
Love you, Dad.
Read next: How to Appreciate Yourself
Photo by @nikmock/Twenty20.com