I am sure that some of you must have heard of the saying “when life throws you lemon, make lemonade”. Sounds like a good plan, right? The question is, HOW do you juice the lemon so that you can actually make that lemonade?
When we are faced with setbacks and failures in life, others often tell us that time will heal the pain and disappointment. While time does help lessen the intensity of pain, let’s not forget that we can also choose to take ownership of the healing process and actually play an active role in it. Personally, I don’t like the word “healing” too much – it sounds a bit passive. But the healing process that I really mean here involves being active and constructive, and most importantly, being resilient.
What is a setback? You didn’t do well on a math test? Your team didn’t win the tournament? Your relationship with a significant other turned sour? The focus is not so much about what the failure or hardship is. Each individual is unique and we all have different ways of how we categorize setbacks. The difference, however, lies in the manner in which you think about and respond to them.
If you have seen the video of J.K. Rowling’s speech posted a few weeks ago (see below), she openly discussed her storm of failure. “Failure stripped away everything essential. It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way”, she said. And she was right. In the end, no matter what you choose to do, you learn something about yourself that you cannot otherwise learn from your textbooks.
I’d like to share with you a speech given by Joseph White when he learned that he was not chosen as the University of Michigan president. He shared with the audience how he handled this massive disappointment, as well as the importance of recalibrating our beliefs about ourselves.
I want to say a serious word this evening about a topic seldom discussed in our success-oriented society, and that is the experience of disappointment.
I would say that, above, all disappointment, serious disappointment, is a clarifying experience if one chooses to fully engage the emotion and think about it constructively, rather than try to deny or rationalize it.
There is, first, the issue of how to respond. Realizing that I would need to vacate the president’s office in the Fleming Building, I found myself thinking back to the famous 1944 newspaper picture of an angry and disappointed Sewell Avery, the chairman of Montgomery Ward, being carried out of his office by the National Guard after losing an argument with the government over a wartime emergency measure and refusing to leave office. This seemed to me not the way to go!
The most crucial matter is how to think about a disappointment when it occurs. There is little choice over how to feel about it: shock, sorrow, anger, and sometimes embarrassment are, to a degree, inevitable. But perhaps there is an opportunity for choice in thinking about the matter.
In this regard, my good friend David Gray sent me a quotation from a commencement speech he heard by Steve Covey, the Steve Habits guru, at Marquette University:
“I remember being in the stacks of a library… and pulling down a book which had three sentences in it which so staggered me, they profoundly influenced the rest of my life. These were the three sentences: ‘Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space lies the freedom and our power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.’ In other words, between all that has ever happened to us and our response to it, is our power to choose our response. We are not fundamentally a product of nature or nurture, we are fundamentally a product of our choices to both nature and nurture and, we can decide deep within ourselves what represents true north, what represents the deepest orientation of our life”.
Disappointment is a deeply humanizing and empathy-building experience. Few human beings live a life as abundant and blessed as we who have lived in the second half of the 20th Century in the United States of America, with good educations and good jobs. No matter what our troubles and disappointments, we are surely among the most fortunate people who have ever lived. The truth is that the disappointments that are rare for us are routine in the lives of many of our fellow citizens, not to mention the billions around the world in truly difficult and unfortunate circumstances.
Let me conclude simply by saying that I wish for none of you the pain of disappointment. But we all know that disappointments have occurred and will occur in our lives. What I do wish for you is full engagement of the emotion, careful thought about your reaction, a successful fight against the bitterness that can flow, destructively, from disappointment, and a rapid and successful recovery.
The human brain is actually very plastic. It is a heavy duty sponge. It can absorb a lot of experiences, whether good or bad. The outcome is that you will come back stronger, smarter, and more competent, if you choose to be resilient. In life, challenges are just around the corner waiting for you. And this is nothing new – since the day we learned to stand up, we kept falling until we had stronger limbs. What was it that made you keep trying to stand up and walk again after falling almost every other step? And what has made you stop trying to stand up again, if you are now no longer as resilient as you would like to be?
The road to success is paved with roadblocks. You will run into different types of roadblocks wherever you go: at home, at school, at a camp, and even at TGS. Yet, it is these roadblocks that drive you to find the solution. At TGS, there is no formula to overcoming setbacks. Rather, the TGS experience will help you develop perspectives, and encourage you to confront your setbacks and think about them constructively. You will not only grow and become a more resilient individual, but more importantly, you will learn from your peers and set good examples for each other. Success is not characterized by how much money you own or the kind of car you can afford to drive. It is what you own within yourself, with resilience being one of the most important elements because without failures, one cannot succeed.
Finally, I would like to share with you an analogy that an amazing friend of mine used to encourage me last year. He said that because things don’t always go as planned, resilience is essential. And this is like “water off a duck’s back” – a duck’s feathers are oil-coated, so water slides off the duck as it glides through the water. Successful people will never lose perspectives and be weighted down by challenges. They overcome setbacks, and continue to glide through these challenges with courage.
When you’re enjoying your lemonade, the lemon, after all, isn’t too sour 🙂