A long time ago, someone told me a story. It was about a girl, born in a middle-class family of German origins, in a small village close to Brasov, Romania. Her mother was a talented tailor, the best in town. She was raising her as a single mother and had separated from the girl’s father because of his addiction to playing cards. When the girl was nine, her mother died of pneumonia. It was the year before the penicillin became available on the market. “If only she would have waited another year” people would tell her. The girl could not go live with her father because he had been deported to Russia two years earlier. The deportation of Germans from Romania after World War II was part of the Soviet plan imposed to Germany, to pay for war reparations in the form of forced labor.
So, the girl ended up living with her aunt and cousins. She started to work when she was a teenager and was not able to finish high school. At eighteen, she fell in love with a Romanian army officer, got married and left her aunt’s home. The young couple did not have any possessions and had to borrow a few plates, forks, and knives from the army’s kitchen. She was starting her adult life with more shortcomings and struggles than I could ever imagine. So, she did what she knew best. She kept on working. And she kept on moving.
The little girl is my grandmother. She will become 85 this year and she’s full of energy and optimism like she’s always been. I often ask her how did she do it? Where did she find the energy to keep going, when everything around her was a big disappointment? And she always tells me: “I had to keep moving forward. That was the only option.”
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
As I am writing this, I watch my seven-year-old making a scene because the battery of the iPad is down, and he doesn’t feel like watching TV. I clench my teeth and I tell myself that I would not mention for the sixty-seventh time, that when I was his age, we had no TV and we were playing outside with a deflated ball. My childhood was surely less pleasant than his, but still, it was far from being hard. I had a roof above my head, I was loved, I had food to eat and friends to play with. I even cannot call hardship the times when I was studying in France, living on a 300 euros scholarship and having 25 euros left after paying for my rent. With some additional social support, I still had enough money for food and an occasional one-day trip. I was happy and free, despite being poor.
On a scale of 1 to 10, what was the hardest time of your life? If you drew a straight line and marked the major milestones in your life, relations, jobs, moves, losses, sickness, parenthood, what was the most difficult moment to overcome? So difficult that you could hardly find hope or see the light at the end of the tunnel?
I tried to make this exercise myself, looking back at different stages of my life, and the hardest part, probably a 7 on the scale, was the year 2015, when I was struggling to find the balance between motherhood and career, and I was close to burnout. I constantly felt that I was doing the wrong things for myself and for everyone around me. While at work, I was feeling guilty that I was not spending time with my baby. While at home with my family, I felt guilty that I was not working enough and not performing in my new role. When you’re in that downward spiral, it’s very difficult to get out, unless you reach out for help.
“Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith”. - Steve Jobs
We often hear pop psychology stories about successful people who turned their lives upside down and overcame adversity through a moment of insight, an epiphany. They show up the gloomy start and the glamourous finish. Beware of those stories. They don’t tell you the full story. I believe in insights, but I also know they are just a small spark that can start a process. What we do with that insight afterward, is all that matters. The real work is hard work, with ups and downs and messy middles. And the only way to get forward is to keep the momentum and get moving.
“It’s not about the start and finish, it’s about the journey in between. Fight resistance with a commitment to suffering”. - Scott Belsky
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?
More than fifty years of research on stress has proven again and again a strong correlation between stress and anxiety disorders, depression, and heart disease. So if adversity creates stress and stress is harmful, is it even possible to imagine that hard times can actually be beneficial and help us grow?
When we think about how we cope with adversity, we tend to talk about resilience. What is it that makes us more resilient and how can we recover after a stressful event? Next to resilience, during the last thirty years, there has also been an increased focus on the benefits of adversity. So, what are these benefits and how is it even possible?
First, when we overcome a challenge, we discover hidden abilities that we were not aware before. We are stronger than we thought, and this builds more confidence, more endurance, and more resilience.
Before becoming a parent, I was constantly complaining about lack of time. When I suddenly became responsible for someone else’s life and survival, I discovered that I had organizing skills in me that I didn't know of. I learned how to prioritize, how to delegate, how to ask for support from others. When I think about my problems and existential dilemmas from the pre-motherhood period, I laugh at myself.
Another benefit is that if we overcome the adversity, we make sense of a bigger story and we keep connecting the dots. If my grandmother stopped moving forward just because everything around her was hard and people were disappointing her, she wouldn’t have done anything and gotten anywhere. I am by no means saying that we must keep on going and running, without stopping and reflecting on our lives. No, we must certainly do that. But at the same time, we take whatever insight we can find, and we do something with it. We must continue moving and acting towards a bigger goal, outside ourselves.
What’s Your Story?
How we react in front of obstacles, has much to do with our personality. But it’s not only about the basic traits like the “big five”: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. According to psychologist Dan McAdams, there are three layers that shape our personalities and the big five is the basic level, defined by our genetic heritage. This level of the personality defines our automatic responses and remains relatively constant during our life span.
A second layer is called “characteristic adaptations” and this is much more influenced by nurture than nature. Our values, beliefs, defense and coping mechanisms, personal goals, and life-stage specific concerns, like becoming a parent or going on retirement. Of course, these adaptations are influenced by our basic traits, in the sense that someone with high level of emotional stability will cope easier with hardship and will have a more natural tendency to move forward. On the contrary, someone who is emotionally unstable, high in neuroticism, will activate more her defense mechanisms and tend to withdraw.
There are four main areas in which these adaptations unfold: work, relationships, spirituality, and contribution to society. When something that causes emotional distress happens in one of these areas, it can shake us up and changes the way we see the world.
The third layer of personality is the “life story”. As humans, we need to make sense of what happens in our lives and constantly find meaning in our answers. Stories are dot connectors and sense making machines. We are wired to think in stories. But do you know any good stories where nothing bad happens and the entire plot is about how happy and carefree the characters were?
If the basic traits are something we are given at birth, and it’s a lottery, is there something we can do in that middle layer? For sure. There are endless possibilities to work on our values, discipline, goals, and beliefs, so we find more alignment between our personality, what we do in our everyday life, and our long-term aspirations. What I often see is that people don’t pay enough attention to this alignment, and so, they end up in jobs that require a set of skills that is totally opposite to their personality needs and long-term interests. It’s a matter of time until they end up in downward spiral of confusion, dissatisfaction, blockages, and… Netflix.
There is no way to predict the future and anticipate what lays behind the mountains we see in front of us. But I hope it won’t be a big surprise to find out that most likely, there will be more mountains. No, we cannot predict the future, but we can look back and connect the dots we already mapped.
The Obstacle Is the Way
"You will come across obstacles in life—fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure."- Ryan Holiday
Many external hardships will come our way, and we will not be able to control what happens. But nobody can take away our thoughts and how we choose to react to these circumstances. The ancient stoics were deliberately practicing and developing skills that would make them stronger and more resilient during difficult times. Learning how to better control one’s emotions to keep calm and preserve energy in moments of crisis and practicing poverty are two of my favorite ones.
There is no use in panicking. If we panic and we withdraw, will we have learned anything from that experience? Astronauts have probably the most stressful and dangerous jobs, so they learn in extensive trainings how to deal with emotions and keep their calm. They approach any problem with curiosity and a scientist mindset. They look at every problem as it was a puzzle, and don’t give up until they figured it out. Astronauts never worry alone. They are the true team players and their first response to a crisis is to gather the team and work the problem collaboratively. They don’t put ego and pride first.
Ask yourself: are there certain life skills I can learn so I could live on minimum income and standards, if that time would ever come? Learning to cook, for example, can be a lifesaving skill and it’s a skill that every parent should practice with their children. Learn the basics of cooking, how to combine ingredients and make a delicious meal out of anything, on a very low budget. Your children will thank you later.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?” Seneca
Another lifesaving skill is understanding how personal finances work. This is again something that nobody teaches us in school, and still, good or bad choices about how we spend our money, can make or break our future.
Stoics were also practicing “negative visualisation” or what they called premeditatio malorum, an exercise that helps us imagining worst case scenarios. This is a helpful way to overcome fear, especially when it’s related to emotions and thoughts rather than concrete external threats. Tim Ferris’ fear setting exercise is a good place to start.
The truth is, we live during the most peaceful and comfortable times of the entire human history. If we live in a democratic and egalitarian society, the hardest thing that our children face are the bullies in their schoolyard. So, I keep thinking, how can we raise children who are more resilient, driven and action oriented? How do we teach them to not expect that it should be easy, because life has its own way of hitting us hard, when we least expect it? How can we be less overprotective and passive, but better at developing those active skills that schools don’t teach? I don’t have the answers, but I keep on searching until I find them. And when I have a bad day and something seems too hard, I always think about my grandmother. And then I get the energy to keep moving forward. That is the only option.
Recommended and Mentioned Resources:
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom [BOOK], by Jonathan Haidt
The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph [BOOK], by Ryan Holiday
The Messy Middle [BOOK], by Scott Belsky
Fear Setting, the Most Valuable Exercise I do Every Month [BLOG], by Tim Ferriss
Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals [TED Talk], by Tim Ferriss
The Self as a Story [VIDEO], Dan McAdams
On Purpose Podcast: Ryan Holiday on Eliminating Fear From Your Life [PODCAST], hosted by Jay Shetty