Love for others can come when we strive to see the good in them. This can be particularly difficult when contention and dispute arise. Think for a moment about the stories our minds create, even without conscious effort. We create them for ourselves, and our adversaries in any conflict, small or large. In our story, typically, we view ourselves as the heroes. Those with views contrary to our own are the villains; we create a story about them that depicts them as liars, cheaters, and all around bad people. It’s a mental exercise; we don’t sit down and craft a detailed narrative of the story. Its purpose is simply to justify our emotional reactions to various interactions.
Think about it. The last time you passionately disagreed with someone, in your mind were you the “good guy” and they the “bad guy?” The stories we create about people can color our opinion of them for the rest of our lives. For this reason, it takes a conscious effort to actually change the story. The first step is simply asking yourself, “Is it possible that during times of contention, people may have motives just as noble as mine?”
I’m just as guilty of creating negative stories about people as anyone else. It seems to justify what I consider to be a righteous position, but it comes at a price. The simple, passive mental exercise of depicting them as villains causes me indignation and anger. It’s not just a mental exercise either; it comes with negative physical manifestations as well. My heart rate increases and my blood pressure goes up. For what? To prove that I’m right? For a long time, I didn’t know that there was a better way.
Concocting these stories is a way of protecting ourselves from a negative self-image. Unfortunately, it also stifles us; these stories aren’t created in the forefront of our critically thinking mind. They’re manufactured by the subconscious. That means that creating the stories is the easy way to justify our feelings as a result of a challenging interaction. The difficult, and infinitely more productive and mature alternative is to think deeply about it. In this way, our conscious mind can actually change the story.
The first step is to catch yourself when you create a negative story. Force yourself to think about people as individuals with valid opinions and families who love them. Stop making them the villains of your story and take personal ownership of your circumstances. In a nutshell, stop blaming them. In my personal journey, I have noticed that I don’t have to change my opinions; I just need to become accepting of the opinions of others.
It’s important to remember that as you become more open to the opinions of others, they might not be open to yours. That’s okay. Learn to accept this as you move on by recognizing that they are at a different point in their personal journey then you are. This is about our growth. For me, by simply looking at people differently, my capacity for love grows. I become less burdened with grudges. Forgiveness comes easier. I can move on.
This is a lesson that can be applied to your life in a simple way. I once read of an executive who, every time he entered a room came up with at least one positive thought about everyone there. Even if he didn’t know the person he created a positive story about them.[i] “She has a nice smile” or “he has a firm handshake” are two very simple yet positive stories you can tell yourself about people.
I’ve found this is something that works wonders when I’m driving. If someone cuts me off, I could yell and cuss, cursing them and everything they stand for (I’m ashamed to admit, that I still succumb to that type of reaction on occasion). Or, I could simply say, “That person must be in a hurry. I hope everything is okay.” Either way, I’m not going to change the fact that they cut me off. But, by changing the story I tell myself about them, I can effectively save myself a great deal of stress and unnecessarily elevated blood pressure.
[i] Sharma, Robin. Extraordinary Leadership. Narrated by Robin Sharma. Audible, 2008. Audiobook
If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution and reached a point where things just stopped, you’ve already experienced The Wall firsthand. The Wall is a form of resistance that often comes after we’ve made decent progress. Unfortunately, the end still seems so far away that we justify simply stopping. The Wall can be a good thing, though. It’s a very real form of resistance that, once overcome, builds confidence in our abilities and desire to take more action.
I’ve hit the wall more times than I can count. I’ve written books half way, given up on diet and workout routines, halted career opportunities, and stopped learning about interesting topics. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was resistance at work, that unseen sinister force that wanted me to give up. We’ve all been there. Here’s the good part: once you get a victory under your belt, you can see resistance for what it is: an evil force wanting you to be miserable. For me, the victory came when I published my first book. It wasn’t good but I did it and I learned a great deal in the process. Once I had that win, I knew I could do it again and do it with a higher degree of quality in the finished product. Getting the victory is critical, but identifying resistance is the first step.
Nobody is immune to The Wall, but putting victories under your belt does make it easier to overcome it the next time. I’ve experienced The Wall so many times in my life that I’ve learned to recognize it when it happens. And it happens often. Every time I write. Every creative endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. It happens with my physical fitness goals. It happens with my businesses. The Wall is everywhere. Now that you know what it is, you can probably look back and see countless times when you hit The Wall.
Randy Pausch said, in his incredibly moving “Last Lecture,”
"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people."[i]
Translation: The Wall is not for us. We press forward. We go over, through, or around, whatever it takes. The Wall is there to stop other people, not us.
[i] Carnegie Mellon University. “The Last Lecture.” YouTube. Pausch, Randy. December 20, 2007
An excerpt from The Way of the Harvest: 15 Lessons on Reaping a Life of Abundance
Paul Martinelli, president of the John Maxwell Team, has said, “You have to be willing to suspend the requirement of knowing how.”[i] Most people want to conduct a certain amount of preliminary work before actually engaging in an undertaking. For example, before writing a book, you might want to research the process, topic and opportunity. Now, those are all sensible purposes. But, the problem with this strategy is that each preliminary step takes time; days stretch into weeks, months and years. Before you know it, no material action has really been taken. We’ve successfully researched our way into accomplishing nothing. This is resistance.
Every worthwhile endeavor has its ups and downs. But there’s a more sinister force at play. Whenever you decide that you’d like to work towards an ambitious goal, there is a force that wants to stop you. Steven Pressfield called it “Resistance.”[ii] Resistance comes in the form of procrastination, excuses, fatigue and any number of other obstacles that prevent you from moving forward. Resistance opposes action. Taking action, by its very nature, is pushing through and conquering resistance.
Taking prompt action also does something to us mentally. It gives us a glimpse of what we’re capable of and shows us that we can do it. I had a science teacher in high school who used to say that “they’re just as biodegradable as me” when referring to someone’s ability to succeed or fail. The lesson was, if person A is capable of great things, then so are you! You have to know that you can do anything and then move forward with aggressiveness and confidence in pursuing your goals.
No great man or woman ever achieved anything without taking that first step. I promise you, they had self-doubt and fear of failure as well. Every U. S. president has felt like he was in over his head at some point. I would be willing to bet that most questioned running for the office on at least one occasion in their campaigning. Every famous actor, musician, politician, or public figure, no matter how infallible they seem, has felt inadequate and afraid. But taking that first bold step forward, and then the second and third, set them on the course for greatness. Remember, they’re just as biodegradable as you and me.
Having an action orientation has had perhaps a bigger impact in my life than any other idea or philosophy. It’s allowed me to experience failure and success in ways that have cultivated growth and prepared me to take on even more. When I left my job to start one of my companies I was scared silly. I felt like Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There was a moment in the film where he took a daring step from solid ground onto an invisible bridge over a seemingly bottomless chasm. Much like the character, I was terrified.
What happened to that business? It failed in a most epic way. But I did it; I know if I hadn’t taken that bold step that I would’ve regretted passing on the opportunity. More importantly than that, however, I gained massive amounts of experience and knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to gain. Those experiences led in large part to the concept and development of this book.
Yes, I’ve taken other bold steps that have resulted in success, and I’ve also said no to some opportunities. Indeed, intentionally choosing not to take a step is an action in and of itself. Action orientation does not mean jumping at every opportunity presented; some things just aren’t for you. But when there is an idea, opportunity or goal that is on your mind more often than it isn’t, that’s something that you must move toward. Take that step and do it now.
Incidentally, this way of thinking doesn’t just apply to working towards long term goals. Taking time to refresh and relax is critically important to high performers. For example, if you’re the type of person that loves to have something enjoyable to look forward to, a great deal of personal satisfaction can come simply from laying out a plan. If you like to travel, take some time thinking about places you want to go to and things you want to experience.
Taking action in this way might mean putting forth the effort to plan the trip and setting aside a few dollars per week to pay for it. This type of action solidifies the desire as a reality, not simply some distant event that feels out of reach. The point is that you need to create momentum toward the trip so that the gap between never doing it and actually getting off of the plane at your destination is bridged. Take a step right now.
[i] Martinelli, Paul. Spoken at the August 2016 John Maxwell Team International Certification seminar.
[ii] Pressfield. Do the Work.
Recently, I re-read Viktor Frankl’s famous book Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, Frankl details his time in concentration camps during the Second World War. Over a period of three years, he was subjected to extreme physical and emotional torment in four different camps. Torment that could have destroyed him. Yet, he came out with a world view that was different, and a perspective on life that was profoundly moving to me as I read. He thought deeply about the horrifying struggle that he and so many others went through and applied it to his own life and, through his writing imparted what he could to the lives of others. His time in the concentration camps was not an end. It was a means; a process that helped mold him into the man he was meant to be. For Frankl, the process was an important part of his growth.
To me, that book is a tremendous lesson on perspective. We all go through challenges but seldom do people go through a challenge of the same magnitude as Viktor Frankl. I know mine simply cannot be compared to the torment of a concentration camp. Yet, I sometimes complain and wish the weight of my trials could be lifted off of my shoulders. In doing so, I realize that having that weight lifted would not be for my benefit. The process of challenge is slowly molding me into an improved version of Sean. The same is true for you.
What is the Process?
It was trendy for some time in career and professional circles to describe oneself as “goal oriented.” I suspect that most people who used the term were attempting to find a sexier way of saying they were ambitious. It seemed for a while as if the word “ambition” somehow had a negative meaning attached to it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with ambition; the very definition suggests not only a desire for achievement, but a willingness to do the work to attain it. In the whole scheme of things, goals provide the target. Ambition provides the drive to hit that target. The journey between our present state and our goal is called the process.
I’ve found that people who expect that the act of reaching a goal will be a life altering, overnight metamorphosis are usually very disappointed. Life the day before a goal is achieved is much the same as life the day after. However, when changes are looked at in terms of the process we go through, often the transition is profound. It’s not going from zero to one million dollars overnight. Rather, it’s like building that fortune over a long period of time. The last dollar earned to reach one million doesn’t change our life; but the mundane, daily collection of one dollar after another adds up to magnificent change. True value is in the process.
It’s easy to see, that the process is where we spend most of our time. Reaching a goal is a singular point in time; it’s static. The day to day struggles and triumphs of life are lived out in the process. If we convince ourselves that we can only be happy upon the attainment of some distant goal, we’re in for a disappointing life indeed. If the majority of life is lived in the process, it stands to reason that finding joy in the process translates into a joyful life.
Where we grow
The process is where we learn and where we grow. It’s where relationships are made and talents are discovered, formed, and refined. The key is to allow yourself to become excited for those opportunities! Have you ever desperately wanted to learn everything you could about a topic? Have you been excited to read about it, study it, and develop skill in it? If not, now’s the time to find your passion! Passion is the great lubricant of the process; it eases the wear and tear that the daily grind of life can inflict on our spirits. What are you passionate about?
Take that passion and press through the challenges of life. It’s there that you’re molded into an improved version of yourself. It’s a process that we’re all meant to go through with challenges that are profoundly different from one individual’s life to another’s. The uniqueness of our challenges serves as a course perfectly tailored to address our weak spots and help us grow. The process is the purpose.
Every life is peppered with trials of one sort or another; challenge is simply a part of the process. Put in their proper context, those challenging experiences can be used for personal growth and development for ourselves and others. And, since every individual experiences different challenges, we’re all blessed with unique perspectives that can be a source of strength to many. I believe depression is one of many challenges that some people face. It may or may not be more difficult than other challenges. But, it does offer those who struggle with it a different perspective; one that can be used as a source of growth and development for us and those we influence. As Nassir Ghaemi puts it in his book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, “Their weakness is the secret of their strength.”
Depression comes in different forms, but there are a few universal benefits for the leader struggling with it.
Empathize with People
Depression can give us the ability to better empathize with people. Having been through the mental anguish that depression can bring, depressed leaders often have a better sense of the morale of the people they lead. They bring a more human touch to leading. Rather than focusing entirely on quantifiable measurements of success, these leaders tend to measure success based on the satisfaction and morale of their people rather than on overall organizational achievement. They often see long-term success in empowering and motivating people to build the organization rather than making top-down decisions that impact everyone. That is, they find it easier to seek and utilize input from the team in making a decision than other leaders often do.
Connect with People
Depression can give leaders the ability to connect with people through a very humanizing struggle. Of course, the leader must be at least somewhat open about her challenges in order to use them to connect with others. Candid conversations about personal struggle essentially put the leader at the same level as their followers; it humanizes them. Seeing their leader press through challenge can be inspiring and motivating to people, particularly when they can see that she is no different than they are. Leading by example after a real connection is made is by far the most effective means of having a long-term, positive impact on others.
Depression actually strengthens those struggling with it, if they allow it. I know it may sound absurd, particularly to somebody in the grips of major depression but it’s true. The key is to change your perspective on the topic. The oft-used weight lifting metaphor holds true here. The more stress we put on our muscles over time, the more growth we’ll experience. The more stress we put on our lives, the more mental growth we’ll experience. Mental growth is called “wisdom.”
Yes, depression can be a blessing for leaders and aspiring leaders. Though not something that anyone will seek out, like any challenge in life it can be used for our benefit. If it’s something that you presently struggle with, I encourage you to seek professional help to help you understand what’s happening and appreciate the value that you have. Your experiences are unique and can make you a better leader, but you’re not alone. I’d love to hear your thoughts. How has depression helped you grow?