So the other day I got a little feedback on my blog from a close friend who said, “Gee Tim (this is how they talk), your blog is a little dour”, and if that wasn’t enough he felt compelled to add, “And you seem to feel sorry for yourself a lot” (these were my good qualities). This got me thinking and motivated me to put a few things into perspective (or what we humans like to refer to as “rationalization”).
We now know that we are born with a “happiness set point” and research indicates that our mood will not change much over the course of our lifetime. Life’s wins and losses will toss your moods around like the S.S. Minnow on a three hour tour but overall, we humans tend to settle back into that same happiness set point.
What this means is that some of us are born with a sunny disposition that fixates on the positive and makes lemonade out of bankruptcy and jury duty while others will sink slowly into despair weeks after hitting the lottery. Furthermore, there’s not much we can do about changing our happiness set point short of medication or a frontal lobotomy.
It is no secret that my happiness set point hovers just above “What’s the point?” and consequently, my overall mood tends to guide my attention to the darker shadows of life. But I believe that any fixed mood brings with it a set of advantages and challenges. Fat, drunk and stupid is clearly no way to go through life but regardless of your mood one must learn to recognize and manage your mood or else you may find yourself meandering down a dead end road wondering how you got there.
One of those dead end roads is the societal belief that life is always about being a winner. Our society is fixated on the image of success and “feeling good” and this relentless pursuit of achievement has got us all pretending to be someone we are not. This can cause problems. The belief that everyone out there is living the dream only further isolates us as people and traps us into believing our failures are indications that we alone are somehow defective. Furthermore, this can cause us to bury feelings of shame and failure because we view them as defective emotions. This buried baggage piles up and before you can say “middle –age” we can find ourselves diverting a good deal of our physic energy to keeping those demons at bay.
Let me share a story that can perhaps illustrate this for you. A few weeks ago I was asked to give a motivational talk to a group of unemployed professionals. This was a group of people just like me and you only by fate, bad luck or poor choices they suddenly found themselves unemployed during one of the worst job markets in history while simultaneously living in a part of the country where affordable housing means houses priced at $300,000.
I got to the gig early and mingled with the audience for about 45 minutes and their stories were heart breaking. Some were 50 and 60 years old with kids in college while others had been canned after more than 25 years on the job. Many believed their prospects looked grim and most carried with them a sense of shame and embarrassment.
At 9 AM the talk began and the host stepped up and introduced me. I took the stage and for reasons still unclear to me, I decided to scrap my original talk and began speaking about failure to the audience. Fifteen minutes into the talk I had them laughing and feeling better and I knew I was connecting with them.
I have many issue of my own and am far from perfect but one thing I do very well is speak. I knew, as the talk progressed, that I was appearing to the audience to be a man of great talent and accomplishment. It was at this moment of my presentation, when I was feeling the love and admiration of the crowd that I decided to do something I had never done before. Having built myself up in their eyes as an expert in my field and a man of considerable talent and success I disclosed the following.
“I want you all to know that I am the king of failure. I am 48 years old and the only picture of me in my high school year book is me sitting in detention. I flunked out of college earning a 0.0 GPA my last semester. I have been fired more times than George Constanza and was dumped by my wife on 3 separate occasion while stalking…errrr…I mean dating her. And now I want to share something I have never shared before with anyone except with my closest family members. In 2010 I filed for bankruptcy.”
I went on to explain the risks of owning your own business and being bad at math while running headlong into an economy that imploded in 2008. I then conclude the story with the following:
“I felt so ashamed of myself. I felt like such a failure and didn’t want anyone to know. I was certain that I was the biggest fool and failure walking the planet. And it was these same feelings that caused me to sit in my basement playing Barbara Streisand records instead of doing what I needed to do to get back out there. Eventually, life forced me get moving again because in the end I had no choice. And here is what I learned from all that. Don’t waste time beating yourself up. I assure each and every one of you here today that you are no different than anybody else out there, rich or poor, successful or homeless and you have no idea of the strength you possess inside yourself.”
As I was saying these words I could feel the emotion in the room. It was pouring off people. Heads were nodding, people were getting misty eyed (ok, some were asleep) and the room felt, for those few precious minutes, as if we were all in this crazy game of life together.
After the talk an amazing thing happened; people starting coming up to me and sharing stories of their failures. Like Catholics in confession they unburdened their perceived sins to me. (note to Catholics – I don’t believe in sin)They approached me, thanked me and said things like:
“That happened to me last year”
“I lost my house and business”
‘I went through a bad divorce”
“I like to wear women’s’ underwear” …ok, maybe this last one didn’t happen.
I don’t know what compelled me to bare my soul like that in front of those people. I frequently don’t know why I do these things. But the effect was transformative for the audience. It took their private failures and dragged those bad feelings into the light of day where they could be acknowledged, discussed and consciously processed. You must feel it to heal it folks.
Talking about my failures created the space for people to look at their own failures differently. It allowed the audience to shift their perspective from “I am a failure” to “Shit happens.” It had a cathartic effect for them (and me) allowing them to release their feelings of shame and worthlessness that had been buried alive and dragging them down. It drove home the point that we are all the same. We all win and lose, laugh and cry, live and die.
It was an awesome moment and one that I will not soon forget. This blog, from the very beginning, has always been a vehicle for me to tell the truth about life as I see it. I do consider myself to be challenged mentally and emotionally by this world often times, more than I wish. However, I believe I am not alone and I assume we all harbor secret thoughts of our own inadequacies. It is my hope that my honesty and humor and sometimes depressive view on life can offer, in its own zany way, comfort and hope for others and help ease their burden.
As I always say to all my clients, I get a lot of ideas, some will be really good and others you should never attempt. Take what works and ignore the rest.