I wanted to start out by introducing you to somebody, and I’ll tell you who he is at the end of this, but I want you to guess. At the age of nine his mother died. At the age of 22 his first business failed. The age of 23 he ran for state legislator and lost. The age of 23 he also lost his job, and he was denied entry into law school. At the age of 24 he borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business, and by the end of the year he went bankrupt, and spent the next 17 years of his life paying back that debt. At age 25 he ran for state legislature and finally won. At age 26 he was engaged to be married when his fiancé died. At age 27 he had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months. Between the ages of 29 and 34 he lost three more electoral bids. Age 37, he ran for Congress for a second time and won. He finally went to Washington and he did a great job while he was there, but when he ran for reelection two years later, he lost. At age 40 he sought the job of land officer in his home state, and he was rejected. At age 54 he ran for Senate of the United States and lost. At age 47 he sought the vice presidential nomination at the party national convention, and got less than 100 votes. At age 49 he ran for the Senate and lost again. And, at age 51 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.
So, I think that’s a pretty powerful story if you think about all of those failures, and all of those setbacks, and the fact that somebody who’s one of the most impactful historical figures in the history of our country has a laundry list of epic, heartbreaking failures again, and again, and again. The death of a loved one, the failure of his business, personal bankruptcy, crushing defeats in election after election after election, and yet this guy picked himself up again, and again, and again, and became the President of the United States, but not only that, he became one of the most respected; one of the most high-impact people in the history of our country.
I tell you the story of Abe Lincoln because I think that too many people, and honestly I feel like in many ways the portrayal of success in popular media is part of the problem that continues to make this worse, but I feel like too many people think that success and accomplishment are sort of effortless and easy, and that the people who really achieve huge impactful things never have any setbacks, and never have any challenges. I think that that victim-esque mindset of, you know, “Oh, why can’t I be successful? What- how come every time I try something I fail and it doesn’t work?” I think that mindset is incredibly damaging and poisonous and dangerous, and that is part of the problem about why people don’t know how to handle setbacks. So, I’m gonna go back to the question I pose at the very start of the podcast: What do a Roman emperor and an NBA superstar have in common? I’m gonna tell you the story of Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor. He was widely considered one of the best, most successful, Roman emperors of all time. He was also depicted in the movie Gladiator. He was the guy who, unfortunately, gets killed right at the beginning of the movie, but in real life Marcus Aurelius was incredibly well respected. He governed over, you know, one of the largest empires of… of all time, and he had a personal, sort of, diary journal, whatever you wanna call it, where he would write to himself, and he never knew that anybody would ever see this journal. It was a journal he kept for himself, and he kind of wrote his thoughts about setbacks and challenges, and what was going on in his life, and how he should approach the operating system of life. Marcus Aurelius was a stoic. Now, the modern day perception of stoicism is a little bit skewed, and what people think when they hear “stoic” or “stoicism”; they have a lot of associations with that that aren’t necessarily accurate when you think about the description, or really the methodology, of sort of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of stoicism. There’s an incredible book about stoicism written by a modern-day author, Ryan Holiday, called The Obstacle is the Way. If you’re interested in really actually learning about and understanding stoicism I highly recommend checking out The Obstacle is the Way. It breaks down and kind of delves into, really, the core tenants of stoicism.
Another book that’s an incredible read is actually the journal that I was just mentioning that Marcus Aurelius wrote, is the book Meditations. Meditations is a personal journal by Marcus Aurelius where he talks about how he applied the philosophy of stoicism to dealing with the challenges of governing one of the greatest empires of all time.
I asked you before: What do a Roman emperor and a Buddhist have in common? Well, you’d be surprised to learn that stoicism has many philosophical characteristics that are remarkably similar to modern day Buddhism, and I wanted to share with you a quote by Marcus Aurelius, from the book Meditations, that kind of encapsulates the idea of how stoics deal with setbacks and challenges: “Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions and dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes, the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way,” and I think it’s incredibly powerful that this wisdom, from somebody 2,000 years ago, is still so pertinent and so relevant to understanding today, and living our lives today, and trying to achieve things and to be successful in modern day society. It’s really interesting, 2,000 years later a guy named Michael Jordan said something very similar: “If you’re trying to achieve there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them, everybody’s had them, but obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” It’s pretty fascinating that both Marcus Aurelius and Michael Jordan are sharing this lesson with us, right? But, the reality is this is a timeless lesson. It’s not something that’s going to change. This isn’t the latest productivity fad. This is something that is sort of a kernel truth of human experience, and human existence. This is how to really, at a fundamentally deep level, understand and cope and deal with setbacks, which is an incredibly important skill. No matter what you’re trying to achieve, no matter what goal you want to get, you have to be able to cope, and deal, and overturn setbacks.
There are three phases that people go through in their evolution of how they deal with setbacks. Phase one is giving up, and this ties in many ways into the concept of the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset, which is an incredibly powerful framework for thinking about your life, that was pioneered by the psychologist, Carol Dweck, and I’ll go into that in much more detail in a later episode, but in the framework of giving up so many people- we talked about this at the top when we were talking about Abe Lincoln- but so many people, when they encounter some sort of challenge, or hurdle, or roadblock, or whatever it might be, they just throw their hands up and they say, “Well, it didn’t work out,” you know, “Uh, that wasn’t for me. I’m not meant to do X. I’m not supposed to do Y,” right? People just give up, and honestly I know that’s true because probably the first… you know, twenty-odd years of my life, that was how I lived my life. When I encountered some sort of challenge, when something didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, I would just throw up my hands and I would go do something else. That’s a terrible way to live your life. If you’re trying to achieve something, if you’re trying to build a business, if you’re trying to build a team, if you’re trying to solve some of the world’s problems; whatever it is that’s important to you, whatever you’re focused on, giving up is absolutely not the right approach to dealing with setbacks on that path.
The second phase that people go through is the phase of anger and frustration. Anger and frustration fundamentally stems from a refusal to accept reality as it is rather than as you want it to be. That’s also another topic that I’m gonna go much deeper on in a future episode. That’s something that’s incredibly powerful, and actually rooted in many ways, both in stoicism and in ancient Buddhist philosophy, which is amazing to see sort of two completely different thought doctrines that have such similar core penance, but this is also a really disempowering way to think about setbacks, and this was probably the next third of my life I spent focused on. Every time I would hit a setback I would immediately get frustrated, I would immediately get angry, and I would immediately sort of refuse to accept reality as it was, rather than as I wanted it to be, and that takes a form of many thought constructs such as saying things like, “Why is this happening to me? This isn’t fair. I shouldn’t have to deal with this. This is ridiculous.” All of these phrases, and all of these thought patterns. These are incredibly destructive thought patterns to have, but the reality is, not only is it really just not fun, and it sucks having to be really angry and frustrated, but when people are going down a path, when they’re trying to achieve their goal and they hit this roadblock of anger and frustration; one, that takes up a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy dealing with it, and the second thing is a good chunk of the time that results back in bucket number one, which is just giving up.
Now, occasionally you’ll kind of work through this anger and frustration, and eventually get to a place of accepting the situation as it is, and you’ll actually move forward. The challenge there is that it takes a lot of time and energy to work through all that stuff, and you might of lost weeks or months of time in that process, but the even more dangerous thing is that now you’re back on the path and you’ll hit another setback, and then you have to go through the entire cycle again of anger and frustration and potentially giving up, and all of these other challenges, but ultimately truly successful people, and this the place that Marcus Aurelius and Michael Jordan are both coming from when they talk about dealing with setbacks, is sort of the third phase of this evolution, which is the acceptance of the inevitability of setbacks. This is whenever you go down a path, you know from the very beginning not only will there be setbacks, but you are prepared for them mentally, and you are not going to get upset, you’re not going to get angry, and you’re going to kind of accept them as soon as they present themselves. Figure out a way to work through them and overcome them. This is an incredibly powerful shift in the way that you perceive obstacles because now when you go down a path, and you set out at the very beginning and you say, “I know that I’m gonna have setbacks. I know that I’m gonna have obstacles. I know there’s gonna be challenges. I’m not gonna get frustrated. I’m not gonna get angry, and most importantly I’m not gonna give up.” It’s a much more powerful place to be in when you’re not fighting the world; you’re not fighting reality, right? You’re flowing like water around any obstacle and you’re getting to where you want to be. There may be even a level beyond that that I’m not aware of yet, but that’s kind of, to me, sort of the third iteration of how people deal with setbacks, and how they ultimately reach this sort of Buddhist slash stoic acceptance of the fact that no matter what path you set out on, you will be beset with setbacks, and you have to be ready and willing to accept that. Accept those setbacks and figure out a way, without frustration and anger, to move beyond them and to achieve whatever results you ultimately want to achieve.
There’s a couple different stories that sort of highlight the acceptance of inevitability of setbacks and how to use those to your advantage. One of them is a story; we talked about him in the last podcast, Josh Waitzkin. I’m a huge fan of his, and again, I highly recommend checking out his book, The Art of Learning. For those of you who didn’t hear episode two, he is an eight-time national chess champion, and a two-time world champion tai chi push hands fighter, as well as preeminent expert in Brazilian jujitsu.
There’s actually a story where Josh was competing in the U.S. national championship for tai chi push hands, and seven weeks before the national championship competition he broke his right arm in another tournament. Now, for most competitors breaking your arm in a martial arts competition seven weeks before the national championship is pretty much game over. You’re not gonna be able to compete. You’re not gonna be able to recover from the injury in time, and you’re not gonna be able to train effectively after you’ve recovered from the injury to even have a chance at competing in the competition. This is where Josh flipped this obstacle on its head and completely transformed the way that he approached this. He writes in his book- I’ll share a brief excerpt with you: “When aiming for the top your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury, or a loss, better than when you went down.”
So, how did he do it? How did he deal with this obstacle, seven weeks before the national championship, that should have completely knocked him out of competing? He made the determination that he was going to train every single day leading up to the national championship without using his right arm at all. So, Josh trained for seven weeks, he got his cast off four days before the national championship competition, and had been training for seven weeks completely without the use of his right hand. He described it as almost so easy that it was like cheating to be able to compete in the national championship with full use of his right hand because he’d been training for the last seven weeks only using his left hand. He ended up going on to win that national championship competition. That’s an incredibly powerful way to think about dealing with a setback. Something that most people would take as a killing blow to your national championship bid. A broken arm weeks before the tournament he uses as a lever to propel himself into an even more incredibly powerful competitor, and becomes even better, becomes even stronger, and takes his game to a completely different level, and ends up winning the tournament as a result of an injury that would of knocked out almost anybody else that was competing. That’s a really, really powerful way to think about how a setback can actually be something that can empower you to become even better, even more successful, and to get where you want to go. He talks about, within The Art of Learning, he talks about a very similar process to the evolution that we talked about, or the three phases of dealing with setbacks, and he says he uses the lens of his chess career to describe how he learned to put his emotions in a place that they fueled peak performance. As I mentioned in the previous podcast, he actually quit chess for a number of years, and took a break from the game, because his mindset wasn’t right, and his mental angle wasn’t right on the game. He spent all of that time really cultivating, and learning, and understanding at a psychological level what was going on in his mind that was limiting his performance, and ultimately came away with an understanding of a three part framework for thinking about how to deal with setbacks, or dealing with tough emotions at the levels of peak- and we’re talking national world champion level competition.
The first was learning to roll with distractions. Learning to accept distractions. Learning to accept your emotions as what they are instead of fighting them. Sounds very similar to the stoic and Buddhist philosophies that we talked about earlier.
The second was learning to use your emotions to your advantage, and actually leveraging them as fuel to become an even better competitor, and to put you in a peak state that you would not have otherwise been in.
The third phase is learning to create and replicate that peak state in a way that you can do it at will, you can do it on demand. He tells another story about: He was in a different competition, and he was actually in the tournament. In the semifinal round he broke his hand. His competitor hit him so hard that it shattered his hand. He described the injury as almost jarring him into a place where time slowed down almost to a halt, and he said his competitors punches were coming at him as if they were clouds. You can actually go on YouTube and watch the footage of this fight, and in real time this guy’s pummeling him, you know, his fists are more like bullets than clouds, and he said that breaking his hand enabled him to see the match in a slow motion that was not attainable had he not had that shock to his system. He actually ended up winning that match despite breaking his hand in the middle of the fight, but later he kind of came around and learned and really started studying the idea of: “How do I put myself in a place where I can slow down time at will instead of having to have my hand be broken?” That’s sort of the art of mastering, and really learning and understanding how to first accept setbacks and then ultimately use them to your advantage. We’ll talk more about that process in a future podcast, and we’ll really drill down into some of this stuff.
I wanted to tell you one more quick story about Erwin Rommel and the Allied command in World War II, in the battle for North Africa. As you may know, Erwin Rommel was sort of a German commander who was notorious. His name was The Desert Fox, and he was feared, and he would destroy anybody that went to battle with him. Despite the fact that, to the outside observer, the British and American forces were hitting setback after setback, and were getting demolished by Rommel and The Desert Fox in the African theater, this was actually part of a broader plan, put together by Churchill and the Allies, to anticipate the fact that there would be setbacks, there would be a learning curve, in combatting the Germans, and really understanding the Germans, and their tactics and their strategies. So, what looks like one of the biggest challenges for the Allies in World War II, one of the biggest setbacks of the entire campaign, was actually something that they used as part of their process to become more powerful, to become better strategists, to achieve their goals of ultimately taking back Europe and defeating Hitler.
So, those are a couple of examples to really contextualize for you how you can take something that seems like a setback and use it to your advantage, and how you can take the knowledge that you will have setbacks and use that as a powerful tool to plan and to prepare yourself, and to ready yourself psychologically to deal with whatever may come.