Great experiences don’t always feel great

Yes Changes Everything!January 15, 2009

Shortly after takeoff, US Airways Flight 1549 loses power in both engines. In what aviators call a “bird strike,” a flock of geese flying straight into the plane’s propellers has disabled them instantly.

In the cockpit, Captain Sully Sullenberger quickly realizes it would be impossible to reach any airport, meaning a crash landing is his only option. Drawing on 42 years of aviation experience, he steers the plane — a giant jetliner called and Airbus — into the Hudson River, gliding to a safe landing that spares the lives of 155 passengers and crew members.

Afterward, Sully remembered the moment when it felt like all was lost, how having “zero thrust coming out of those engines was shocking — the silence.”

More recently, Sully said about that day: “For 42 years, I’d been making small, regular deposits in a bank account of experience, education, and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

“I realized,” he said, “that everything in my life up until then had prepared me for that moment.”

And he meant everything: his family, schooling, experience as a glider pilot and instructor, military service, civil service…everything.

A big waste of time?

I spent years as a communications consultant to large corporations, supporting my kids and my employees.

That whole time, the idea for Blossie’s Books was alive and kicking in every cell of my body. But no matter how I felt, I had to keep being the “corporate tiger.” Too many people were depending on me. No way I could stop consulting to write books.

Beautiful someone, until I listened to that interview with Sully, honestly, I’d often slip into regret (maybe even a little self-pity 😊) for the years I spent serving the corporate world.

Maybe it was all a big waste of time?

We can all do this — spend time regretting our past, something I can relate to not only on a work level, but on a personal level too, having lived through the enormous pain of infidelity and divorce.

But what Sully said kind of makes that impossible…

“I realized that everything in my life up until then had prepared me for that moment.”

Nothing is wasted

Most of us will never experience a moment like Flight 1549, but there’s a bigger message here: the idea that for any given moment, our past, our experiences (good and bad), our histories and skills, have prepared us.

Nothing is ever wasted.

So now I can look at my past through a new lens:

My corporate experience (as unhappy as it was) gave me insights into the pressures employees are under so I can write books about good ways to handle those pressures.

Years as a consultant enabled me to understand the pressures of entrepreneurship and the challenges of being a good manager. They made me a better communicator — or at least one who tries harder!

Infidelity and living through a painful divorce gave me a level of empathy for people going through the agony of rejection. (It also made me fiercely loyal in my relationships because I know what betrayal feels like.)

Good questions

Looking through this new lens, we can all make a list like this. Some questions to help:

  • “What were some of the tough experiences from my past?”
  • “How have these experiences made me a stronger person? How have they made me smarter?”
  • “Who do I have more empathy for because of these experiences?”

In the end, beautiful someone, I’ve realized, my heart to yours: Not every great experience feels great while it’s happening to us. But they’re all important to becoming who we’re meant to be.

“The infinite capacity of hope”

Hi Beautiful Someone,

Sorry for the long post, but I really wanted to share this excerpt from my new book, Yes Changes Everything! Please enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Yes Changes Everything!

What do you know about Helen Keller? Probably that she was blind and deaf and lived a long and influential life. Me too. But it was only after coming across one of my favorite Helen Keller quotes on optimism that I started to look closer at her life and realize how truly remarkable she was.

Helen Keller was born a healthy baby in 1880 on a farm near Tuscumbia, Alabama. At six months, she began to talk and at 12 months to walk. Before age 2, however, an illness — later they would speculate scarlet fever or meningitis — had taken Helen’s ability to see and hear. She would live in darkness and silence for the rest of her life.

“She knows! She knows!”

Helen grew up in a loving home, but her family didn’t know how best to take care of her, so they let her run free and be wild.

As she grew, her inability to see or hear must have become very frustrating. And the wild and unusual behavior that was cute and acceptable in a baby and a toddler was totally unmanageable in an older child. By age six, she was prone to screaming, tantrums, and rages. People began to say that institutionalizing her was the only solution. But Helen’s parents were determined to do all they could and find options for her.

Eventually, they found the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. It was there, through Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that one, inventor of the telephone), that they were put in touch with the woman who became one of the most dedicated teachers of all time: Annie Sullivan.

Annie worked tirelessly with Helen to enable her to make connections between objects she could feel and letters of the alphabet that Annie would draw into the palm of her hand.

The Miracle Worker

If you’ve seen the movie The Miracle Worker, you’ll remember the scene at the water pump where Annie holds a seven-year-old Helen’s hand under the spray, yelling, “It has a name!” and spells W-A-T-E-R into the little girl’s hand. This is the moment when, slowly and with great difficulty, Helen says, “wa-wa.”

Everything happens then in the space of a few minutes as Helen runs from the pump to the ground to the trees to the porch steps and demands to have them spelled into her hand. “Mrs. Keller! Mrs. Keller!” Annie screams, “She knows! She knows!” By the end of that day, in the fashion of hand-spelling, Helen had learned more than 30 words.

The infinite capacity of hope

From that moment, Helen Keller’s world opened. She attended the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, then the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. She worked for decades to learn how to read Braille as well as how to communicate through touch-lip reading, typing, and finger-spelling. She was a formidable opponent as a chess player. She attended Radcliffe College where she proved to be a brilliant and extremely hard-working student, graduating with honors in 1904 and becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor’s degree.

Helen Keller became an author, completing her first book, The Story of My Life, in 1905. Others would follow, including The World I Live In, Out of the Dark, The Song of the Stone Wall, The Open Door, and Optimism. Helen had a heart for activism, voicing her views on social and political issues such as women’s suffrage, pacifism, labor rights, and anti-militarism.

She worked tirelessly on behalf of people living with disabilities, traveling around the world and even testifying before Congress about the needs of the blind. In 1920, she helped found the powerful and influential American Civil Liberties Union. She received honorary doctoral degrees from five renowned universities around the world, and in 1963 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The secret of the stars

I love the story of Helen Keller’s life and her amazing breakthroughs and contributions. Even more amazing: late in her life, she lamented in an interview that one of her only regrets was that she had not been able to learn to speak properly — her speech was halting and incoherent because she had heard so little of the spoken word before her illness. If she had learned to speak clearly, she said, she could have helped more people. “How much more good could I have done if I had acquired normal speech?” she said through her teacher. “But out of this sorrowful experience, I understand more fully all human strivings, thwarted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope.” What a poignant example of transforming incredible hardship into lasting good!

All this is a backdrop for one of my all-time favorite quotes about optimism that sparked such an interest in the story of Helen Keller from none other than Helen herself:

“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”

Our own four-minute mile

Yes Changes Everything!For decades, running the mile in less than four minutes was considered impossible, beyond the physical capacity of the human body. Then one day in 1954 on the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England, something incredible happened: in front of 3,000 spectators, a 25-year-old medical student named Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

More amazing than the achievement itself was what happened afterward. Though forever, runners had tried without success to break the four-minute mile, within a few weeks, the record was broken again. In a few years, the mile had been run in less than four minutes hundreds of times. Today, the record stands at just over 3 minutes and 43 seconds.

He said yes

Years later, Roger Bannister remembered almost changing his mind about the run that day as the winds were strong and unpredictable. Finally though, about 20 minutes before the start, he said yes, and made history. Everyone else shook their heads, but he nodded at an inconceivable goal and rose to an impossible occasion.

In doing so, he changed the impossible to the possible. And not just by baking a better cake! Imagine: he’d unbounded the physical limits of the human body. And without knowing it, he’d also ushered in the beginning of a new era in sports. Because today, athletes don’t see records as limits. They see them as challenges.

This is clear as we watch world-class athletes perform: as each year passes they just take our breath away, whether it’s Simone Biles in gymnastics or Michael Phelps in swimming, what they are able to achieve would’ve been unimaginable a generation ago. Roger Bannister set this mentality in motion by saying yes to a race on a windy day more than 50 years ago.

What must it have been like to learn he had achieved this feat?

I think we know. Yeah, we do. Think about a challenge you rose to, something you tried that you never had before. That time you raised a sweaty hand. Said okay in a shaky voice. Logged in and registered for something with butterflies banging around in your stomach. Signed up for that course in a subject you knew nothing about. Said, “I’m going to try,” when everyone else said, “Why bother? It’s impossible,” or “You? You’ve never done that!”

We’ve all risked yes in the past, otherwise we’d all still be where we were ten years ago. We reached further than what we could see from our own window (or job or friend group or relationship or experience or routines), even when we knew it was a stretch, and we surprised ourselves, not always in huge dramatic ways, but we did surprise ourselves.

Challenge, change, and learning

Challenge, change, and learning all go together (usually in that order!) for a reason. So we rose to an occasion and found out something. We learned what works, what doesn’t, who we can count on, who we can’t. What we’re capable of, what was too much of a stretch at the time…in other words, something worthwhile, no matter what the actual outcome was.

And the good didn’t end there, because what Roger Bannister did broke through not a physical barrier as much a mental one. His achievement, and more to the point what it set in motion, says a lot about mental barriers that become physical ones in our minds, which can become as solid as a brick wall blocking our way forward. It also speaks to just how powerful we are, what we can accomplish in ways that can absolutely amaze everyone, including ourselves.

And it starts with yes:

  • “Yes, I’ll try.”
  • “Yes, I can.”
  • “Yes, there’s hope.”
  • “Yes, it’s possible.”
  • “Yes, I’d like to see.”

Experiences that challenge us change us

I always feel sorry for lottery winners or people who have inherited great wealth — I really do — because without the financial and professional challenges and yes, struggles of life, they are more prone to depression. They feel weak because their spiritual and intellectual muscles aren’t facing the resistance they need to get strong. They’re often scared and maybe defensive because their guts aren’t being tested, and they don’t have confidence in how they’d react if they were. They haven’t had the joy of seeing themselves rise to new challenges.

It’s just impossible to underestimate the incredible importance of meaningful work and life challenges and experiences.

We don’t want everything handed to us

Think of the stories of young performers or movie stars who’ve made tons of money before they’re even 25 years old and therefore “don’t have to work a day in their lives”: too many of them fall into deep depression and even self-destructive habits. There’s a reason for this, and I don’t think that we need to have a lot of psychological science or case studies to know what it is. As humans, we crave challenge. It makes us feel alive and strong and capable and confident. Without it, our souls and self-esteem truly suffer.

We actually, in truth, in our hearts don’t want to have everything handed to us. It doesn’t make us feel valuable or strong or capable or confident. It can even be crippling. We need to prove to ourselves how strong we are, what were made of. How powerful, able to run back into the metaphorical flames and phoenix out of them again and again.

This has to be one of the reasons that when we face tough times in our lives, so many of us say the same thing: “At least I got to go to work,” and “I feel so much better when I’m at work. It lets me focus on something other than what I’m going through,” and “I don’t know what I would do without my job/profession/kids/business to focus on.”

We need enterprise; we need work. It makes us strong. It gives us resilience.

Tough experience is a gift

This is why challenging experiences, growth and confidence all go hand-in-hand. It’s why I tell my kids that not every experience that’s good for us feels good when it’s happening. Not liking camp, being embarrassed when they lose a game, the first day of…anything, being corrected by a coach or teacher…all these and more are making them stronger, more resilient, and smarter, in ways that positive experiences just can’t. Tough experiences are a life-long gift because we remember them long afterward. Whether that helps us not repeat a mistake, stay away from certain types of people, turn down job offers that aren’t right for us, or anything else we learned about “the hard way.”

When we embrace this, we can say yes to tough experiences and bumpy roads and tough climbs that we know will activate our minds and muscles. These challenges make us excited to get up in the morning and face the day, with energy flowing through us, electrifying every corner of our bodies. We feel focused and alive, resourceful and creative.

Oh yes we do.