Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. ― Sigmund Freud
We have been cultured to have a pioneer spirit, to believe we can accomplish anything if we throw it on our backs and put in the work. While this is responsible for much of our strength and innovation, translating that into not needing anyone else, dangerously leads to thinking of people as pawns, obstacles or even currency to accomplish our goals. The reality is unless we are in the forest foraging for food and making our own clothing and shelter, we are reliant upon hundreds or even thousands of people just to meet our basic needs.
Stepping back from this, we need other people:
- we need funding for an idea
- customers to buy a product
- Billy in the next cubicle to do his job, so we can do ours
- our boss to give us a raise
- our parent or child to say they are proud of us
- our partner/spouse/lover to hold us close
- a doctor to tell us that we are going to recover
These are not critical needs — food, shelter, water — but depending on the underlying circumstances and emotional states, they may feel as vital as a glass of water in the desert.
Being independent creates the feeling of being in control and when we need someone else, we are vulnerable. Asking for what we need may be one of the most difficult things to do in our culture. Yet, even the pioneers crossing our country needed one another—on the trail, at the outpost, to look out for each other.
Over the last four years I have been unwittingly enrolled in a PhD-level training on needing others—initially as I withered away in dramatic fashion from unknown causes, and later as I have ridden the relentless waves of recovery, relapse and living with chronic illness. As it turns out, we have very little control, even over our own bodies, and when that goes south we need people in ways you can’t even imagine.
I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in late 2012 after losing 90 pounds in 90 days. The next year would be a roller coaster fueled by incredibly high doses of prednisone, largely ineffective medications and even less effective specialist care. A cascade of escalating complications and the discovery of a 5 inch cavity polluting my body led to a temporary disconnection of my colon. The next year would find me moving to California in search of smarter doctors and better care, struggling to stay out of the ER and wound clinics. My temporary ostomy had become a steadily degrading fixture complicated by a continually confounding disease state, leading to a monthly chemo infusion to try to keep the inflammation under control.
My reliance on other people ranges from the very practical—no longer being a breadwinner, needing medical intervention and care and a new reliance on ostomy suppliers; to the more existential,
“What am I, if not a providing partner and father?”
“Will I ever be myself again?”
“Who is this new, myself?”
to the future,
“Will I ever be whole again?”
“What will life look like after?”
“Will I still be loved?”
“If I am remaking myself, who do I want to be?”
Being in limbo for nearly three years and being told that I will be evaluated in 3 months, 12 times, has given me a unique—and well thought through—perspective on expectations (the root of most suffering) and disappointment (a result of having expectations).
Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape. ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
As much as I would love to give you what you need — funding, customers, more passion in your life — I can not. And it is likely if I were able to, it wouldn’t actually be what you needed anyway. I can give you support, guidance (often disguised as strange allegories) and an unwavering cheering section for your growth and success. Here is a start,
What to do when you don’t get what you want (or think you need)
I have written before about fortitude, it is the true virtue of the successful entrepreneur (or human). If you set out to realize your goal as a quest, a destined path, the most important thing is to never give up, never quit. This does not imply rigidity, you also must also be able to hold your ideas loosely and identify opportunities as circumstances evolve in front of you.
Resilience is having the courage to grow from stress. — Kelly McGonigal
To complicate the landscape the last couple of decades has given us billionaires out of college dorms, The Secret and YouTube. They would have us believe that our dreams can come true if we believe in them enough, stay positive and maybe film our goofy daily shenanigans.
What you are thinking, you are becoming. — Muhammed Ali
While I agree with the Champ, there are a couple of things we overlook like, an examination of what our dreams really are (careful what you wish for) and achievement (something brought about by effort, skill, and courage). Achieving something requires more from us than a belief or mindset, it requires you to take action.
If you don’t receive what you are after you need to take a hard look—do you still believe you need it? Is getting it essential to what you want from your life? If the answer is no, you need to search for what is. Try to find your way back to the feeling of the quest. This is not failure—more often, not receiving is actually the gift of polishing the lens on what it is we truly want and need.
If your quest still feels true and righteous, you need to assess: Is it in your sphere of influence or not?
In your sphere of influence
You need some introspection as well as a feedback component — you have to know at least some portion of “why?” things didn’t go your way. It may seem obvious: a totally botched presentation, didn’t have the right materials, pursued the wrong goal, said something snarky to your partner; or you may be making a bunch of assumptions based on bad programming and negative self talk.
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. In fact, delight in it, you are going to put it to use.
Good feedback will come from asking direct questions intended to uncover where the expectations didn’t match up with what you presented, and if there are different perspectives, angles, or areas of improvement or research that would benefit you the next time around. This works for business meetings, interviews, pretty much any time interactions are not lining up the way you want. The person on the other end already said “no”, being inquisitive and showing them that you are eager to improve may even soften things up.
Whatever you learn, the next step is to analyze, research and then engage with the process of getting better. When you feel ready get back out there, you may find you can go back to the people who gave you the feedback*, or research new resources.
*Humility and gratitude creates opportunity, hubris and defensiveness closes doors.
Out of your sphere of influence
This is the tough one—if you have done everything to prepare and execute and you still don’t get what you what want, your path will require more from you than just asking for feedback. You are likely to feel terrible, even though you should feel proud that you left it all on the table. Either way, you have to be able to step back and detach from the idea of what you thought you needed, dig deep into your well of hustle and figure out what you can do—given the resources and information you have—to move forward.
Start with an assessment of the bigger picture, has it been simplified down to its essence? What is the purest expression of your goal look like?
Take a single step towards that vision. It could be as simple as a conversation, writing 100 words, drawing a picture, doing one pushup. Do it. And then do the next step, even if it is doing it again.
In 2014 I began a deep dive exploration of what was happening to me — microbiome mapping, genetic and metabolic testing, pouring over hundreds of research studies on inflammation, methylation, cellular and metabolic function. From this research I began creating N of 1 treatments based on my findings, tracking as much data as I could afford or convince my doctor to order.
Six months ago I felt like I coldn’t take another 3 month trip on the limbo-go-round. I made one simple decision that would change my life — I looked around at what I could do that would make me feel strong and healthy and I signed up to ride the Gran Fondo at the Sea Otter Classic without even owning a bike.
What I’ve learned since then fills libraries in my mind, but what really matters is: for the first time in four years I started to begin to feel alive again.
But it wasn’t enough, new complications were discovered and the consensus was that I was likely to need permanent surgery.
I can certainly influence my health, but the way forward is in someone else’s hands and part of biological processes that are too complex to truly understand. It would have been easy to go home and do nothing or give up and just accept the recommendation, but instead I decided I wanted to learn even more, dig deeper, create new experiments, ride farther.
Last week I had several procedures that confirmed that my situation has, in fact, improved dramatically—a glimmer of hope as I wait for an evaluation with the surgeon next month. At this point everyone, my fiancé, my father, my gastro and my surgeon have all told me that I’ve done more than enough, more than most, maybe even more than was imaginable six months ago. But “enough” has a particular outcome in my mind.
We are often trying to play the game we want to be in, or the one we wish we could escape from, but the reality is there is only one hand in play right now. Examine it, play to its strengths, use it to set up the next round.
What do you need to acheive your dreams?
What have you not gotten?
What can you do from where you are now to move even one step closer?
Get in touch with me: josh at gotostepone dot com