We had our alumni get together a couple of weeks ago. The topic we discussed was, “How are you a different person than you were two years ago?” It was a great time to catch up with each other and hear what everybody was doing. Halfway through the conversation turned to the economy and the tough situation that so many businesses and people are facing these days. The conversation centered on the topic, “What do you do when life feels like two steps forward and three steps back?” How do you hold onto yourself? Below are some of the insights that emerged during our night together. The wording isn’t exact, but I tried to catch the spirit. I have followed this with my own blog and expanded thoughts on this topic.
· I have faith that I am loved by God no matter what I’m doing. My value ultimately isn’t based on a job, but that I’m loved by God.
· I admit my emotions and what I am feeling, no matter what they are, and I give myself permission to feel whatever it is.
· It helps to have a hobby or distraction where I can totally lose myself. It might be singing or training for my dog. Those are the moments that provide a break, a respite, balance.
· Being vulnerable and raw allows me to share more with others. I ask myself, “What can I do at this time in my life? Can I do pro bono work? Can I volunteer at a shelter?” I think about the opportunities I have and can seize right now.
· When you’re in-between jobs, you don’t have an agenda for my day unless you set one for yourself. So, I make sure I have created structure in my day. What are the goals that I want to set for myself today? I want to create my own sense of accomplishment. I reward myself for putting myself out there. I give myself credit – I am calling and meeting with people! I am thankful that I only have myself to take care of. I don’t have a family depending on me like other people do.
· It is not giving up control to others. Some people will be laid off at my workplace, but I won’t spend my time worrying about it. That gives the power to the situation, to the organization. I focus on what I can control. My What can I do to make a difference with the reduced resources that I have in my job? What can I do to develop myself?
· Misery loves company. Sometimes people who are down feel threatened by your courage to take risks. One comments, “Wow, this is a bad time for you to start a business.” People don’t always want to see you take risks. I focus on community not competition – I remind myself that everyone has their own path. I’m not in competition with the people around me. I trust God that we all will end up in the right place. My path is different than other people’s path. I’m not in competition with them.
· Ultimately, for me, it comes down to trust in God, trusting that He is watching out for me and in control.
Heaven knows we all have times when life feels like two steps forward, three steps back. Hopefully, they don’tcome very often.
You push, fight, struggle, persist. You try to do all the right things and, at the end of the day or week or year, realize that you are further from your goal than when you started. You are ready to launch a new program in the company and your VP “informs you” that three more committees need to review it before it can be launched. You read over the paper you are ready to turn in or the journal article you are ready to submit one final time just to make sure you caught everything. Halfway through, and ten changes later, you realize, if you are honest with yourself, that it needs to be completely reorganized and rewritten. Two steps forward, three steps back.
Lewis and Clark took over two years to complete their expedition. This was a trip filled with obstacles. One of the phrases that regularly recurs in Meriwether Lewis’ journal was, “and we proceeded on” usually after a time of great frustration when the rest of us would have written, “we realized how really crazy this whole trip was so we turned around and headed for home. God bless us one and all.” One of these moments occurred when the expedition reached the headwaters of the Missouri. Lewis climbed to the top of the mountain, expecting to see the Columbia start on the other side. Instead, they saw the Rocky Mountains stretching endlessly into the distance. There was no easy path. The historians John Logan Allen and Stephen Ambrose note what an incredible disappointment this must have been.[i] We can only guess what Lewis was thinking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, “Two steps forward, three steps back.”
But what if one of the things that ultimately separates the people who reach their goals from the ones who don’t is the tenacity to keep pushing forward, to persist through the times when it feels like no progress is being made. Maybe the refusal to give up is what makes the difference. Of course, that begs the next question: What allows people to persist when it feels like they are wasting their time and losing ground?
Being passionate about your work helps. Doing something that you love to do always makes it easier to get through the tougher times. But this can’t be the full story. There are areas in my life that are really important where passion alone doesn’t even begin to get me through. I submit a journal article. and it is rejected. All my passion deserts me as I read the rejection letter. Likewise, passion seldom helps me out when I’m in the middle of the journey. Writing my dissertation certainly felt that way. I had lost all passion several months earlier. And there I was sitting at my computer determined to finish it and having very little motivation to keep going. I spent at least one day sitting in front of the computer screen with a grand two paragraphs to show when the sun had finally set.
Salvatore Maddi and his colleagues have devoted several years studying the attitudes and behaviors that make people hardy and resilient. Three attitudes appear to be particularly important:[ii]
· Commitment – to be involved with people, things, and contexts rather than be detached, isolated, or alienated
· Control – struggling to have an influence on the outcomes going on around you rather than sinking into passivity and powerlessness
· Challenge – the desire to learn continually from your experience, whether positive or negative, rather than playing it safe by avoiding uncertainties and potential threats
Maddi’s research team has also identified five skills that are important in building hardiness. These include relaxation, nutrition, physical activity, social support, and coping (looking at your whole life from a broader perspective and understanding and not getting stuck in the moment, then using this to take action).
Another researcher, Carol Ryff, has identified six dimensions that are related to psychological well-being, providing strength and resilience in people’s lives. They are a sense of autonomy and control, a focus on personal growth, self-acceptance, a sense of purpose, mastery of some skills, and positive relatedness to others (being connected with other people).[iii]
So, based on this advice, if your life feels like two steps forward and three steps, consider the following.
Consider yourself a work in progress. We will all go through difficult times in our lives and this is one of those times for you. It’s probably not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last. Take a minute to reflect back on a tough earlier time in your life when it felt like two steps forward three steps back. Junior High might a good place to start or maybe when you were looking for your first job. Remember that person you used to be? You were probably a little naïve or foolish or overconfident, but well-intentioned. Chances are that you did the best with what you had. What got you through this time and other tough in your past? What helped you continue to move forward when it didn’t feel like you were making any progress? What made the difference? How were you a different person on the other side? Now, move forward in time. Chances are that you are currently just learning as you go. So, give yourself a break. Give yourself the same compassion that you are willing to give that awkward 12-year-old that you used to be. And remember that you will be a better person (and a wiser and hopefully more compassionate one) on the other side.
Let the refining fire do its work. The words of Thomas Paine 200 years ago might be a great summary of your life right now, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” People sometimes emerge from these kinds of experiences better off. Other people emerge unchanged or even worse off. There are no guarantees. So, who are you becoming in the midst of this experience? How do you see the world differently? How do you see other people differently?
Look for the possibilities that are present right now. Don’t let yourself get caught only focusing on the other side of this time (e.g., “how you will be a better person, blah, blah, blah). We can get so caught up in simply trying to wait out and endure the current situation that we miss how powerful these moments can be in our lives in and of themselves. What are the opportunities that are presenting themselves to you—right now?! For example, what are the volunteer activities you can do that are available to you today? Who are the people you can reach out to right now? You are much more likely to see frustration, hurt, and disappointment in others right now. Think about the opportunities you have to impact the people around you because you are in the middle of the struggle. People might be a little more likely to find comfort in your words because you are struggling too. Consider how much less impact the same words might have if you spoke them when everything was going well in your life.
Focus on what you can control. There’s so much in our lives that is outside of our control – the economy, what is happening in the organization where we work, and the people around us to name only a few. Focusing on what you can control doesn’t deny these realities. It is instead focusing your energy on the things where you effort might actually matter. It is asking yourself: in this situation, what battles are worth fighting? Which ones do I need to let go? How can U build small wins into my life so I feel a sense of accomplishment? Getting through the tough times means focusing on the next bend in the trail, getting through this next leg in the journey. Taking control means refusing to focus all of your attention on what other people are doing to you. That gives the power to the them and to the situation. Instead, focus on who you want to be in this situation. It is asking, “What can I do?” knowing it might not be much, but it sure beats feeling like a complete victim. The difference is subtle, but oh so important!
Find your support network. Who feeds you? Find the people in your life who can walk along side you. Maybe the reason that the Lewis and Clark expedition made it to the Pacific and back was because there were two of them (a whole team for that matter). Support doesn’t have to be one way. Chances are that you will support and strengthen each other!
Eat healthy and exercise. Take care of yourself so you have the strength to push through the tough times. You only feel as good as the food that you eat; and, heaven knows, you need to burn off all that extra stress! Better yet, find a friend who will come along so you can double your resiliency strategies!
Appreciate the small things in your life. Find something that reminds you how good life can be. Learn to play the harmonica. Go hiking. Play catch with your kids. Read a book that takes you away. Use the activities as a reward for yourself at the end of the day. After all that work, you deserve a little time to yourself. It helps totally lose yourself in an activity.
Remember that we see through a glass darkly. There is a good chance that you will have the opportunity to share these stories in the future. They might start out, “You think you have it bad?! When I was…” I have a prediction. I’m willing to bet that at some point in the future, God is going to use the things you experienced during this time in your life to somehow help other people.
After I finished my Masters degree in graduate school, I decided to get an internship. No openings or even leads were immediately available. So I found a listing of the top 100 employers in the area and started sending out letters and resumes then followed them up with phone calls two weeks later. Every day, I sat by the phone and psyched myself up. “All I have to do is make 20 calls today. Then I can do something to reward myself.” Those were some of the most painful days of graduate school (maybe even worse than those dissertation writing days). Looking for a job is probably the hardest work that we ever do and we don’t even get paid for it. Fortunately, the story ends well. Six weeks later, I had seven informational interviews and two job offers. Did I like going through all of that instead of walking into a job? Absolutely not! However, I find myself teaching students these days who have to make the same kinds of phone call after they graduate. I could, of course, give a lot of advice and lecture on how to find a job.[iv] Telling about those hideous, difficult days however seems to be a lot more important. It’s probably that hungry, desperate look I get in my eye when I relate the story. So, was it worth going through that dreadful job search experience? Absolutely! And it only took fifteen years for me to learn why.
[i] Allen, J. L. Summer of decision: Lewis and Clark in Montana, 1805. We Proceeded On, 8(4), 10. Ambrose, S. E. (1996). Undaunted courage. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[ii] Maddi, S. (2002).The story of hardiness: Twenty years of theorizing, research and practice. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 54(3), 175-185.
[iii] Ryff CD, Keyes CLM. 1995. The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 719–727.
[iv] I/O psychologists have done some great research on what actually predicts job search success, See (1) Saks, A. M. (2005). Job search success: A review and integration of the predictors, behaviors, and outcomes. In Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory and Research to Work (Steven D. Brown & Robert W. Lent, Eds.) , pp. 155-179. Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc. (2) Saks, A. M. (2005). Multiple predictors and criteria of job search success. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 68, 400-415. And (3) Wanberg, C. R., Glomb, T. M., Song, Z, & Sorenson, S. (2005). Job search persistence during unemployment: A 10-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 411-430.