Our biggest failures, setbacks, and obstacles in life can inform us or define us. We can respond to them or react. The choice that we make in those moments will determine whether or not they will eventually become a gift from the universe or like a parking ticket, a “fu#$ you” from the universe.
When I interviewed Elle Luna for the Unmistakable Creative, she said: “in the universe’s great gift to me, I was rejected from every law school I applied to.” After getting rejected from law school, she realized that she’d spent the last three nights in the art studio. So she decided to apply to art school. That eventually led her to a job at IDEO, followed by working on design teams at companies like Medium, Uber, Mailbox, eventually arriving at The Crossroads of “Should” and “Must.”
Mark Manson was cheated on by one of his first girlfriends, and she eventually left him. That was the beginning of his journey into understanding relationships, human psychology, and self-improvement. What followed was his wildly popular blog and his best-selling book. “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” which has sold millions of copies. Imagine where he’d be if she hadn’t left him.
Seth Godin received over 900 rejection letters in his first year. But with each blog post, piece of creative work and attempt to do something that in his own words “might not work” he was planting seeds for who he would eventually become. He’s since gone on to publish dozens of books, many of which have become bestsellers.
Brian Koehn was deeply immersed in what effectively was a Christian Cult combined with Amway. He was working 16 hour days, and in an attempt to build his multi-level marketing business talked to over 10,000 strangers. It was at a low point that he met Dean Kosage who told him to leave Michigan and move to California. Fast forward a few years and those 10,000 conversations with strangers have resulted in becoming the highest earning salesperson in every company that he’s worked at. At the age of 30, he’s the head of sales for a startup and an equity holder in Unmistakable Creative.
When I applied to business school in 2007, I got rejected from every single one. When I didn’t get to NYU Stern, I thought my dream of ever working in media and entertainment was crushed. Pepperdine was the last place I wanted to be. But thanks to my time at Pepperdine, I studied abroad in Brazil, which led me to becoming a surfer. Eight years later, this hobby which is often considered something for beach bums and stoners became the organizing metaphor for my first book with a publisher.
In her TED talk Psychologist, Susan David said, “discomfort is the price of admission for a meaningful life.”
But those moments of discomfort were often the inciting incident in the hero’s journey of every person above. Nothing is interesting about a story in which a person effortlessly rises to the heights of success.
In the closing talk at the conference I put on in 2014, my mentor said the following, which I always try to keep in mind:
All of us have problems. But they become so infested in us that we think they’re permanent. You’re not out of money. You become poor. You’re not experiencing a health challenge. You become sick. And we continue to turn temporary things into permanent things that keep us from living the life we want. — Greg Hartle
In the midst of grief and failure, it can seem as if the hell we’re in will never end. It’s what I call the impact zone of life. We take one wave after another on the head, feeling as if we’re never going to come up for air again. So if this is where you’re at in life, remind yourself that your temporary circumstances are not your permanent identity.
Anytime I’m in a dark place, feeling frustrated or thinking about quitting, I return to Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle is the Way”. In nearly every chapter of the book, there’s a story about somebody who transformed their obstacle into an opportunity. Unless you’re going to sit in a cave and not engage with the world, there’s no life that’s free of obstacles. Instead of asking “why is this happening to me?” ask yourself “what good might come from this?”
It would be nice if we could see the gift of our most painful experiences right when they happen. It would be nice if we didn’t have to feel the awful emotions that go with the failure. But that might not only turn us into a sociopath but cause us to miss out on the opportunity to transform our pain into something beautiful.
As Khalil Gibran wrote “Your joy is sorrow unmasked. The deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Without the pain, you’d have no material to write about. As I wrote in my upcoming book, your circumstances give you colors to paint with.
At the end of my summer internship at Intuit, my boss Seth called me into his office and kindly informed me that I wouldn’t be getting a job offer. The consensus was that I wasn’t a good fit. Seth told me that in the long run, I’d see he was doing me a favor.
For the longest time, I considered not getting a job offer at the end of that internship one of the biggest failures in my career. The whole reason I had gone to business school was to reset my career and get a summer internship that would eventually lead to a better job.
When my next book comes out in August, it will have been ten years since that internship. It was during that internship that I started my first blog. That summer was when I planted the seeds for my career as a writer. If I had received a job offer, I might not have ever become an author. I might not have started the Unmistakable Creative.
What I once perceived as the biggest failure in my career planted the seed for one of the most significant accomplishments in my career. Ten years later, I’m grateful that I never got that job offer.
That massive failure turned out to be a gift from the universe.
Without their failures, all of the people I mentioned above wouldn’t have the perspective they do. They wouldn’t be able to pass on the lessons they’ve learned.
That’s how wisdom works. It’s sometimes served up in a shit sandwich.
When you’re in that moment when all is lost, when it seems like you’re never going to be whole again, consider the possibility that your massive failure might just be a gift from the universe.
I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.