An Olympic-Sized Lesson on Dealing with Disappointment

I don’t know about you, but I was practically glued to my TV in the evenings during the two weeks of the Olympic Games in London. I am fascinated by how skilled these athletes from all around the world have become through their hard work, focus, and determination. The competitors in every event are mesmerizing to watch, and even better, so many of them display inspiring positive attitudes.

Of course, it’s easy to have a good attitude when you’re happy with your performance. But what about the athletes who didn’t perform as well as they had hoped to? For those of us in the United States, two specific occasions stood out as disappointments: First, when Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion, did not make the individual all-around in women’s gymnastics, and second, when McKayla Maroney did not receive the gold medal on the vault—an event she was practically “guaranteed” to win.

Now, I don’t want to talk about the details or outcomes of Wieber’s and Maroney’s performances. (I’m still beyond impressed by their skill, and I’m certainly not an expert on gymnastics!) Instead, watching their events got me thinking about how everyone—not just Olympic athletes—handles disappointment. While you’ll probably never compete for a gold medal on the international stage, you will find yourself facing failure, dissatisfaction, and regret at various points in your life. And how you choose to respond to those negative circumstances will set the tone for the way others see you, and most importantly, for your overall quality of life.

While many Olympians showed the world what it means to display grace in the face of defeat, I believe that most of us don’t show ourselves that much—if any—kindness when we fail or make a mistake. Instead, we tend to beat ourselves up mercilessly, even though this reaction is unhealthy and unhelpful. Here are my thoughts on how you can learn to be easier on yourself when you’re facing one of life’s failures.

*Get some perspective. Have you ever noticed that people have trouble putting mistakes into context? For instance, couch potatoes around the world have been focusing on what gymnasts haven’t done correctly: And while it’s true that some of them did “mess up,” as the media has highlighted, the bigger picture here is that these young men and women are incredible athletes. They are all at the very top of their field, and they have numerous incredible accomplishments to be proud of. So the next time you mess up, try to harness the power of perspective and force yourself to put your misstep into context. For example, you might ask, “Is the one slide I flubbed up on really what people will remember from my whole presentation?” Often, you’ll realize that what you’re upset about is a mere drop in the bucket, and that you have a lot more to take pride in.

*Put someone else in your shoes. Most people operate under a double standard they don’t even know exists: They treat others much more leniently than they do themselves. Think about it: If a good friend called you and was upset about being fired from an account at work, for instance, how would you react? You’d probably try to comfort her by reminding her of all of her other professional triumphs, and you’d also assure her that this was not the end of the world. But what if it were you being fired from that account? If you’re like many people, you’d berate yourself for being so inept, tell yourself that you were worthless, and become convinced that everything would go downhill from here. Remember this double standard the next time you’re disappointed in yourself. Take a moment and think about how you’d react to a friend in the same situation. Then try to extend the same grace to yourself. Remember, it’s vital to engage in positive, not negative, self-talk because you are with yourself 24/7. The voice and opinion you hear most often is your own, and what you tell yourself can make or break the quality of your life.

*Make a list of your successes. Most of us do at least one hundred things right for every one thing we do wrong. But because we tend to focus on these failures, we magnify them in our own minds and reinforce to ourselves just how “subpar” we think we are. From now on, try to “catch” yourself when you start to dwell on a mistake. Then, force yourself to name at least five things you did today that were good. The things on this list could be as simple as, “I told my wife and kids I loved them before I left for work,” or as big as, “My boss said I did a great job getting everybody on the same page at the meeting today.” The point is to get yourself out of that dangerous I-can’t-do-anything-right rut.

*Surround yourself with cheerleaders. The words you tell yourself are important, but what you hear from other people can also make or break your attempts to handle failures in a positive manner. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with a team of personal “cheerleaders” who build you up and encourage you. As I’ve said many times before, studies show that you’ll be the average of the five people you spend the most time with in terms of your attitude and outlook. Gravitate toward friends who build you up instead of pointing out what you did wrong or telling you why you’re not good enough. I know from the Olympic coverage that this was one of the women’s gymnastics team’s greatest strengths: Both the athletes and the coaches built the whole team up. I saw no evidence of blame or “how-could-yous”—only support and encouragement.

*Remind yourself that you’re normal. We live in a culture that revolves around success, achievement, and making it to the next rung of the ladder. In the midst of such obsession with perfection, it may come as a shock to realize that failure, at least some of the time, is normal and inevitable! Believe it or not, we are all human, and thus fallible. Until you give yourself permission to break free of the cycle of self-blame and negativity that causes you to be stuck demanding perfection from yourself in every situation, you’ll never have a chance to be a truly relaxed, content, and happy person. Mistakes are a fact of life, and you have about as much chance of avoiding them as you do of being able to stop breathing. Don’t let that fact depress you; instead, let it free you up to do more and dare more!

*Learn from the mistake and move on. This is easy to say but harder to do. It’s natural to go through a period of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and even grief after failing to realize a goal or dream. But eventually, for the sake of your health, your outlook, and your future, you have to find a way to forgive yourself and move forward. Force yourself to confront the fact that nothing you do—replaying events, berating yourself, or playing the “what-if” game—will change the past. But no matter what mistakes might lie behind you, you have the complete power to shape a more positive and productive future. Look at what went wrong, and see if you can find a way to improve your performance while avoiding the mistake next time. As I’m sure Olympic athletes are taught to do, channel your energy into shaping the future instead of lamenting the past.

*Celebrate whenever you can. Make a habit of noticing and celebrating your successes. Sure, go out for a nice dinner when you get a promotion—but also, allow yourself a few moments to stop and savor the fact that you cooked a delicious dinner, or that you ran further than ever before on the treadmill. If you look at your self-esteem and self-confidence as a bank account, this is a great way to make deposits. And the next time you do mess up, you’ll be less likely to think you’re the most inept person on the planet.

*Fake it ’til you make it. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge and process all of your emotions. I’m not suggesting that you ignore any negative feelings that bubble up after a failure or disappointment. What I do recommend is trying to react to setbacks with dignity, composure, and even optimism for the future—even if you’re tempted to lash out or vent your frustrations. I promise, when you choose to react to mistakes in a healthy way, you’ll speed up the healing process for yourself. I always remember UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s admonition that no one should be able to tell after a game whether you won or lost from your mannerisms, and I definitely think his advice was right on the money. Strive to become not only a better loser, but also a better winner. Both are characterized by humility, empathy, and the knowledge that no one is perfect.

Overall, I’d like to see Americans not only learn to be easier on themselves, but to change their perspectives on winning in general. It saddens me that the lion’s share of Olympic accolades is reserved only for the gold medal winners, while the silver and bronze recipients typically receive very little coverage. Worst of all, fourth, fifth, etc. finishes are portrayed as losses. Again, let’s step back for a little perspective: That’s fourth or fifth place in the whole world—a tremendous accomplishment!

Ultimately, for so many reasons, we all need to prioritize being easier on ourselves. We’re all human, we’re all unique, and we all have so many things to be proud of. Oh, and one more thing: If you’re thinking that it’s just too difficult to change the way you think and react, and that you don’t want to put in the effort it will take to be easier on yourself, remember this: Your children will grow up to be like you. They will develop their attitudes and outlooks based on yours. So if you won’t change how you treat yourself for your own sake, do it for your kids…and for their kids after them.

It’s Not Easy (or Happy!) Being Green

When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, you just can’t escape green. Even if you don’t wear it (and want to risk getting pinched), it’s still everywhere from store windows to menu specials to parades on TV. But that’s okay—on March 17th, green is good. “Irish” green is associated with happiness, celebrations, shamrocks, and the Emerald Isle. Too bad that’s not the case the other 364 days of the year!

The truth is, most of us normally experience green in a much more negative way: through envy. And that’s definitely not a good thing. Being in the clutches of the green-eyed monster can really sabotage your overall happiness. That’s because envy makes you focus on what you don’t have instead of all of the great things you do have.

Social media has really exacerbated the extent to which envy affects our lives. Think about it: Sites like Twitter and Facebook allow people to live their lives in full view of others…and sugarcoat every aspect of them. When you log on, you’re bound to see pictures and posts that read, “Most beautiful wedding ever!” “This was a dream vacation in paradise!” or “Drinks on me—I just got a promotion!”

As you’re scrolling through this never-ending list of good news, it’s all too easy to feel like you’ve gotten the short end of the stick and say, “Woe is me!” And, of course, it doesn’t help that your Facebook newsfeed doesn’t ever go away. You can always torture yourself by taking a look at how much “better” everybody else has it.

But here’s the thing: While you’re living your life in a constant haze of jealousy, you don’t see the other side of the coin. What social media might not tell you is that the friend who got a promotion might also have just had a huge fight with her spouse. But unless she is one of those people who thrive on drama, she isn’t going to post those details of her personal life…and you won’t know that things aren’t as perfect as they seem.

The bottom line is, jealousy doesn’t do anybody any good. It makes you feel needlessly unhappy, and it can negatively affect your relationship with others. Here are six of my tips to help you banish envy the next time it starts to rear its ugly head:

  • Admit that envy is a problem. To some extent, envy is natural. You can’t go through your life without feeling jealous from time to time. So first, simply take note of when and why the green-eyed monster makes an appearance. (You may not even have consciously realized what you’re feeling!) Specifically, be aware of how strong your emotions are and what effect they have on your attitude and behavior.

You don’t have to take your emotional temperature every five minutes, but being generally aware of the role envy plays in your life can really make a difference in your behavior. For instance, if you’re carrying around a lot of anger toward a coworker because the boss liked his project proposal instead of yours, it could be making you unnecessarily snarky, critical, and negative. That means that you’re ruining your own day and hurting your performance…and you might also be burning some office bridges you’ll regret later!

  • Remember that “happiness” looks different for everyone. When you’re constantly comparing yourself to the Joneses, you’ll suffer several unintended consequences. First, worrying about how you don’t measure up robs you of your present happiness. Plus, it leaves you unable to think about how you really want your own life to look.

We talk about the American dream of a house, a pool, two cars in the garage, and the proverbial white picket fence. But the truth is, the same cookie-cutter mold doesn’t work for everybody! The lifestyle that makes your neighbor or your cousin or your dentist happy might not work for you. And if that’s the case, who cares if it’s flashier, more glamorous, or “cooler”? Trust me, when you give yourself permission to live your life on your terms instead of letting others set the bar (and feeling jealous as a result), you might be surprised by how good you already have it.

  • Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Yes, living with an “attitude of gratitude” is a clichéd concept. But infusing it into your life will also totally change your viewpoint…especially if you have a chronic case of “the envies.” The fact is, it’s very easy to take things for granted: the information your coworker emailed you, the fact that your car is running, and even the food you’re eating for dinner. Most of us have gotten into the habit of ignoring all of the good things in our lives, and instead, we focus our mental energy on being upset about what’s wrong. But it can be a true game changer when you reverse the time you spend thinking about each.

Over the course of my life, I have learned that it’s smarter to thank others because of how they make your life better instead of secretly resenting them because they have something you don’t. And yes, it does take a while to make this change in how you habitually think. To start tapping into the power of gratitude, just say “thanks” to the people who help you out during your day. (You might even work up to writing thank-you notes, as I do.) And beyond that, try to notice all of the blessings in your life. For me, my wonderful wife and extraordinary son top the list, as well as the fact that I finally get to do what I love—help others live happier lives. In time, you’ll start to notice that most of your envy has miraculously left the building.

  • Focus on others…but in a different way. If you have an hour or so of free time, you could spend it by trawling Facebook (and maybe watching a reality show that highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the background). At the end of that hour, you’ll probably feel dissatisfied with your own lot in life, if you’re not outright angry at how “good” other people have it. Or, you could spend your free time helping your kids build a fort in the backyard, using your financial know-how to help a friend set up a much-needed budget, or even volunteering at a local organization that needs an extra pair of hands.

If you choose the second option, you’ll be a lot happier—guaranteed. Instead of focusing on how much you think your life sucks, focus on how you can use your strengths to help others’ lives be better. It will take the same amount of time but will be so much more uplifting and productive. We all have a choice: We can choose to look to the right and see people who have “more,” or we can choose to look to the left and see others who aren’t as fortunate…and whom we can tangibly help. I firmly believe that the greatest fulfillment in life comes not from satisfying ourselves, but from helping others.

  • Be generous. You’ve heard the saying, “The more you give, the more you receive.” Well, that goes for happiness, gratitude, help, friendship, and more! When you are generous with these things, you’ll invite them back into your life, too. People who are positive, supportive, and loving experience life very differently from those who are jealous and negative.

Here’s an easy example of what I mean. Say your friend just got engaged, and you’re still looking for your own Mr. (or Ms.) Right. It’s okay to feel a twinge of jealousy at first. But instead of feeding the fire by scowling at a newly posted album of engagement photos and wishing that you too could change your relationship status to “engaged,” call your friend and congratulate her! You’ll have to acknowledge that she didn’t say “yes” with the intention of making you feel bad, and you’ll probably also hang up the phone feeling happy for her.

  • Pay more attention to the little things. If you think about it, a lot of us experience envy over the “big” things: relationships, wealth, career opportunities, vacations, houses, etc. But it’s also true that all of our happiness doesn’t come from, say, getting a new car—a lot of it also comes from a variety of little things that add up.

Take a few minutes and think about what makes you happy on a day-to-day basis. It might be eating a delicious meal, taking a few minutes to read a chapter in your latest book, or taking a walk with your spouse. Then, make an effort to incorporate those things into your life as often as you can. Think about it this way: You can’t give yourself a promotion at work, but you can definitely get yourself a yummy cup of coffee on your way into the office. When you let the little things make you happy more often, there will be less room for envy to creep in.

Ultimately, don’t underestimate the insidious power of envy. If you allow it to take root in your life, it will bring you only bitterness, isolation, and disappointment. But the good news is, it really is in your power to take charge of the green-eyed monster. Just remember, if you always try to focus on what is going well in your life, you will feel much more balanced and look back on your life with much less regret. I promise, taking gradual steps to banish jealousy will make you happier each and every day!

 

This Thanksgiving, Remember to Really Give Thanks.

Unless you have been living under a rock (but not Plymouth Rock—I couldn’t pass it up!), you know that tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Take a moment and consider what you’re focused on. Maybe it’s a delicious turkey dinner, a football game, or a long-awaited Black Friday sale. Or perhaps you’re fixated on the number of relatives who will soon be descending on your house and all of the preparations you need to take care of. But have you also spent any time focusing on the real “point” of this holiday—the things in your life for which you’re grateful?

It seems to me that for most of us in America, the “thanks” in “Thanksgiving” has gotten lost in parades, food, and commercialism. On this holiday—and throughout the year, in fact—most of us are less focused on what we have to be thankful for and more focused on what we want and how we can get more. And guess what? This attitude is making us miserable. In fact, according to a 2007 Reuter’s.com article, a study done by Italian researchers found that Americans are less happy today than they were thirty years ago.  We’re so fixated on what we lack and on what’s going wrong that there’s no room left for us to enjoy all of the blessings that we have.

My friends, I’d like to challenge all of you to change your attitudes and really celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow…and then carry that attitude of gratitude with you throughout the year. Trust me, it’s for your own good. Grateful people are happy people, and they’re also healthier—25 percent healthier, in fact, according to studies—than their unappreciative peers.

Here’s a starting point: Tomorrow, as you’re eating Thanksgiving dinner with your loved ones, think about everyone and everything that have made this meal possible. Your ancestors, whose hard work laid the foundation for your own life. Our nation’s Founding Fathers, whose resolve and principles allowed us to live in the greatest democracy on earth. Past and present veterans and service members, who have put themselves in harm’s way—and even made the ultimate sacrifice—to protect us. And those are just a few starting points for a feeling of gratitude. I’m sure you’ll think of many, many more, like your health, your house, the fact that there’s food on the table, and of course the love of your family and friends, etc.

Once you begin to consciously notice all of the great things in your life, and once you realize that you can’t take full credit for the existence of any of them, you’ll consistently feel more grateful, privileged, and humble. You might even begin to notice that you feel silly for dwelling on the fact that your neighbor was able to buy a new car this year while you weren’t.

As gratitude becomes a more prominent part of your thought processes, verbalize as much of your thanks as you can. Tell the people in your life how much you appreciate them. Why not start tomorrow with the family members who are sharing Thanksgiving dinner with you? I can tell you from experience, when you begin to connect with others in this manner, your whole way of viewing the world will change. You will feel so much more fulfilled, blessed, privileged, and happy. And you’ll look back on this Thanksgiving as one of the best holidays/turning points of your life!