What could you do if you never felt sorry for yourself?
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
By chance or good graces, I've been fortunate to have met a number of astounding people. (Or perhaps it is curiosity.) Perhaps astounding people abound if only we are curious enough to get to know them. Like a child, my life is my think tank, and whenever I stumble across a person who is strong where I am weak, I ask questions.
From these teachers, I have learned the same lesson over and over again: You have to take chances. Not just once but continuously.
I have witnessed great ideas blossom into great careers. From idea to tangible. A business, a startup, an app, a song, a TV show, a script, a movie, a book. Hobbies to professions. Thoughts to deeds. From good to great.
Quality is a factor, but fortitude and an ability to take risks are what makes them unique. Talent, good looks, ideas, smarts, these things to me are not so rare; antifragility and resilience are rare. For the fragile, failure is disheartening. For the resilient, it only creates more drive. They push hard.
It isn't always the best ideas that make it. It isn't even the best people. To live the life you want to live, you must be willing to take the risks to get that life and everything else that comes along with it. If you are not affluent, no one is going to give you anything freely, or based on your credentials and merit. (You must overcome the inherent lack of fairness that is already built-in.)
My first judo teacher told me, "No one good is going to give you a throw. You must go out and take it."
If You Can't Handle Defeat, How Will You Handle Success?
I have heard this question asked: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Frankly, it's sexy-sounding, but I don't find it helpful. Because we can and will fail. Probably more than once. I think a more practical and realistic question we should ask ourselves is: What could you do if you never felt sorry for yourself?
Gary started his business later in life, after marriage and kids. And as soon as he started, he lost all his money. Swindled. He was ready to give up. Looking for encouragement, he turned to his wife. She asked Gary, "If you can't handle losing a few thousand dollars, how will you handle making millions of dollars?" Gary cried for a few more days, then he went out there and pushed. Now in his 50s, he's a millionaire several times over. Did it happen overnight? No. It was a process. Gary is not exceptional in any obvious way. He's only exceptional in that he didn't know to give up. (And in having wife that challenged him rather than indulging his pity.)
In retelling this story, even to me, it sounds fictional because success stories all sound similar. Brink of failure then eventual success. But that's the point isn't it? The only way anything good will happen for some of us is to overcome some significant obstacle. Going from successful to successful is linear; there's no change. But if we are not already in a lofty position, the only way for us to transition to something better will mean surmounting everything that has kept us away. Then the road ahead is not easy, and yes, unfair, and our only shield will be the grit between our teeth.
If you can't handle defeat, how will you handle victory? It's about withstanding volatility. If you lose a thousand, you lost a thousand. (It only fluctuated by a thousand.) If you make a million, you are also putting yourself in a position to lose millions. (You have to be able to withstand million dollar fluctuations.) If you lose your first fight, that loss is hard. If you've won ten, the first loss after that is that much more painful. Success does not blind you to that possibility, it only makes you more aware of it. If you fear the losses, how will you win?
In martial arts, that's the hardest person to defeat, the fighter who doesn't give up. People lose all the time to inferior fighters who want it more. It doesn't mean the outmatched fighter will always win, but they have a heck of a better chance when they don't know they're supposed to lose. Without the fear of losing, all their effort goes into winning. The only times I have heard of victims defeating their assailants (or bullies) were when victims didn't know they were supposed to be victims. Martial arts are 20% technique, 80% fortitude. Techniques will not give someone the will to fight. But if you have the will to fight, all you need are techniques. The size of the fighter doesn't reflect their will to fight. And even if they lose, they won't feel sorry for themselves. That means they'll keep coming back to fight you another day. Then who can endure for longer? That's when things get interesting.
The fighter who can survive five knockdowns can defeat a superior opponent who cannot withstand even a single knockdown.
Failure isn't the problem. It's feeling sorry for yourself. It's preemptively feeling sorry for yourself. It's when you don't ask someone out because you preemptively tell yourself you're a loser who would have been rejected anyway. Self-pity is a disease of the mind, but it can be cured. Like an itch, it only gets worse if you keep scratching it. Then stop scratching it. You don't need a pill. You need discipline. Discipline isn't easy, but it can be cultivated. Discipline grows when you stop thinking things should be easy. Things shouldn't be anything because life never promised us anything.
Father of American tai chi, Cheng Man-ch'ing famously said, "Invest in loss." If you don't care about losing, then you free yourself of pity, of hesitation. You cannot be defeated. This is the theory behind tai chi pushing hands: When difficulty comes, absorb, then push.
Larry, a CEO, said to me, that, he is not the smartest person in his company. He said the most intelligent people at his company sit all day and analyze risk. The leader is the one out there leading his company and taking those risks.
Could Have, Should Have
We all know people who tell us about their great ideas. (We might be those people.) Probably followed by the caveat that we can't tell another soul. And some ideas are really good. Then years pass; their ideas remain ideas. Their dreams, a passing "what if." The only joy their ideas bring is in telling their friends about it, but also telling their friends they can't take their ideas. So that neither they nor their friends can do anything about these ideas. Dooming them never to exist — until someone else unrelated to them takes the same idea and benefits from it. If it's a good idea, someone will succeed with it. Think about that for a moment, they would rather it be someone they don't know, then a friend who borrows their idea and does something with it. Why is that? It's self-pity. If a stranger succeeds with the same idea, they will feel less jealousy and self-pity than if it were their friend. (Even though their friend stands to benefit over a stranger.) People often secretly wish for their friends to fail. For self-pity to exist, there must first be self-importance. You feel sorry for yourself more than you could for anyone else only if you think you deserve more than others. (With friends like these, who needs friends?)
The cliché isn't about having the idea; the cliché is having an idea that will not be acted upon. The idea deserves someone who's willing to fight for it. If you won't do anything about it, give the idea away to someone who will. The idea may deserve someone better than you. And eventually, it will find that someone.
People think the inventors of those with great ideas become rich. From experience, I know, ideas are cheap. Execution is what is expensive. Those who can execute ideas without fear are the ones who become rich. Think about it, if every person with a great idea were rich, we would all be rich because we've all had at least one great idea (we've done nothing with).
It's a lost opportunity, and if it doesn't bother you, then that's fine. But for some folks it bothers them. It bothers them that it's just a whimsical thought and nothing actualized. That they compare themselves to the person they think they ought to be. They want advice, help, a shoulder to cry on, but that doesn't mean action. It's not that they attempted and failed. They have already convinced themselves it's not worth pursuing. And if they did try, they gave up early. Staying power was lacking.
There's a saying: "It's hard to get an A, and harder to keep an A." This is uniformly true in many areas. It's hard to get a win, harder to stay undefeated. It's hard to lose weight, harder to keep it off. Hard to find love, harder to keep it.
Chasing happiness isn't a goal, it's a process, and it doesn't end. Nor should it. Happiness shouldn't end. And the mistake we make is to think it will be easy. And when we find it difficult, we bail on it.
There are many risk-takers who do not make it because they lack the skill. Many who are skilled never make it because they do not take risks. But when you take a risk and have the skills to back it up, add a little luck, you become that one in a million story. But you can't have luck unless you try, and unless you have the ability to do something with your luck.
You Don't Have to Be Irresponsible
Opportunities are available without giving up your day job. T.S. Eliot, Philip Glass, Toni Morrison, Bram Stoker, J.K. Rowling, and Kurt Vonnegut all kept their day jobs. It can and has been done throughout history.
Yes, there are time commitments involved, but is it the lack of time that's stopping you? If you find meaning in what you do, you want to spend more time doing it. So it requiring time from you is not the same as something you hate requiring time from you.
Fail in Something You Actually Care About
It's fear. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of becoming cliché. Fear of ruining your reputation. Fear of what people might say. Fear of failure. And somehow you think you can't get over the failure. Have you ever played a video game and died? Have you ever fallen off a bike? Fell snowboarding? Missed a shot? Made a typo? Been rejected? You've failed, and you've survived. And many of the things we fail in, we don't even care about. In life, we will have failures. It's unavoidable. Why not at least fail in those things we actually do care about?
I've seen writers take an idea and sell it. Were they the best writer I knew? No. I knew of one from the Bahamas, who never went to film school (and barely finished high school), learning screenwriting from books. When he sold his first movie, I asked him how he did it, he said, "No one told me a country bumpkin from the islands wasn't supposed to write a movie." I heard the same thing from a film grip who became a writer, he said he wasn't aware of all the obstacles until he met people out of film school. An actor friend of mine booked a lead in a Ridley Scott movie by crashing an audition. He said, no one told him you weren't supposed to do that. Most obstacles exist in our heads. Many of these supposed rules are constructs we've created for ourselves.
I know two different startup founders. They both had points where they had run out of money. When I asked them how they overcame those dilemmas, they both gave similar responses: "I didn't have the luxury to notice how broke I was because I was concentrating on getting shit done." Both companies are now valued in the billions.
It's All in Your Head
On the flip side, I've seen fantastic storytellers who could not get themselves to finish one story. Full of self-imposed rules. Fashion designers with all the schooling and talent who couldn't get the nerve to venture out on their own. But I've also seen designers with no formal education start their own successful brand. (Because they didn't know the rules.) I've witnessed that twice. I've heard, "I'll finish my [fill in the blank] someday," more than I can count. "Someday" only exists when time is unlimited. Part of being good is follow-through.
I get it. We're all misunderstood souls, brilliant artists, and no one gets what we're going through... And that kind of hubris gets in the way of getting shit done.
No one will ever say, "Despite being mentally weak, this person has accomplished a lot." Mental strength and accomplishments are not correlated, they're directly related. I've never seen someone who's mentally weak in the dojo, be a great competitor outside of the dojo. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. I'm not talking about athleticism, I'm talking about the ability to deal with doubt and possible failure.
Then Change Your Head
For the martial artist, your nature is your nature. How you are in one instance is how you are in all instances. Mental strength is like a muscle, you can make it stronger, or you can neglect it. People who have meltdowns in the dojo have meltdowns period. If you carry no ounce of self-pity, you carry no ounce of self-pity. Period. Our behaviors have patterns, and they don't care about the circumstances. You are who you are. But you can change who you are. We say, "Be yourself," as if there is some self that is definite and set. We are living art, we're always evolving. It is okay to change. You have permission. And it can be for the better or worse.
If it's all in your head, then change your head.
I've seen a person with no technical background start a software company. I know two individuals who have sold their respective companies for millions. It wasn't about quitting their jobs and pursuing their passions. It was a slow easing to their meaningful careers. (They didn't have the luxury of quitting their jobs.) Their situations were as difficult as any. It doesn't mean everyone who tries will succeed, it just means you can only succeed if you try.
Sensitivity Gets in the Way of Productivity
Maybe you dream of becoming that person you think you should be. Maybe someday right? And what's stopping you? It's not your mom or your dad or your spouse or your kids or your boss or anyone other than yourself that's stopping you. You dictate your own behaviors. There's no secret plot holding you back.
This is problem solving: if it's bothering you, fix it. If you can't fix it, change your expectations so it stops bother you. Perhaps this sounds too simple, or a bit harsh. We want sensitive answers that remove our personal responsibility. But if we are not personally responsible, why would we do something to change it? When we convince ourselves it's no longer in our control, how are we to take control? The popular method is to complain incessantly in hopes the universe will get sick of our whining and give us what we think we deserve.
You can think about thinking about it, or you can do it. We outline outlines. We plan to plan. We need recovery after vacations. We try to get in shape before signing up for a fitness class. We detox before starting a diet. "This symbolizes the new [blah blah blah] of the new [blah blah blah]." Come on. How symbolic do we need to be? Rather than action, we make symbolic gestures of action. What is actionable and observable and what is not? Trying to avoid getting our feelings hurt guarantees us to always have our feelings hurt because we are preventing our departure from a bad situation. Pulling a bandage off quickly can hurt, but leaving it on will only lead to infection and decay. Sometimes sensitivity gets in the way.
In whatever I do, I ask myself, "How did that work out for me?" If the answer is, it worked well, I keep doing it and improve it. If the answer is, it didn't work out that well, then I'll change it.
In Buddhism, "shakubuku" is a swift spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality (nod to Grosse Pointe Blank). I think that's instinctual, not just in Buddhism, but in every culture. In Korea, we say, "jung shin cha lyuh" (정신차려), which is a cross between "snap out of it" and "straighten your mind."
There comes a time to take someone by the shoulders and shake them, and tell them to wake the hell up, that you have one shot at this life, and when it's all said and done, you only have one chance at being the person you could have been. Maybe the popularity of reincarnation in the West is spurred by motivated reasoning, we want to believe we get more than one crack at this happiness thing because we don't take advantage of the first try.
People can be so polite and validating and understanding because they don't want to hurt our feelings and make us upset. They will walk on eggshells around us, not so much for our benefit but theirs, because having us upset can be toxic. And for all that work, are we any happier? Does it make people any more comfortable around us? People hold back on things that need to be said because they are afraid to say what is needed.
Well, I'm saying something.
If you can let your desires go, let it go. If you can't, then stop thinking about the what ifs and create deeds. "But you don't understand Sam..." Where you came from, your story is not actionable. It's already done. We can only write now.
I don't care where you came from, and in a way, neither should you. Where are you now? Where are you going? In a boxing match, the last round is over, so what are you going to do this round? The judges don't score thoughts, they only score deeds. What matters is what happens next.
You can fixate on the past, or you can create your future.
Sensitivity Is a Luxury for People With Lots of Time
Don't live or die in regret. Time is finite. It's cheap to talk about second chances. Second chances are important but so are first chances. We don't get unlimited turns. We can't put things off until conditions are perfect because we don't live forever. Those near and dear to us will not be around forever, to be there when we do those things we've meant to do. For us to finally be there with them, for them, present, without holding back, happy, and without resentment. To enjoy time and for time to be enjoyed. How long were they supposed to wait?
You can't time everything, sometimes you have to make now the right time. Adjust on the fly and figure it out as you go. You're talented, you'll make it work. That's the fun part. If you know everything that'll happen, where's the fun? And if it's not fun, why are you doing it?
Productivity and efficiency aren't about being less human and more robotic. It's a chase toward being more human. We all can agree time is our most valuable asset. Then shouldn't we pursue efficiency so we can have more time to spend it with the ones we love? So we aren't rushed, impatient, frustrated, and distracted when we do spend time with them? To me: not doing, living in your head, and wasting time are selfish acts. Self-pity is a selfish act. Having time for others and for the things that matter are the most generous acts of all. Then we don't have time for sensitivity.
Why Not You?
Others have done it, so why not you?
It's: I'm not ready. Conditions aren't ideal. It looks hard. I don't know what will happen. What if I fail. I'm not comfortable.
But if you try, it'll be:
Why did I wait? Why did I wait? Why did I wait?
If you're not happy, you're not done. If you're ambitious, it's your job to take risks. That's what you signed up for. It's easy to guarantee a mediocre life: Do the things that have no meaning.
Just fucking go for it. The world will not end. And see how great you'll be.