One podcast I really enjoy listening to is the , which is hosted by Jocko Willink, a former NAVY Seal. The focus of the podcast is on leadership and personal discipline – how to handle big challenges and getting through hard times.
As with most podcasts, I don’t listen to Jocko to agree with everything he has to say and parrot his ideas. The same is true with most websites I visit and books I read and so on. Instead, I listen to extract one or two core ideas I can build on in my own life.
One idea that has stuck with me for a long time is :
To summarize, the core idea here is that when something in life doesn’t go the way you want it to go, don’t react with anger or sadness or frustration. Accept that it happened and recognize it as an opportunity to get better. In the process of getting better, other doors will open and you’ll be more prepared to deal with what’s behind them.
Let’s break that down into a few pieces.
Things Are Sometimes Going to Go Awry
Things are always going to go awry in your life – little things and big things alike.
Little things are overcome pretty quickly and often teach a really simple lesson. When I spill coffee or cut my finger, it’s usually because I was rushing through a task when I should have been taking my time and focusing on the task at hand. Lesson learned, right? No big loss, but it’s still a teachable moment for myself.
The big things that go awry, though – those can really hurt. Your car breaks down. Your business fails. You don’t get that job you want. You get fired. You get sick, or a loved one gets sick. Your house burns down in a fire. Those things are going to happen in life, and they’re going to have a negative impact on you.
That’s not easy. It never is. Sometimes the world just punches you in the gut and there’s nothing you can really do about it.
You Choose How You Respond to Those Events
The thing that’s often overlooked is you are the one who decides how you respond to such events. When an unfortunate event happens, it’s up to you whether you get angry or get sad or get frustrated in response to an event. You control your emotional response to things.
If you let yourself fall into a pit of anger or sadness or frustration and find yourself looking for things to blame for this bad event, you’re taking home the wrong lesson.
Instead, when something bad happens to you, stop and breathe for a second. Don’t let negative emotions drive you. Don’t start tossing blame around. Accept that it happened, then move on to the real questions that matter.
What Can You Learn? What Can You Improve?
After something bad happens, ask yourself what you can learn from this negative event. Focus mostly on yourself. What did you learn about your preparation for this event? What did you learn about how you handle yourself in difficult situations? What did you learn about how such events should be handled? Where did you fall short of where you could have been?
Take the answers to those questions and turn them around. What can you improve? What skills do you need to get better at? What personal characteristics can you improve? What can you do to ensure you have the resources you need next time?
Yes, other people may be at fault when things go bad, but you can’t change the faults of other people. You can only change your own faults. You can only improve what it is that you bring to the table for next time.
Every time you fail, you’ve basically given yourself a list of things that you could have done better. Take advantage of that and make yourself better, even if it wasn’t wholly your fault.
This is called an after action report, and I find that an after-action report is an incredibly valuable practice to add to your life as something to do when things go awry. I do them regularly in my personal journal when I’m reflecting on something that didn’t go right.
A good after action report consists of four pieces. First, describe what actually happened in sufficient detail. Next, describe what I wish had happened in sufficient detail. Then, list the things that are different between those two pictures. Finally, transform that list of differences into actions that you can take in your life to make those differences become a reality.
Be Ready for the Next Door
If you take that concept to heart, you’ll spend time improving your situation. You’ll improve your skills. You’ll improve your strengths. You’ll find ways to cover your weaknesses. You’ll collect the resources you need for the next time.
Eventually, another disaster will happen. Another door will open. When that happens, you’ll be ready for it.
Example: A Personal Finance Disaster
That kind of talk sounds good in theory, but what does it actually mean in practice? I’ll give you an example from my own life.
Several years ago, before my finances were in good shape, I went out to my car to go to work and the thing just wouldn’t start. I kept turning the key and nothing – the starter had failed.
My credit cards were maxed out. I had some money in checking, but I needed it for bills. I knew I would have to call someone to come and get this car and get it fixed, but I wasn’t even sure I could pay the tow truck.
I was frustrated and angry and I blamed the car. The car was junk! Why would it do this to me? I sat there angry at the car, angry at my job because I had to go into work, angry at everything. I was looking for things to blame besides myself.
I didn’t have the maturity then to stop and put my emotions in check. I didn’t reflect on the pieces that were actually my fault. I didn’t do any kind of after action report.
At least, I didn’t do those things right away. As time passed and I began to turn around my financial life, I started looking back at things that had gone wrong in my recent past and I remembered my car not starting.
I reflected on it. What did I do wrong? Well, I probably didn’t keep up with maintenance on that car as well as I should have. I also didn’t have an emergency fund to handle minor crises like that one. I also responded to the failure of the starter with a big emotional outburst that just wasted a bunch of time and energy to no good end.
How could I actually achieve those things? I could stick to a strong maintenance schedule with my vehicles – this might not prevent everything, but it’s definitely going to reduce the likelihood of breakdowns. I could build up an emergency fund to handle these kinds of situations. I could learn how to get control over my emotions by studying things like stoicism and learning how to meditate, which would enable me to handle such crises much more calmly and smoothly.
I started doing those things. I started sticking heavily to the maintenance schedule on our vehicles. I started building an emergency fund. I studied stoicism and started practicing meditation and journaling.
What happened next? Our next vehicle ran and ran and ran for more than a hundred thousand miles thanks to good maintenance. When it finally didn’t start in our driveway, I handled it calmly and just paid the bill and got it fixed as efficiently as possible.
As bad as it was that my car didn’t start that day before work, it was actually a good thing. It gave me the opportunity to learn and to improve myself and to be ready for the next thing that would happen. By learning from that crisis (and from other things in my life), I built an emergency fund and started practicing better vehicle maintenance and started building better emotional control in frustrating moments.
Was that initial car breakdown my fault? No, not really, but there were still things I could have done to reduce the likelihood of such an event and to make the impact less devastating. While the initial car breakdown itself was bad, it did teach me some lessons that put me in a better place so that such breakdowns were less likely and that I would handle them much better.
I’d call that good.