We often deal with tough turns one of two ways: Pollyanic optimism or stark pessimism. Optimism can make us sad when things don’t progress as we expected. Pessimism can make us ungrateful for even the smallest progress. Both won’t give us the peace we need to thrive.
Mark Pollock became a high-octane athlete after he turned blind in his 20s, but then a strange accident turned him paraplegic years later. His wife, human rights activist and lawyer Simone George, met him as a blind man, and was there when his life changed for the second time.
They are now making technological breakthroughs with scientists to help paraplegics walk again. But first, they had to grieve the loss of the lives they had before the accident.
In a brilliant TED Talk, they talked about how to be both hopeful and realistic. It all comes down to one basic idea.
Hold both truths
Pollock breaks it down in one simple statement:
The optimists rely on hope alone and they risk being disappointed and demoralized. The realists, on the other hand, they accept the brutal facts and they keep hope alive as well. The realists have managed to resolve the tension between acceptance and hope by running them in parallel.
Things are as bad as they seem, and yet, when you accept things for what they appear to be, then you can see the opportunity.
Every business idea starts with zero customers. If you believe you will have millions of customers overnight, then you’ll likely become bitter once it doesn’t happen and give up on it. If you believe you won’t have any customers, then you won’t even begin. In between, though, is the truth: No one knows your idea and, with a good strategy, you have a chance at success.
Know your grief, know your path
Closer to Pollock and George’s situation, researcher Jen Brea turned her chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis into a platform - and perhaps even a calling - to help millions with the same illness.
I interviewed Brea when she premiered her award-winning Chronic Fatigue Syndrome film, Unrest. Here’s what she told me about acceptance:
It felt like I was falling down a long, dark well, futilely trying to find something to hold on to so that I could claw my way back or at least stop falling. You spend so much time trying, wishing, fantasizing about going back. At a certain point, I realized that no matter what lay down the road ahead, there was no going back. If I was going to survive, I could not predicate my survival on my recovery.
It’s worth repeating: Getting her old life couldn’t be the measure of success or happiness. She had to find another metric. She needed a metric that fit her new life.
If this experience were to last forever, what quality would have to emerge for me to have peace of mind? I may need some strength or something… name whatever quality. And what happens is your attention starts focusing on that quality rather than resisting the dark night, then the process is sped up. You move through it faster.
We spend a significant amount of time trying to circumvent the present. Let's be real: If we were satisfied with the status quo, then we probably wouldn’t be motivated to even become entrepreneurs or creators or explorers. And yet, accepting things as they are is truly the first step to making things better.
And sometimes our next journey begins with a loss.
In the TED Talk, George summed it up nicely.
Grief is a raging river, and you have to get into it, because when you do, it carries you to the next place. It eventually takes you to open land, somewhere where it will turn out OK in the end.