What should people do when everything appears to be going wrong in their lives? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
In moments of failure, we must pause and remind ourselves of what Molly Ivins used to call the "first rule of holes." The rule is: When you're in a hole, stop digging.
I don't mean to make light of anyone's situation, but let's look at this in a larger context: certainly, other people have dealt with and survived worse. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers. There are politicians who lost elections or were forced out of office due to indiscretions, but came back to lead after time had passed. There have been actors whose movies bombed, authors who got writer's block, celebrities who made gaffes, parents who made mistakes, entrepreneurs with faltering companies, executives who got fired, athletes who were cut, and people who lived too well at the top of the market.
This all sounds basic, but do you know the one thing all those people who bounced back from those problems have in common? They didn't make it worse. They checked their. They did not follow it up with a meltdown, they did not double down on the strategies that blew up in their face, they did not immediately take on twenty new projects, and they did not indulge in denial or fancy themselves as persecuted victims.
Ego doesn't take failure well. It asks, "Why is this happening to me? How do I save this and prove to everyone I'm as great as they think?" It's the animal fear of even the slightest sign of weakness. Just in the way that we thought that our success and "everything going right" defined our self-worth, deep down we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. We've all seen this. And we've all done this. We've fought desperately for something we're only making worse. We just keep digging ourselves further down.
Alexander Hamilton once wrote to a distraught friend who had gotten himself into serious financial and legal trouble of the man's own making, "Act with fortitude and honor. If you cannot reasonably hope for a favorable extrication, do not plunge deeper. Have the courage to make a full stop." Now consider someone like John Delorean as the Delorean Motor Company was falling apart, who decides he can save the whole thing with a massive $60M cocaine deal. That's exactly what I mean about making bad stuff worse.
Instead, make a full stop, as Hamilton said. A fighter who can't tap out or a boxer who can't recognize when it's time to retire gets hurt, often seriously so. You have to be able to see the bigger picture.
Let's say you've failed and let's even say it was your fault. You need to face that. Let's say it was someone else's fault. You need to focus on the parts that were your fault. You need to resist the urge to blame others, and to resist reacting emotionally. You need to look at the bad habits, the bad decisions, and the various factors that led you to this point--as well as the ways you could have seen it coming. You need to pause, take stock, and then come up with a plan.
At the root of Stoic philosophy is the idea that while we don't control what happens to us, we always control how we will respond. So that leaves some questions for you: What's your plan? Are you going to make it worse? Or are you going to emerge from this with your dignity and character intact? Are you going to live to fight another day? Are you going to make this a lose-lose situation for yourself and everyone involved? Or will it be a loss followed by a win?
In short, stop digging. Remember Marcus Aurelius's dictum: "It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character."
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