Nobody sets out in their life to fail, get hurt by others or get ill, go bankrupt, take on massive debt, take punches from the world until they die.
But when these things inevitably happen – sometimes in a row – it can completely take the wind out of your sails. We have the choice to see the tests as something necessary to improve our lives or otherwise as needless misery.
Most of us grow up setting long-term goals and hearing that quite anything is possible. Then, we encounter more and more resistance as we age – from competition at an ever higher level – and from “circumstances.”
At every level, starting with your college, you are striving for the top 10% (or better). For grad school, then top jobs, it’s always the top 10% of that old 10%. That’s how survival of the fittest works, we’re told.
Except that fitness is but one small factor in the battle to swim through the darkness to the mythical and distant island of “success.” Intelligence and pure hard work are critical, but over-rated. So is luck. That’s why A students end up working for C students often.
Grit is the key ingredient for those that “make” it to the top of any field. Work long enough on any problem and you’ll make some headway, often quite a lot. Even if not the smartest, wisest or the fastest worker, you’ll outlast, outwork and ultimately outperform the smarter, wiser, faster folks.
A Russian saying puts it best. “The slower you go, the farther you’ll get.”
Those with true grit have generally overcome some combination of big childhood traumas, failures in their business and in family and personal setbacks. Yet they have persevered because they felt that life was worth continuing, that all the challenges were there for some big purpose well beyond themselves.
In my own life, I grew up in a single-parent home, then emigrated here from Soviet Russia, put myself through college and then law school, managed to survive New York despite Recession, unemployment, massive debt and setbacks in my business and a lot of mini-traumas on the way. Yet, here I am, much stronger than before, more focused, healthier and wiser than before – and more accomplished.
What’s worked for me? An over-riding sense that difficulties come and go, always for good, for growth. A discipline to get through certain problems to the end and also knowing when just to let go. A wealth of patience and a boundless curiosity. Knowing my place and mission in this world and always seeking to improve and change for better – for my own sake and my family’s.
These are the detailed strategies I’ve used to weather through great challenges and come out ahead:
1. Get a grip on life. Stop just surviving and learn to thrive.
First, break the vicious cycle that keeps you miserable and frustrated, poor and running in place. If I can do it, you most certainly can, as well.
2. Value your time above everything else and others will learn to value your time above all.
It’s your most precious resource and is always diminishing.
Until I learned to value my time above all, friends, family and everyone I met could easily manipulate me (on purpose or not, doesn’t matter) into spending my precious time on useless conversations, behaviors, habits, etc. In the end, learn to recognize patterns in your own behavior and the behavior of others to avoid wasting time on conversations that bring no useful, constructive effect to your life or the life of the other person/people.
Once I set limits and acknowledged the obvious bad habits in myself and others to engage in useless conversations – where I wasn’t improving someone else’s life or my own or was otherwise learning and taking something useful away from the experience, suddenly, I saw my time in a completely different light. Others started valuing my time much more and productivity went up a great deal.
3. Create good habits and get rid of bad ones. Keep a consistent (and consistently healthy) daily regimen.
This is a really basic, but under-appreciated point, especially for young invincibles. A solid and consistent daily regimen will keep you in one piece through the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs.
Here are 12 easy life-changing habits you can start today. Sleep 7-8 hours a night, EVERY NIGHT (and here are 9 ways to improve the quality of your sleep). Wake up early to take advantage of the most productive (morning) time. Get up and stretch from your chair every hour. Pack a healthy lunch and healthy snacks (almonds and other nuts, PopChips, fruits, etc.); eat out sparingly. Take good care of your digestion, because if you don’t, you’ll be miserable too often to function well and die too soon from chronic disease. Walk around quickly as often as you can to get exercise. If you hate the gym like me, do push-ups every morning. Take the stairs, not the elevator, as much as you can. Take good care of your hygiene (don’t be lazy at night), especially your teeth and skin.
Learn how to relieve your stress in safe and reliable ways. Have close friends and family around. Minimize (ideally, eliminate) the time you spend with people that add negativity (jealousy, envy, wasting of time, perpetuation of bad habits) and stress to your life. Exercise regularly. Eat well, consistently. Sleep well. Have a glass of red wine once in a while. Reinforce good habits with others who have them.
Learn to control your impulses. Outrun, out-walk, out-crawl, make a detour around temptation. Acknowledge your limitations and outsmart yourself. Simply stay out of the context where you can’t control your impulses. Simply keep away from unhealthy food, activities, relationships, spending, people, language, influences, etc. Be smart and cautious enough to nip trouble in the bud.
Learn to say no to people. This is by far one of the most important skills and habits of all. Practice makes perfect.
4. Take good care of your mind.
Find a highly recommended therapist with a sliding scale to help you dig through and unpack and throw away all the awful baggage from childhood that’s holding you back from seeing yourself in a healthy way and moving forward with life and succeeding. Drop the stigma. Create good habits around positive thinking, stress relief (see above).
Make no mistake – your mental health (or lack thereof) will make you or break you.
5. Eliminate negativity from your life as much as you can, day in and day out.
Be relentlessly positive, even while remaining a realist pragmatist. This means removing people that put you down or shower you with jealousy, envy and unproductive and unhealthy ways to spend time. Minimize listening to depressing music and watching depressing movies. Manipulate your mood for the better with music that lifts you up and keeps you moving forward.
Value your time above all (see #2).
6. Develop a negotiation mindset in all your dealings with people.
Practice negotiating for cheaper coffee or fruits at the farmer’s market, where you have nothing to lose. Research, understand and internalize your true value to employers, business partners, landlords and all others you deal with. Be confident about your capabilities and set your limits when you go in to negotiate. Come in with concrete and measurable facts about what you’ve done, on what budget and time frame, how much money and time you’ve saved the team and company. Practice with a coach or a no-holds-barred friend beforehand.
Before I ever negotiated for anything, I was hampered by all sorts of insecurities and hidden scripts in my head that were passed down from parents, siblings, friends and cultural vectors. When I met my wife, who grew up in Morocco and negotiates for a living, the paradigm was turned upside down. In Morocco, NOT to negotiate is insulting and looked down upon. Locals always know the true price and the “acceptable” margin. EVERYTHING is negotiable. I slowly untangled my own hangups about negotiation, learned to understand my own true value to an employer or business partner or vendor in each case and started practicing with negotiation in a Moroccan bazaar, where there was absolutely nothing to lose.
With time, I successfully negotiated a full-time offer with benefits after being offered a contract. At that job, I ended up negotiating a 23% discount ($45K off) on financial management software – far better than expected for a company of our size. I then negotiated a cap of 1% on rent over 5 years (saving the company $17K). At another job, I negotiated $10K and better benefits/perks higher before starting. Since then, I’ve negotiated big discounts (20% or more) on everything from moving company expenses to rent, consulting rates, car rental fees, credit card fees, hotel chain points, coffee and all sorts of other large and smaller purchases.
After a while, developing a negotiation mindset has not only saved (and made) me tens of thousands of dollars, but also given me confidence and competence that are priceless. It’s a snowball effect that consistently opens up big savings, perks, freebies, extra points and other “hidden” benefits.
The rule with negotiation is simple: If you don’t ask, the answer is always no!
7. Connect to something higher than yourself through meditation and finding your roots (culture, religion, nationality, etc).
Put yourself in a context where you feel connected to where you came from and who you are, so you will have the bedrock for growth in your personal life.
My own experience with becoming an observant Jew has been a very long and winding road full of potholes and false turns. I’ve also learned to balance the various parts of my identity in my own way – Russian-American, Kentucky boy, New Yorker, writer, lawyer, financier, entrepreneur, etc. Every person’s path is quite unique and frankly, it should be. Cookie-cutter transformations are often false and rarely last.
8. Practice gratitude daily, right after you wake up and before you go to sleep.
Literally count your blessings each day. Say thanks as much as possible to others, especially your family and close friends (where would you be without them and their support?). Write thank you notes by hand to others to set yourself apart in their mind.
9. Live frugally, within your means. Organize, understand and regularly manage your finances. Find ways to make more money, not just to save and scrimp.
Not knowing the full picture of your finances will be a constant source of stress and family argument. It’s actually critical to your health and well-being. Take it seriously and get your act together ASAP.
Put away at least 6-12 months of earnings as a cushion in case of unemployment or unexpected expenses. Carefully monitor your credit through carefully (Credit Karma, for example). Automate monthly bill payments, monthly savings and investments. Use budgeting tools to control your spending. Understand your cash flows and their timing clearly. Pay off your debts ASAP, starting off with the highest-interest loans first. Find ways to make more money by using your existing (or adding new) skills by freelancing, consulting, coaching or otherwise creating an online business. Learn to live frugally without completely forsaking a lifestyle you actually enjoy.
Living frugally is a virtue, but of course never quite easy, especially if you’re used to a certain level of lifestyle. However, it often means the difference between “a little more fun now/misery later” and “a little less fun now/happiness a little later.”
On a practical note, when you “deprive” yourself of material things you’re used to, you find out that you truly need very little except basic necessities to get by. You will learn to be incredibly resourceful with food, entertainment, budgeting, hosting, dating, finding freebies and discounts and planning ahead. Even though it may seem like an awful chore for the first some time, living frugally actually forces you to become more independent and self-confident in your life choices, focusing you on what’s truly important – experiences above material things.
When I was 9, I helped Mom buy a car for us, so she just had to give a check and we owned the car. At 15, I convinced her to buy a house, despite a shaky job and finances. My approach to money became to spend ahead of making money, which led to awful credit card debt that took years to repay. It caused me to move out of New York for a few months when I couldn’t afford rent after law school. A lack of foresight, research and planning (aspiration without the perspiration) led to a quarter million in student loans from law school right when the Recession hit.
Only when I got married and saw down with my wife (who has always had a much healthier relationship with money) to review our finances, did it hit me just how much my ostrich-in-the-sand attitude had cost me in dollars, sense, time, late payments and opportunities in life. Before this, I had no idea how to budget or understand cash flows, or visualize the full extent and terms of my student loans.
Once I bit the bullet and learned how these things actually work, I felt greatly empowered to get rid of my student debt, optimize credit card spending to maximize points, to negotiate for discounts and otherwise take control of saving and spending. Now, it’s hard to imagine my head was in the sand all this time.
10. Look internally for meaning, not to material wealth, circumstances or to other people.
Stop comparing yourself to others. Liberate yourself from the chains of jealousy and envy. Your only relevant measure of success is against your own potential, which is always much greater than you can imagine at your lowest. Seek experiences, not material goods. Stick to your ethics and morals and never stray from them for anyone or anything.
My mother’s a neuroscience professor and two grandparents were doctors, so I grew up really wanting to be an MD/Ph.D. After my grades tanked in college, it became just Ph.D. After a year in my Ph.D. program, I left with the heavy weight of parental disappointment. I worked for a year and went to law school, realizing mid-way that law was not for me. In the depths of the Great Recession, I went into finance to make a living and realized after 3 years in that I was not doing anything enjoyable or working to my potential. That’s when I left to start my own company in health tech and ended up working for two other startups in the space, doing finance/operations, then product management.
Despite burnout, soul-searching, lots of criticism from family and friends, I persevered to find my sweet spot in helping health tech companies launch and scale quickly. All these experiences – both good and bad – have given me a thick skin and discipline, a better understanding of my virtues and faults, a great set of skills I use in all areas of life and a much clearer sense of what gives me meaning and happiness professionally and personally – and what doesn’t. All of this is well earned and priceless as life experience.
In short, every person’s path is different. Some find their way quickly and others take their time. Neither guarantees success or failure. The journey is just as important as the destination. Keep plowing – and constantly sowing new seeds – through the hard times. Work hard (and smart). Learn as much as you can along the way and you will certainly find your meaning and purpose in the process.
11. Always plan ahead and prepare with as many specifics as possible.
Break down goals into specific tasks. Set deadlines for each task. Track your progress. Celebrate small wins. Use project management tools to help you optimize the process. Set unrealistic, crazy goals – then research how successful people have achieved such goals. Follow their model. No need to reinvent the wheel.
Creative, artistic types have the hardest of times doing this. Having been born this way, I’ve nevertheless forced myself to break down lofty goals like publishing a novel, getting into a new industry, making a certain salary by a certain age, paying off student debt, understanding and managing my finances, etc. The first novel took 7 years. The second took 7 months.
Careful, realistic planning that involves small tasks, specific timelines and budgets brings the lofty into the realm of the possible and doable.
Minimize the number of daily decisions you have to make. Prepare your lunch the night before. Choose what you’re going to wear tomorrow before sleeping. Think Zuckerberg and his famous hoodie and Steve Jobs with his turtlenecks.
12. Research every person you deal with in business and personal life and have a clear picture of what you’re getting into ahead of time.
A couple hours spent on due diligence now can often save you months and months of untangling yourself from frauds, fake friends, failed joint ventures, lawsuits and other nightmares. Caveat emptor.
Before I learned to take myself seriously and set boundaries and rules, I used to fall for all sorts of schemes, one-sided friendships, bad deals, gigs that went unpaid, etc. Once I learned to dig deeper beforehand, this dramatically changed my preparation for dealing with every person I met by choice. Now, before I meet someone, I know exactly where they are coming from, what are their motivations, how I can help them and how they can help me. This makes all interactions instantly more useful and valuable for both parties and cuts out the BS to get right to the point of how we can work together to help each other.
13. Keep a journal and write down your experiences, both good and bad.
This is one of the best ways to give yourself therapy and perspective on what you’ve been through and how you’ve persevered. It is also critical to collecting new ideas and sowing new seeds daily.
In my case, keeping a notebook and pen always handy to take down observations, ideas, new concepts, things I overheard on the subway, lines of poetry, beautiful pieces of art or music I saw or heard, my craziest and most desperate thoughts at my lowest and amazingly inspired reflections at the highest – are all chronicles I can look to anytime to see my own development as a son, husband, father, writer, lawyer, financier, traveler, negotiator, etc. It’s always invaluable to remember who you really are and what you’re capable of when circumstances make you forget.
14. Always take the long view, but show up for the small things every day.
Don’t get too high with the highs in life and don’t get too low with the lows. Always find a way to press ahead. If you take good care of yourself, you will have a long time to work on important problems with your full energy. 5 years is a good reference point for how long it takes to become a top expert in your field and generate solid revenue in the process.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t waste your time planning to be the first to build Rome overnight. I’ve failed many times trying to build castles from cards overnight. The big successes all took a really long time, lots of hard work and evolution and constant improvement to materialize.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Find ways to stay focused. Constantly prioritize things in the order of what gets you to your goals fastest and most effectively.
Shoot for 1% improvement each day in whatever you’re working on (a trait, a project, a relationship, etc.). Otherwise, you’ll burn out and give up too fast.
15. Use the 80/20 Principle in your interactions with people and in the work you do.
Don’t kill yourself softly with perfectionism. In the end, Getting Sh*t Done always beats Perfect, but Unfinished. Think Most.
Use the concept of MVP (Minimum Viable Product) as a guiding principle when building something.
16. Don’t do it alone.
Cultivate mentors and advisers (in real life AND online, in the knowledge of others who write about overcoming the same problems). Learn from every person – both what to do and what NOT to do. Read widely and voraciously on the experiences of others with the issues you’re having. Nothing that you’re going through, no matter how difficult or painful, has not been faced by someone, somewhere in the world, who’s lived to tell about it.
Enlist help from friends and family to keep you on track and accountable, as well as motivated and encouraged. However, don’t rely on everyone being on board with what you’re doing. It often takes at least a partial success to make even the closest people to you to see the value in what you’re doing.
17. Keep challenging yourself in small ways daily. Don’t just react, be proactive.
Take the stairs. Get up an extra 15 minutes early even though you fell asleep late. Take a walk even if you’re tired. Do an extra lap around the park. Hold yourself off from buying that nice-looking danish. Out-walk, outrun temptation just this once.
This way, you’ll show yourself you’re capable of greater things than you imagine. You’ll slowly push your limits out a little, then a little more. Eventually, this builds into a competition with yourself. This grows into a discipline and habits that are good for health and wealth and productivity, etc. It’s always working on the little things that are attainable from day to day that yields the greatest of results.
Maybe it’s just a personality type, but I’ve always felt driven to push myself beyond laziness (despite being lazy), to remind myself that I’m capable of small physical and intellectual feats that I managed when younger. This means taking a cold shower (15-20 second) every single morning, signing up for a half-marathon one day and jogging 4 miles in the park after not running at all for 6 years, taking the stairs with 40 pounds of groceries, waking up early to go to synagogue despite sleeping far too little, speaking French even when I can use English, writing essays in Russian after emigrating at 9, and many other small and big challenges I set for myself on a daily basis over the years. Maybe it’s a way to stay young at heart.
The point is, it works quite well to keep me physically and mentally nimble despite all the setbacks and hardships in life, the bad logistics and circumstances and other things I can blame when I don’t feel up for doing something. Oh, did I mention having a kid? Nope, no excuses.
18. When you fail, fail quickly and cheaply.
Learn from your mistakes and never make them again. Going forward, avoid jumping blindly into any new venture, relationship, debt, career, trip, religion or scheme. Always do your research ahead of time on the people involved, cost, previous successes and failures for others who’ve been through it. Always get a second, third and fourth opinion. Always look for a cheaper, better, faster option of whatever you’re considering. Don’t trust “gut feelings” until you’ve analyzed in depth all the relevant data to understand the likelihood of success (and failure).
Take calculated risks. See how others who have done the same thing have fared over the short and long term. Read and ask questions on Quora, Reddit, in related forums and in person. Crowd-source solutions from your networks. You’ll be shocked how much useful and highly relevant information you’ll find out there to solve just about any problem you can ever face.
19. Get fired at least once.
Make no excuses when it happens. Take a short time to let the strong emotions pass. Understand without resentment and emotional attachment what went wrong, how to fix it and what you need to learn from the experience.
When you get fired, figure out what you need to do differently to improve your performance. Don’t just blame the boss for being an a-hole and unreasonable. Are you in the right industry and role? Are you more of a start-up person than corporate or are you too risk-averse?
When I was fired once, it was incredibly painful, since it stopped income flow, disappointed my loved ones, shook my confidence and burned bridges. But I got up, rebuilt myself, understood what went wrong after the emotions died down and moved on with the difficult, but necessary lessons.
The key is not to dwell on the disappointment, but instead to see it as something you can (and must) fix. Understand the root causes (you may just suck at the job or care little for what you were doing; it was a bad cultural fit, the wrong role, wrong industry, company size, etc.; likely, it’s some combination of all of these). Now, look inward to understand better who you are, what role you’re happiest in and then find the company that will nurture and push you in that role, then the appropriate industry and title.
20. Live in New York City or London or Paris or other large metropolis for at least a year or two – ideally more.
You will go through many difficult, but amazingly fruitful growth experiences, which will sharpen your mind and craft and earning power and knowledge of human psychology far beyond anything you could imagine if you stayed back home.
Yes, you will fall for many schemes at first and make many blunders and likely fail in a few relationships and business ventures. But you will also build a thick skin, an appreciation for finishing what you start, a taste for competition with the very best and for always doing things at a high level and quality, for good food and drink, for great company, for what exactly it takes to be successful anywhere (you make it here, you’ll make it anywhere).
You’ll often be at the edge of the cliff and at the bleeding edge of everything cool and interesting and important – often at the same time. You will have the best time of your life even while totally miserable – if you survive long enough. You’ll make your best friends – and a few enemies, if you’re really good at something.
21. Dig deep to understand what ROLE you want to play in an organization. Forget industry and title. Figure out what you really want to do in life.
Are you happiest as the caretaker who makes sure everyone else around is healthy and has everything they need to do well in their roles? Are you most comfortable as the subject matter expert everyone goes to? Does it make you feel good to delegate to others and keep hammering the company mission and vision? Do you love selling others on the company’s mission and product?
I’ve had the fortune to work in many different roles, industries and companies over my career. I’ve built my own business, advised and consulted countless others, worked with the CEO and janitor and everyone in between. I’ve done finance and operations, product and project management, strategy, marketing, writing and everything in between. I’ve worked with every personality type from the relentless micro-manager to hands-off delegator to perfectionist and introvert subject matter expert.
Each person I’ve worked with has taught me a great deal about what kind of person I am and want to be, about what role makes me happiest and most comfortable (as well as what roles I hate), about the type of people I want to work with (and will categorically, never work with again). Industry and title are important only after you know that you’re a good and natural fit for the role you’ll be doing and the company where you’ll be doing it, working with the right type of people that will bring the best out of you on a consistent basis.
This way, you will do the best work of your life.
22. Sow new seeds every day.
Listen much more than you talk and absorb others’ knowledge and understanding of the world! Get out of your comfort zone to meet new people (at meetups, museums, markets, interesting events, not bars). Write down 10 new ideas a day on a notepad (and be religious about it). Read new books. Take courses. Learn new languages, skills and facts. Take on new projects and internships. Find new ways to make a name for yourself (and generate revenue in the process). Write thank you notes to people who’ve helped you to stay in touch. Visit new places. Take a new way home. Experiment with new foods and ways of seeing the world. Most importantly, always keep moving forward and have no fear! Never stay still.
You simply never know when a random bit of knowledge will help you get ahead in life, when knowing another language or culture or having a certain skill or worldview will get you in the door of your dream job, when the simple (but rare) ability to listen and empathize with another human being may find you a spouse or new best friend.
My own experience has seen me starting to write a handful of books (novels, self-help and others), tens of articles, meeting tens of thousands of interesting people, changing careers, hearing and telling hundreds of stories, speaking in 4 languages at one dinner table, traveling to 4 continents, taking on far too many projects at once, starting several businesses, learning about my capabilities and limits and countless other amazing experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything, despite the many false leads and dead ends.
23. Just show up (and be on time).
As the cliche goes, this is indeed half of what makes someone successful. Just showing up consistently puts you ahead of the great majority of people in just about anything you do, especially things you do well. Do it long enough and you’ll accomplish great things by persistence alone, even if others have more intelligence, speed or savvy than you.
If there is a “secret” to how I’ve gone through all the hardships in my life, it’s definitely this last point. I’ve been lucky to know people that are more intelligent, faster and more savvy than myself. But the biggest successes generally come from those that have worked a long time at something, regardless of what others think or say.
As you inevitably go through life and fail sometimes and get frustrated, take more punches, know that it’s all for something, never just to make you suffer.
Grit and determination will get you through whatever hell you’re going through. Don’t give up and don’t listen to naysayers. Everything that comes your way, you can ultimately handle (trust me). Just keep going!
Later in life, you’ll come to see what blessing all the hardship really is. All the same, may your journey be easy and fruitful! I’ll be rooting for you.
Are there other proven strategies you’ve used to get through difficult times? Please share them with the Community in Comments below. We’d love to hear from you!
Featured photo credit: Christian Baron via unsplash.us2.list-manage2.com
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