“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Bill Gates
20 years ago, I went through a deep teenager crisis which completely disrupted my life trajectory. From being best student in class and a competitive judo player, I became the shadow of myself, dropped out of school, and picked up multiple addictions.
This experience changed my life forever. I was only 18 but I thought back then that I was like already dead and would never feel joy again. Surprisingly, though, this fiasco turned out to be the most fruitful phase of my life.
It started as a reaction to a minor tension between my parents. I was probably not mature enough to understand and accept what was going on. As a result, the paradigm of success I had at the time was not making sense any longer and it exploded in pieces.
In a desperate attempt to numb the pain, I indulged into self-destruction. I stopped sport competitions, started to smoke, first a cigarette, then a joint, then a bong, etc. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.
I needed meaning but could not find it anywhere. I had picked up philosophy classes but what they were teaching there seemed superficial and did not answer my questions –or my distress. I dropped out of university after a month.
I felt increasingly isolated. I stopped talking to people. I would just write notes to my mother. I had built a hut in the forest where I would spend most of my time, in the loneliness of my morbid thoughts. So when people say “If only I could be 18 or 20 again…”, I think to myself that it was actually the worst time of my life.
It took me some time to recover. My parents had the wisdom not to push me. I did not want any help. They were confident that I would somehow get back on track. The odds seemed against them at that time. But actually they were right. I made it through.
In retrospect, I realize that there were many steps involved in getting over failure and building my life back. Let me try and share them with you.
1. Give up the victim mindset
When something bad happens, we tend to picture ourselves as victims. As a result, we adopt a passive attitude: if the world did us wrong, then it should also make things better again for us. It is as if we were trying to convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do to bounce back. After all, it is a comfortable thought: if there is nothing we can do about it, we have nothing to do but bemoan our fate.
The first step in my “recovery” process was a mindset shift. I simply realized that nothing was going to change by just waiting for it. I had been through tough times but I could not expect the solution to come from outside. I had to hold myself accountable for what was coming next. No one will look after you if you don’t start by looking after yourself.
This realization did not come overnight. It took me almost a year to get there. Of course it was frightening. When you are at the bottom, you can’t fall lower. If you try to come back up, you expose yourself to failure again.
But the biggest risk at this stage was not to take any risk at all. By maintaining self-destructive behaviors, I would just lose any chance of a better life. What did I have to lose but the hell I was living in?
I had touched the bottom and pushed it with my foot. I was ready for action and committed myself to getting back to the surface. There was a long way to go.
2. Change the setting
Our lives are deeply influenced by our environment. The place where we live, the people we know, etc. They are part of our identity; they are constant reminders of who we have been to date. To a certain extent, they anchor us in our past.
This is natural, and even comforting. But it may be unhelpful when we strive to create change in our lives. People sometimes expect us to behave in a certain way which makes it difficult to adopt new behaviors.
When I decided to rebuild my life, I felt the urge to break free from the past –at least temporarily. I enrolled at the university in a town where I knew no one. It made it less awkward to try and be the new me that I wanted to be. There was no sign from the past; I could focus on the present. It was like a cocoon in which I could be born again.
Sometimes changing the outside makes it easier to change inside. This is what behavior psychologist James Prochaska calls “Environment Control”.
Depending on the severity of your setback, you may not have to go as far as moving country or city. But taking a 1- or 2-week break at least can prove beneficial. It will facilitate the introspection process and help you get a fresh perspective on the situation.
3. Know yourself
Major breakdowns shatter our identity. In order to move on with life, we have to rebuild a sense of self.
Who am I? How did this fiasco come along? Where do I want my life to go from now on? I knew I needed answers to these questions in order to get back on track.
When life doesn’t go the way we want, we tend to avoid mirrors and the ugly reflection they send back to us. Yet facing the mirror and raising awareness is essential to pick ourselves back up after a fiasco. Without self-awareness, any behavior change process has very little chance to mature.
I used two mirrors: reading and dreaming. I would read voraciously anything that could help me understand the situation better: psychology papers, books on mental illnesses and spiritual experiences, biographies from people I felt somehow related to, articles about substance abuse, etc.
This is also when I started to write down all my dreams. I had a Dictaphone next to my bed and I would wake up at night to record a few words and remember the dreams the next day. I became an expert dreamer! I could remember up to 20 dreams per night very vividly. I didn’t feel the need to analyze them. By simply acknowledging them and exploring my subconscious, things were getting clearer: my fears, my aspirations, the people I loved, what mattered to me.
Self-understanding leads to self-acceptance. It is the cornerstone of any genuine reconstruction process.
4. Body first
Critical setbacks in life leave us with a lot of uncertainties. We doubt whether any activity is worth pursuing.
At the peak of my personal crisis, I wouldn’t listen to any music anymore because I could not identify myself any longer with anything. Why would I listen to this song rather than this other one?
The first certainty that emerged out of the chaos was the importance of physical health. I did not know which life track I would eventually follow, but I was sure that I would be better equipped under any scenario if fit. This fundamental belief was where I started my reconstruction process from.
I went back to a healthy life with regular exercise, pushups every day, a balanced diet, no smoking or drinking, etc. The downward spiral was over. I was engaged in a process of progression which helped regain self-confidence.
When we are in good shape, our thoughts are clearer and we manage our emotions better. Our body is ultimately our home, our temple. Treating it with respect is essential to rebuilding a positive sense of self.
5. Mull it over and get it out
A life crisis is a traumatic event. We can be tempted to avoid thinking about it and live in denial in order to reduce our pain. Yet this can’t be fruitful in the long run. We have to face reality and confront our suffering if we want to go beyond it.
At the same time, we shouldn’t get stuck in unpleasant thoughts and relive in our mind the fiasco we have been through again and again. We need to eventually get it out of our system.
The way I did it was through writing. For about a year, I wrote poetry. I had some very strong feelings inside that I needed to crystallize in order not to drag them along. This was my emotional catharsis.
Creative activities such as journaling or painting can be immensely helpful in getting you over the bad aftertaste left after a personal fiasco. The point is not to create a masterpiece, but to let go of limiting emotions.
6. Set goals
Goal-setting probably saved my life! As I engaged in a reconstruction process, I felt deeply frustrated with where I stood. Setting personal objectives allowed me to set eyes on a new horizon and move forward. I was perhaps very far from where I wanted to be but I was on my way there, step by step, day after day.
I wrote a list of the goals I wanted to achieve in life, organized them by category (physical, intellectual, artistic, etc.), and kept a daily log of the activities that were me getting closer to these aspirations. This provided me with a sense of direction and helped me be at peace with my present self.
By setting goals, you make yourself responsible –you adopt the viewpoint that you can do something about your situation. By having goals, you take ownership of your destiny and become the architect of your life.
Don’t set too many at first. Try with three to five simple goals, with a focus on daily or weekly habits. Make them S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound); e.g., exercising 3 times per week, reading 20 minutes per day, or drinking 2 L of water daily.
When failure becomes an opportunity
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill
If you had asked me back then, I would have told you that I would rather have avoided this fiasco. It’s only years later that I recognized how beneficial it had actually been. A breakdown may shake you but it does not destroy you –it de-constructs you. The bricks of your life may be scattered all over the place but they are still here. This gives you a rare chance to rebuild from scratch the life you want.
It took me some time to get back on track. I eventually managed to enter a prestigious university and started a career in investment banking. 12 years later, I launched my own venture to help people reach their own life goals. It was a way to close the loop: failing, growing, and sharing.
The lessons I have learned and the habits I have picked up through this personal crisis stay with me to this day. This fiasco ended up having a positively transformative impact in my life.
When you experience personal chaos, you may not see the light at the end of the tunnel right away. It may feel like everything is over. Don’t freak out, it could well be instead a blessing in disguise and a rare opportunity for you to step back and build the life you want.