In life we will vary in our risk-taking. Some people have the sort of childhood that encourages them to be naturally bold, whereas others like things to be safer, with less risk of major downsides. It’s one kind of doctor that wants to deliver babies and another who will do your surgery. There’s some overlap, but they specialize for a reason.
Even if we’re the type of person that is careful about risk, our circumstances can alter our natural setting. Being unusually attracted to a person can lead us to be braver, romantically, than we might ever have been before. There’s entire industries built around offering the poor unlikely though not impossible relief from constant struggle. Even going a long time without a win can really motivate someone to take chances they otherwise wouldn’t.
The trick is, even when we’re reacting in-the-moment and we know our extra effort or courage is coming from a much-desired opportunity, we still must stay aware of how we have shifted our identity and what we have left at risk. That doesn’t mean you never take chances–you have to to live–but it does mean that they’re calculated. This not only helps you succeed, it also helps you fail.
When answering readers questions about time management, I’ve posted before that sometimes a failure to succeed is not even within reach. I myself have very elderly and frail parents that often can’t wait, but I also need to earn a living and attempt to maintain the rest of life, including maintaining friendships, although that last one is often the sacrifice when caring for people who generally can’t be left alone for a long stretch. There is no amount of management that solves that.
The worst thing we can do is regret that we may not be able to avoid failure in some significant way. Either you’ll run out of time, resources or enthusiasm before you’re done or not. Understanding those limits allows us to act quickly, and with as much wisdom as possible, if things tumble out in unpleasant ways. This is inevitable in any life, so we can’t live seeking to avoid it, we must learn to surf the bad waves as well as the good ones.
The hardest part for people is their attachments. If we believe we need some object or amount or victory before we can feel good about our lives, we’ve lost control. But if we feel our duty is to say balanced and minimize damage, then we’re just doing what we’ve always done–we’re managing our life with the most balance possible.
If staying on your surfboard requires you to throw away some valuable weight, spending time assessing the loss will only delay your reaction and generate more pain. Conclude, accept, act and then move forward with grace and dignity. Ultimately there is no other way and resistance only creates more pain and delays things further. It’s not like your priorities will dissipate just because you have. No matter how bad the work day was, your children or your parents or your other responsibilities don’t cease to exist. In fact, they’re a gift. Because when you can’t do much to improve your own life, a really great reaction is to try to improve someone else’s.
Don’t dwell on big mistakes, even if you worked hard to plan or work around them. Don’t get caught up in ideas of fairness or the volume of your effort, those are all irrelevant at some point. Take solace in the fact that the effort will still have helped strengthen you, even if the effort itself failed. Knowing how to face hardship is ultimately more valuable than any other life skill, and even there, you can fully exercise your character and values.
Everyone experiences hard times. If you’ve put in a good effort and tried your best, as the Dalai Lama notes, there is no basis for any regret. We can take a moment for the painful acceptance to sweep over us but, once it has, our duties are usually self-evident and there is little else to do but to change paths and begin walking anew. By that point, the only thing that will make it particularly painful will be your own voice, in your own head, discussing what-ifs. Those can be compelling, but they are also created by and for you. So you’re free to create them. But all your ego will do is keep you from the clarity you require from success. Even in the din, a quiet mind will stay closer to wisdom.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.