Looking on the bright side isn't always enough
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Positivity as a mindset is only the start; go beyond making the best of things, to making things better.
The power of gratitude
Last night my little sister filled me with awe. Without going into the full detail, the events of the last week are like a surreal nightmare. On Wednesday she was on a long waiting list for a diagnostic procedure. Now she’s recovering from major surgery. And, as of last night, on a ward for fellow COVID-positive patients. With crazy geriatrics coughing, and SHOUTING, and reading her shopping lists. As we say in Liverpool, she’s pretty much permanently off her head on morphine. And now in addition to an achievement being a walk to the ward Christmas tree, she’s got what she calls her “puppy toy” to build up her lung capacity.
What I’m basically saying is, it’s not an ideal situation.
Back to the awe.
Before she went to sleep last night… OK, before the lights on the ward went out and the nighttime SHOUTING began… she told me the things she was grateful for. I’d like to say that my skills as a coach were the reason, that I’d done something to help from four thousand miles away, somehow found the magic words to lift her up in a dire situation. That’s the kind of thing that’s like a year-end bonus to my profession.
But it wouldn’t be true: it was spontaneous and all her. In the middle of what will go on a list called “days to lock in a box and bury underground,” she told me all the things she was glad about. It was, entirely understandably, a list she had to think about very hard. But the principle of it was literally, as well as figuratively, breathtaking, and made my eyes fill. The strength it took to fish around in a pool of sewage and pull out a pearl was humbling. It’s not something I’ve always been able to do myself. But recently I’ve been learning.
Looking on the bright side feels trite and Polyanna-ish when it’s imposed on you. Being told that things could be worse doesn’t come close to the well-meaning intended effect. Lost your job? Cheer up, you still have somewhere to live! Had a bad day? Let me tell you about mine! Yes indeed, things could always be worse, but they could also be better, am I supposed to just ignore the latest blow?
Dismissing someone’s suffering on the grounds that they could be suffering even more, is a careless invalidation. Next time it happens, please remember this instead. You’re allowed to feel despair, and rage, and sorrow, and frustration, and outrage, and victimization, and betrayal. You’re allowed to feel them, and give them their names. Actually, giving them names is great. It means you look them in the eye and say: oh it’s YOU, I know you.
Name them, and then defy them. Because ignoring those guys is as bad as letting them win. Both those options are the start of a downward spiral. When you’ve been to the bottom of the depression helter-skelter and made it back, you’re vigilant for the slippery feeling of heading downwards. You learn the tricks to build up the friction to stop you sliding.
The bright side is only the start
Seeing the silver lining can be impossible. No matter how good the intention behind the advice, being told to look at things a different way can feel more like a punch in the face than a helping hand. Finding your silver lining can be different. An outsider (like, yes, a coach) can give you an objective perspective, and that helps when you need extracting from a situation so you can rub your eyes and see it for what it is, not what it’s become in your mind. But only you can take that perspective and make it mean meaningful to you.
Which really brings me to the heart of what’s on my mind this week, which is going beyond the bright side. It’s similar to what you learn in coaching class, that gaining insight into yourself is a breakthrough, but it’s the action that you take as a result that’s transformative.
As a former scientist and lifelong Excel fan, allow me to present my thoughts in formula format:
Dwelling on negative feelings <<<< looking on the bright side <<<<< accepting a rubbish situation for what it is, then choosing to respond with something constructive
Maybe an example would help to illustrate?
The story of #milesforwilf
Earlier this year the world lost an incredibly special a 3-year-old. He loved machinery and barriers and John Deere tractors and trips to any supermarket that had bumps in the parking lot, because they were the most fun to be in a shopping cart in. The last time Wilfred and I were together, he explained to me on the way to Heathrow airport about the speed limit, what a blue sign meant on a British motorway and why it is so important to yield to other traffic. Then he treated me to a babycino and an almond croissant (maybe it was the other way round, I forget) and waved me off for me to take my flight back to the US.
I know how painful losing him to a freak illness was for me. I cannot begin to fathom how it felt for his mother, one of my best friends, another Jenn. I have learned that losing a child as a parent is the kind of thing that takes away part of you. That every day is a casually cruel reminder of what’s missing. That every future milestone you’d subconsciously planned on, from first day at school to 21st birthday stretching to the day you become a grandparent, have all been snatched away from you, vanished in a puff of smoke. I challenge anyone to take that cloud and find the silver lining. There isn’t one, and it would be unfeeling, naïve and idiotic to suggest there could be.
But remember the formula? The idea isn’t to count non-existent blessings; sometimes life is cruel and indiscriminate, so the leapfrog is needed. Thinking good thoughts is a good start, but if you can create something new and positive, it can counterbalance to what has gone before. I know it's harder than I'm making it sound. I do not know how Jenn has found the strength to be who she is. But I'm getting used to being in awe of the people I love.
Wilfred was alive for 1,239 days. As a group of five, Jenn and four of her closest friends, we took the challenge to cover 1,239 miles this summer. From the top of Ben Nevis to Glacier National Park via daily trips through the woods to Wilfred’s grave for a chat, evening dog walks through Urmston Meadows and even quarantine contributions from a garage-based rowing machine, we did the miles. Oh, we DID those miles.
So far, we’ve raised nearly $17k for Blood Cancer UK research. A pretty decent contribution if we say so ourselves. The cash is good. But the intangibles have been perhaps even more significant.
There’s something hugely motivating about knowing that you’re making a contribution to preventative research, because if even one family can never have to know this experience, then that’s worth the blisters, the walking through the draining, soupy humidity of July Atlanta heat, and the I-hate-running beetroot faces.
The thing about loss and pain during a pandemic is that you can’t hug the person you love and take it all away, just for a second. You can’t even be in the same room. In a UK under lockdown you might not be able to be in the same city, or in my case, country. But you can post photos on an Instagram account of sweaty faces and frizzy hair and the occasional shot of some scenery and a hiking boot. You can show that you’re thinking of the people you care about, remind them that you’re all in it together, that your thoughts belong to them.
Given the choice between creating an Instagram thought bank, and never having to be in the situation, of course we’d have Wilfred back in a heartbeat. Wishing he were still here will always be a thing. But that’s why looking on the bright side isn’t enough.
Positivity as a mindset is only the start; you have to put work into it.
Active beats passive every time
It’s not going to bring him back, but putting our energy into something constructive has created something new. The mental impact of the collective effort, the sense of purpose, the team work… it’s hard to put into words. It’s got a lot of people through a tough year and has grown an already strong friendship into something more. It’s almost a living, breathing thing.
People from both sides of the Atlantic have joined in. On what would have been Wilfred’s 4th birthday in November, the #milesforwilf photos flooded in and the display of love and concern from all over the world made what could have been an unbearable day for Jenn at least manageable. The whole can be so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Since we hit the final mile, done on a group Whatsapp call in the dark of an Atlanta autumn morning and a rainy day across four cities in the UK, we’ve all missed what it gave us. Purpose, motivation, connection… all the things that make life precious. So we’re going to start up again in January. I think we landed on 500 miles each next year. I’m going to need a new pair of trainers/sneakers.
Forget why me? Ask what next?
OK you might be thinking, this is all very touching but what do I DO with it? And aren’t you supposed to be an executive coach, Jen, what does this have to do with careers?
Last week I accidentally ended up in a Forbes column. The subject was COVID career pivots, and my tale of being crazy enough to start my own business during a pandemic made it through the editor’s cut. I would hope that everyone has had the story made into wallpaper by now, as befitting its importance, but if not, this is the condensed version: I wanted to work at an airline since the day I first flew as a toddler. I finally got my chance last September. It lasted for all of 6 months until the travel restrictions of the pandemic ground the world to a halt, and airlines started looking decidedly overstaffed.
Option 1: sulk, ask FFS, why me, why now?
Option 2: accept the situation for what it is and say, what next?
What next for me was take it as sign that security is overrated, and if you can’t get it in a great big company of 90,000 people, why not try going it alone. And what better time to try it than when your employer is offering extended benefits for voluntary severance? So I left and I retrained as a coach, something that had been hovering at the edges of my consciousness for a while, and here we are now. With the daily ups, downs, victories and anxieties that come with being your own boss, none of which I would exchange for anything. And to me it’s unremarkable, because I see it as just taking the reality of a situation and finding a way of making something better out of it. But it has been brought to my attention that actually that’s not a “just.” That it would have been easy to be despondent, or not take a risk. So that’s my experience, you may take it for what it’s worth, along with all the other stories in that article of taking a chance.
They say that 95% of your life happens in your head, so you should make it a good place to be. I agree. Everything starts with your mindset. But sometimes you need to go beyond finding the silver lining to the cloud. I guess what I’m saying is, it's so much more powerful to paint your own sky.
You can donate to Wilfred’s justgiving page here