For fun sometimes, I like to answer questions on Quora.
The other night, when I was looking for a good question to answer, I stumbled upon this baby: “How do I turn hardships into motivation to get far in life?”
I instantly knew I was going to answer that question for two reasons.
For one, while my life is really good right now, it wasn’t always.
This question reminded me that I wasn’t always living how I am now. In fact, life was freakin’ bleak for all of my early 20s, and I’m not very fond of my teen years either.
I just remember being so sad for a while. I’d sit in my closet and just cry.
So not only do I really empathize with this person’s question, but because I’ve succeeded despite my hardships, I know there are ways to make it past a shitty stage in life and be happy.
Two, it’s an interesting question to me because looking back, I know the only reason I succeeded was because I was insanely motivated to escape my shitty life.
A part of me, as I become more and more comfortable in life, is losing that insane motivation I used to feel so intensely.
I’m not sure if it’s because I feel more confident and less under pressure now so I coast, or if it’s because I don’t need to be in this fight-or-flight mode of living anymore.
Anyway, I asked myself: what made me so crazy motivated back then despite all the bad stuff?
A few days later, I think I have a good answer, one that details the best tactics for turning hardships into motivation to get far in life.
Here’s my answer.
1. Believe it’s possible to succeed.
You must believe it’s possible to succeed. That’s first and foremost.
How do you do that though?
One way is by understanding the difference between the two mindsets—the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart and skilled.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
Your mindset steers your life, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found in her 20 years of researching the topic.
For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life? Believing that your qualities are carved in stone, the fixed mindset creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. […] I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . . There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable)–that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.
The massive difference between the two mindsets is that a growth mindset finds a passion for learning rather than looking for approval as the fixed mindset does.
Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
One way to develop a growth mindset is to realize everything in this world was created by people who were no smarter than you.
When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. I think that’s very important, and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, ’cause it’s kind of messed up in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
Steve Jobs was spot on. Knowing this changed my life and allowed me to propel forward during the dark times.
To maintain this “growth mindset” back then, I ravenously read biographies of famous people who were successful despite facing hardship after hardship.
Become insanely curious about other people’s stories. It will help you figure yours out faster.
Here are some resources to give you a little push in the right direction.
What the hell do I mean by “Be delusional, yet realistic?” It’s contradicting, right?
Here’s what I mean…
Be realistic about your situation and overconfident in your abilities. See the world as it is but believe you’re going to kill it.
All successful people are delusional. At least that’s what Marshall Goldsmith learned after studying insanely successful people for a while.
“Being delusional helps us become more effective. By definition, these delusions don’t have to be accurate. If they were totally accurate, your goals would be too low.” Goldsmith noticed that although illusions of control expose people to risk of failure, they do something else that is very interesting: they motivate people to keep trying even when they’ve failed… “Successful people fail a lot, but they try a lot, too. When things don’t work, they move on until an idea does work. Survivors and great entrepreneurs have this in common.”
While it may be comforting to distort reality in the short term, it’s likely harmful in the long run because it’s nearly impossible to solve a problem before you admit you have one, according to Goldsmith.
“Denying or distorting a bad situation may be comforting in the short term, but it’s potentially harmful in the long run because it will be almost impossible to solve a problem unless you first admit you have one. In contrast, having an especially strong belief in one’s personal capabilities, even if that belief is somewhat illusory, probably helps you to solve problems… A useful, if somewhat simplistic, mathematical formula might be: a realistic view of the situation + a strong view of one’s ability to control one’s destiny through one’s efforts = grounded hope.”
In order to be the good kind of delusional, let’s look at a story from the 38th richest American, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman.
Back in the day, Harvard waitlisted Schwarzman. When he found out, he phoned the dean to tell them they’d made a mistake.
The dean wouldn’t budge though, and Schwarzman didn’t attend his No. 1 school he so badly wanted to.
While most people would’ve just accepted the decision, Schwarzman wouldn’t.
“Well, I’m not good with defeat, and if I have a vision of something I’d like to do, I like to pursue it,” Schwarzman responded.
If you don’t achieve your objective the first time, you find another way.
The key is to know where you’re going and what you want. You don’t need to know how you’re going to get there. Just that you will.
“It’s like something going down a stream and there’s a rock, the water goes on either side … You don’t know which side you’ll be going, but you know you will get downriver, right… And so I tend to look at things from an imagination point of view of how I would like something to work.”
Today, Schwarzman is worth $11.6 billion and a graduate of Harvard Business School.
Years later, that very same dean who denied him admission wrote him a letter that said something along the lines of, “I think we made a mistake.”
Imagine how good that felt.
You can feel that good too someday, if you’re the right kind of delusional.
3. Get pissed off.
“But it’s anger that has kind-of informed my life and unflatteringly, a sense of vengeance. Every damn person who said I wouldn’t be anything, I’m crushing them every single day. Everybody I had to endure in any band I was in. Every day, into a powder. And I wish them no ill. I just wish to shine brighter, and if it burns my body to a crisp, I’m happy to go right now.”
I really relate to the above quote because I truly believe my anger was a significant factor in getting me to where I am today.
Looking back on my most impressive achievements, they all began with me being seriously upset about something.
Finding something to get pissed off about gives you the momentum and resilience to keep going after every bad turn in life… because you have a purpose.
It might sound funny that getting angry can actually reap useful benefits, but it’s true.
I’m not suggesting you be aggressive, but rather to be seriously determined. What’s the “proverbial chip” on your shoulder, and why is it there?
What infuriates you?
Absorb the anger. It will fuel you.
Fired? Get angry.
Passed over for a promotion? Get angry.
Someone stole your idea? Get angry.
Feel like you’re not in the right industry? Get angry.
Not making enough money? Get angry.
Once you’re angry, focus on getting rid of the thing you’re angry about. Basically, transform your anger into motivation that pushes you forward.
If you’re mad about getting fired, refocus your energy on killing the job search.
Prepare more than everyone else. Write an unsolicited recommendation strategy, or do some type of impressive side-project. But only if you want to get a job before anyone knows you’re even fired.
Dig deep, discover what’s holding you back—get angry and go about changing it.
There have been studies where angry college students did better on exams. Military Officers are taught to create anger architecture to harness the energy they create when angered. Getting angry in a controlled and focused way is used in business negotiations to intimidate. Angry negotiators are more optimistic about said negotiation and more often get what they want. Anger is about removing obstacles in your way. When anger transforms into fear and anxiety you shut down. The key is shifting to a forward-leaning anger-based posture in your life and business, which allows you to act and take informed risks. Desire is no longer restrained. It’s misleading to think that anger will cloud your judgment. Anger narrows your focus.Anger can lead to meaningful action and result in conflict resolution.
Take a college classroom. Who are you going to make friends with? The person sitting next to you. And unfortunately, the person sitting next to you is unlikely to be the best, most compatible person/friend for you.
If you’re feeling stuck and struggling to make the progress you want, take a look around you. Most people adapt to whatever environment they find themselves. They have what psychologists call an “external locus of control,” where they believe factors outside of them dictate the direction of their lives. Thus, they live reactively to whatever life throws at them. Who are the people in nearest proximity to you? How did they become your peer group? Was it on purpose or based on convenience? Do these people hold you to a high standard? Or do they hold you to an even lower standard than you hold yourself? If you want to improve and succeed in your life, you need to surround yourself with people who have higher standards than you do. As Tony Robbins has said, your life is a reflection of your standards or what you’re willing to tolerate. Most people are willing to tolerate unhealthy relationships, poor finances, and jobs they hate. If not so, those things wouldn’t be in their lives.
The 80/20 rule applies to people and peer groups. 20 percent of the population is moving forward, 60 percent of population reactively mimics whoever they are around at the time, and 20 percent of the population is moving backwards.
Most people are a direct reflection of those around them. If the people around them have lower standards, they drop theirs as well. If the people around them have higher standards, they raise their game.
You’ve been around people who, simply by being around them, elevated your thinking and energy. Those are the kinds of people you need to surround yourself with. Those are the kinds of people you need to be like yourself so that others are better simply by being around you.
Look for hungry, positive, smart, busy people who excel at different things than you do. That way, you have a complementary skill set and can help each other with things the other is an expert in.
This isn’t all about you though. Make sure you contribute to their success as well.
I used to live in Boston, and this is the biggest reason I miss it—I miss the motivation and drive you could feel there.
Starbucks stores were open until 1 a.m. and everyone was working on something exciting. Extremely busy people, yet fun at the same time.
Find your tribe, whether that involves moving, traveling, joining a co-working space, or entering a co-living situation, going to a different Starbucks or attending events that motivated, driven people would attend.
(I highly recommend moving if you’re in a slower-paced city. Moving to Boston changed my life. I truly believe it.)
For example, if you need a job, turn the hunt into a game. How many resumes can you email today? Can you beat yesterday?
Get competitive with yourself and celebrate the small wins. That’s what survivors do anyway.
Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation. (source)
6. Stay busy.
When times are tough, most people get scared, hide, or distract themselves. While this can help alleviate the pain, it doesn’t help you get out of the place you’re in.
Not only does staying busy inch you faster toward your goals, but it’s also the best way to stay calm and happy.
So many people think they can’t make it today if they don’t have a million dollar check from Mark Cuban, and that’s just stupid. To be successful, you must be creative and resourceful more than anything.
People who overcome hardships—whether they know it or not—understand bricolage.
“Bricolage is the construction of something new from a diverse range of available things — often cheap because people take them for granted or consider them garbage.”
Listen to this story…
In 1978, a couple (unknowingly) quit their jobs at the same newspaper the same exact day. They hated it and decided they couldn’t take it anymore.
Before they knew it, they were both unemployed and had little to no savings. To get by, they freelanced for magazines, but the inconsistent income made it difficult to just pay rent.
They didn’t want to work for anyone else, but freelancing didn’t pay enough, so they decided to start a clothing store. $1,500 was all they had in the bank—next month’s rent.
The bank wouldn’t give them a loan either.
How could they actually pull this idea off with so few resources?
While the couple couldn’t afford to manufacture new clothes, they could afford surplus shirts for nearly nothing because the seller just wanted them gone.
The shirts smelled terrible, but they couldn’t afford to get them cleaned, so they used their home machine and did one load at a time.
They couldn’t afford a storefront, so they began selling at the flea market. When that went well enough, they started selling in a store (that didn’t even lock) they rented for $250 per month.
It didn’t have shelves for the clothes either. Instead, they used wooden fruit crates.
And when they didn’t have the money to create a beautiful, glossy magazine, like their competitors did, they created the content themselves.
Some time later, I’m happy to report this isn’t that couple’s reality anymore. Ever heard of Banana Republic? That’s this couple. This is Banana Republic’s founding story, which sold to The Gap in 1983.
During the couple’s tenure, Banana Republic was one of the most successful apparel retailers in the world with more revenue per square foot of retail space than any other retailer in the U.S.—double the national average.
Yes, they had more resources after the acquisition, but getting to that point was no small feat. And the only reason they got that acquisition is because of everything they did along the way.
They went with the flow, accepted what they did have or could find in the trash, and stayed realistic about the situation at hand.
Instead of waiting for the universe to hand them good things, they went and took it themselves.
TLDR: they embraced constraints.
8. Want it so badly, you actually do it.
Champions keep going even when they have nothing left in their tanks.
They never give up, and so one day they inevitably will be successful. It’s just the odds.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
See, the key to success is simply not giving up. That’s it.
Will Smith articulates this sentiment beautifully:
The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?
You’re not going to outwork me. It’s such a simple, basic concept. The guy who is willing to hustle the most is going to be the guy that just gets that loose ball. The majority of people who aren’t getting the places they want or aren’t achieving the things that they want in this business is strictly based on hustle. It’s strictly based on being outworked; it’s strictly based on missing crucial opportunities. I say all the time if you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.
9. Get everything out.
Last but not least, there are things you can do to help you feel a little less stressed during the hard times.
My girlfriend raves about the therapy she went through after a bad breakup, and I’ve done hypnosis to help me with sleep issues. It can also help with a multitude of other bad habits.
You could also do something as simple as keeping a journal. Writing gets things out of your head, and it can feel like a massive weight of your shoulders.
I always write when I feel overwhelmed. It’s the main way I work through problems actually.
Ask yourself questions to get started if you have writer’s block. These don’t need to be cohesive though. It’s literally just a mechanism to get stuff off your mind and help you feel better and more in control.
I think it also helps you see, “Oh, this seems feasible/doable/reasonable. It’s not as bad as I thought. And even if it is, I can get through this with other people’s help, if necessary.”
Just keep swimming.
So to recap:
Believe it’s possible to succeed in the first place.
Be delusional, yet realistic.
Make friends with motivated people.
Make success a game.
Really want it.
Get everything off your chest.
Just keep going.
One day, you’ll wake up, and you’ll say to yourself, “Damn, life isn’t so bad right now.”
And then all the struggles will have been worth it. =)