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Acquiring wisdom through the right kinds of adversity
Jane: You two are funny. I can't imagine what you're gonna do without each other next year. Evan told me you didn't get into Dartmouth. Seth: I got into some schools, some... pretty good ones. So I'll be fine. Jane: You gonna miss each other? Evan: No. Miss each other? No, thank you. I don't, I don't miss each other. Seth: Yeah, I'm gonna cry myself to sleep every night. Evan: Me too. Seth: When I'm out partying.
When I was rejected from six prestigious, bumper sticker-worthy colleges in the span of a few weeks back in high school (and just got into my two "safeties", yes feel bad for me...), I felt like a punctured balloon that had been deflated without warning. It was the first time I had actually failed at something. And although I was wise enough to know hard work can still lead to failure, I wasn’t wise enough to believe that it would ever happen to me.
I look back now and actually feel appreciative the whole thing happened, because it was the exact sort of classic high school rejection I needed (and a reality check on entitlement... how many people can't even afford to go to college?).
Today's note is on adversity... and the conditions in which adversity is beneficial, teaching us something that success can't.
But first, let's dive back into the story...
I really enjoyed doing school and worked really hard at it in high school. The hard work naturally extended, neurotically, to my college application process.
I remember I spent ~30 hours on my main application essay alone, which included a bizarre hyperbole about how not even an axe murderer chopping through my door (à la The Shining) could break my focus as a practicing musician.
Evidently, this was a big swing and a miss for the admissions officers. My Pavlovian association between hard work and reward disintegrated as I started to intuit what writer Steven Pressfield really meant when he wrote:
“It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. Nobody wants to read your sh*t.”
40,000+ application essays is a lot for a small team to intelligently read/skim/glance through...
Reading all of my rejection letters more generally, I also learned a laundry list of other, bigger picture lessons:
Don’t take rejection personally
Work harder and smarter going forward
Don’t let your ego go to your head
Supportive family and friends are irreplaceable
There’s more to life than where you go to school… or prestige! in general. William Deresiewicz’s bestseller Excellent Sheep nailed that.
Could my parents or teachers or coaches have taught me these lessons? While they could have told them to me, I wouldn’t have listened to them and learned them nearly as well. I just think there are certain lessons you can’t learn from a book or while inside of an air-conditioned Kaplan learning center. As Marcel Proust said/wrote (not sure which),
“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us…”
There is something to be said for the value of learning to trust authority by actually touching a hot stove, or acquiring humility by seeing your own bubble popped, or building resilience by fighting through some long-term frustration. Adversity can often motivate us to learn tough lessons like these. We’re forced to painfully break an attachment to an idea of who we are—and then either swim forward... or sink. The lessons are learned when we can swim. That’s fortunately what happened to me.
Adversity's "Nuances" Some forms of adversity can cause us to sink, no matter how optimistic we are about the situation. Not every stressor has even the potential to be beneficial, and I'm sure most would agree that there are certain traumatic events just not worth experiencing. So what kind of adversity has the potential to make us stronger and wiser, and which kinds should we be wary of? In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt lists out three conditions that typically correlate with the more beneficial forms of adversity, the kind we should welcome for the lessons it could teach us. The conditions are:
The setback we experience isn’t too sudden and severe
It happens when we’re in our teens or twenties. (While this isn’t a prerequisite, adversity experienced at this time is more likely to have a long-term positive affect, because we’re old enough to push through it independently, but young enough to still be optimistic about the bright future ahead.)
We have strong relationships to support us as we try to move forward
On this list, we can’t really control #2, because adversity doesn’t plan around birthdays. But we can actually improve the odds of condition #1 by practicing some techniques from practical Stoicism, such as fear-setting, which allows better preparation for worst-case scenarios. In my case, the worst-case scenario happened, and I was not at all prepared for it. We have a lot of control over #3. I've written about this before. Haidt also discusses the three key benefits associated with pushing through adversity:
It strengthens our hidden abilities and virtues, such as courage and resilience, promoting growth
It serves as a filter, separating out the fair-weather friends from the people who actually have our backs
It causes us to focus more on the present, even if only temporarily
This is why we look back on some of the difficult times we pushed through with a sense of nostalgia, and even pride. The stressful late nights at the desk, the loneliness of a new place, or all those bad first dates come to represent who we are and what we’re able to withstand. What I like to take away from Haidt's work is that not all forms of adversity are created equally. Getting turned down by investors for several months straight or losing a lot of money is one thing, but a sudden traumatic experience is certainly... another. This is a helpful way to frame up what kind of challenges we really should dig for to toughen us, and which kinds of risks we should avoid if possible. In my case, I aimed for the moon when I applied for college and received more wisdom than what I was expecting. It was, in retrospect of course, the "right" kind of adversity.
Further Reading (1) Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz (2) The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt