People Power: Learning from adversity - November 2022

By Sam Allman

We are probably headed for an economic dip, according to some economists, though unemployment continues to be low. The Fed’s attempt to curb inflation by increasing interest rates, the U.S.’ $30+ trillion in federal debt, and the Russia-Ukraine war are placing our economy and future in unfamiliar territory. Who knows-it could be more than a dip. Some paint a bright picture; others paint a more dismal one. Some give me hope; others make me prone to worry and despair.

As humans, we are prone to be most affected by the doomsayers. We become like Chicken Little, believing that the sky is falling. “Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail. Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well,” from “Sometimes,” a poem by Sheenagh Pugh.

It’s a natural part of life to be concerned about our unknown future. That concern motivates us to prepare for it. We store food for the winter. We save for retirement. We build fortifications and make weapons to protect us from potential enemies. We exercise and eat well to prevent early death. We go to school, learn trades and master life skills in order to make a difficult existence easier and less stressful. This motivation is what has made humans the most successful species ever on this planet. It’s the essence of self-discipline: the willingness to endure short-term pain for greater or long-term gain.

Yet there are some events for which we can never fully prepare, things which exist largely outside of our control. I think of all the issues about which I have ever worried or ruminated on in my lifetime: nuclear war, being drafted, inflation, costs of living and education, rising interest rates, overpopulation, climate change. Some came to be; some did not. Ironically, whether something bad is real or just imagined, the suffering can be the same. And then there’s all the pain I caused myself by worrying about stupid little things that were not that important, not life-changing, only distracting.

The point is, it doesn’t really matter whether we are headed for an economic dip, a recession or a depression. Many things we worry about never happen; and if they do, they work themselves out, we work through them, or they cease to bother us because we accept them or their consequences, or we attack them and reverse them or change the consequences. Doesn’t that remind you of the Serenity Prayer? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I believe that is the essence of life: figuring out how to do that during all the different cycles and life stages in which we live-the ups and downs in our economy; the cycles of the Earth’s seasons; the cycles of productivity, abundance or famine, drought or flooding; the trials that come with adolescence, adulthood and old age. Some things we can prepare for; others we can’t. We must learn to expect the unexpected.

When Kemp Harr originally asked me to write this column for Floor Focus, my definition of “people power” was the ability to achieve one’s desired results personally and/or through others. I need to add another line to the definition: competence to flourish through the expected and the unexpected. Competence makes one effective. Effectiveness means getting the best or optimal results possible.

As we learn and experience life, we eventually learn what works, what works better and what doesn’t work at all. Those with “people power” are competent at achieving the results they want, as well as dealing competently with the vicissitudes of life. I believe that’s one of the reasons old people like me are generally the happiest and the most consulted for their wisdom-we know what works and have learned to handle life competently through thick and thin.

Becoming competent is not easy. We can learn a great deal from school, books, family and mentors, but the most effective learning comes from experience and doing. Our formal school usually ends in our 20s, but what we learn about life continues until we die. As we face each of life’s challenges, we learn, we grow, we change, and hopefully we become more competent. At times, we have to face some challenges more than once, until we finally get and incorporate the lesson. If you don’t get the lesson life wants to teach you the first time, don’t worry; it will remind you again later in a more forceful way. Eventually, it will teach you what you need to know if you are paying attention and not shirking responsibility.

Your learning will never be effective unless you take personal responsibility for your life and learning. You must face your challenges head on, with a “bring it on” attitude. Failure is an even greater teacher than success; that’s why we should not be afraid of any challenge. Most will not be life threatening. Competency improves when our ego is set aside and we take responsibility for everything that happens, even if we were not culpable.

If you choose not to be responsible by blaming, shaming or justifying, you cease your development and lengthen the learning process. Victimhood leads to helplessness. What do helpless people do? Nothing. It’s interesting that taking some kind of action in regard to the cards we are dealt alleviates depression and suffering. Action makes us feel better.

This world is full of malevolent people who inflict pain, both physically and emotionally, on their victims. Natural disasters do the same. Suffering is certainly not equal, nor will it ever be. It’s one of the things that makes life unfair. But true victims have to move past their sufferings, one way or another, in order not to be defined by them. While that is easier said than done, facing our challenges, changing what we can and accepting what we must moves us forward in becoming our best selves. And becoming the best we can be makes life easier even in all our suffering.

Since life is chaotic and full of the unexpected, we can be tossed to and fro, ending up in undesirable places. I believe there is only one real success: to live your life your own way. You can’t do that unless you know what you want. But that is not always easy to figure out. It takes immersing yourself in many things; it takes curiosity and willingness to research, to listen to your inner signals that tell you to what you are attracted, and to identify your preferences. You might discover the answers early in your life, or it could be a quest that never ends. It’s a discovery that may change as you move through life.

To stay focused during times of change and chaos, we need short-term and long-term goals around our desires and passions. Whatever you focus your attention and energy on becomes your reality. However-and I speak from experience-we can be distracted by the problems that present themselves in the ups and downs of life, focusing on what’s in front of us and delaying our personal progress. We need our attention on what we want and where we want to go, even during the storms of life.

As a former flooring dealer, I knew how to sell and install floorcovering, but I didn’t understand financial statements, how to read them and what to do to improve them. My experiences in my store gave me the competencies of customer service, solving problems, managing people, buying product, etc. I learned so much managing that business. I made up for the lack of some important competencies by just working long and hard, but my lack of competency in some areas certainly affected my ability to optimize the results I desired.

We cannot justify not learning a competence we need. Never has learning been so easy and available. I learned how to create a mortgage amortization schedule in Microsoft Excel by watching a YouTube video. I have learned a boatload of home improvement skills, too. With the Internet, we can find almost anything we need or want to learn for free. I have a retired doctor friend who is driven to improve his tennis game. He watches every instructional video he can find about playing tennis and then deliberately practices what is taught. He wants to be the best tennis player he can be, even in retirement.

I wrote this edition of “People Power” in London, England. My wife and I attended the theater and watched “& Juliet?” It is a musical written by Swedish pop songwriter Max Martin and a book by David West Read. They flipped the script on the greatest love story ever told, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In the play, the motivation for changing the story was provided by William Shakespeare’s wife. She didn’t like the original ending. Shakespeare’s wife asked (in my words), “Why can’t Juliet just move on? Why does she need to kill herself?”

The story was funny, thought provoking and insightful. It made me ponder, what is the greatest lesson that life teaches us? For me, it is this: whatever life deals, both expected and unexpected, we can write our own story. Our life is not one story but multiple stories and a plethora of chapters. We may never be able to rewrite our pasts, but we can change how we perceive them. No matter what happens, good or bad, we can respond in empowering or self-defeating ways. It’s our choice, and we write our stories based on how we respond to what life deals us.

According to Abraham Maslow, we are at our highest functioning, happy and fulfilled when we are learning and contributing. When experiencing the ups and downs of life, we develop more to become our best selves. Therefore, when times are tough, instead of hiding from our problems, our attitude should be, “Bring it on. I can handle it.”

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