For 40 years I’ve lived in a professional world of hyper-achievement. I’ve had the privilege of observing, working with and teaching many of “the best of the best” in their respective professions. These are intellectually gifted, hardworking, tenaciously goal-oriented people. During a recent podcast aimed at this audience, I was asked what I had seen from the last year that might help such an audience better prepare for and be resilient in the wake of future adversities—especially, the next “big one” so to speak.
In retrospect, we saw a year wherein a raging viral pandemic wrought havoc with the physical and psychological health of our nation, disrupted many aspects of the economy and threatened to derail the aspirations of many of these super-achievers. To add to the psychological toxicity of the pandemic, it seemed never ending. This led to feelings of frustration, burnout, depression and toxic uncertainty that some have referred to as “the creeping dread.”
It has been said that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it and those who fail to shape the future will be forced to endure it. While no recurrence of the Chicxulub asteroid is expected, another pandemic or some other world changing event seems inevitable to occur in the next 10 years. During the last 18 months, I’ve paid special attention to how the denizens of the intellectual, industrial and financial stratospheres have navigated profound and unparalleled adversity. Here are some of my thoughts on navigating the next catastrophe, whatever that may come to mean.
The ‘Destination Addiction’
It is essential to break the “destination addiction.” It is imperative to abandon the “destination approach” to the journey of life that many high achievers are taught at the earliest of ages. “Destinations” could include being chosen for an elite sports team, be accepted at an elite high school or college, graduating at the top of one’s class in every endeavor, achieving highly sought-after professional promotions, winning championships or even making a certain income by a given age.
Destinations are addicting. Destinations provide motivation, it’s true. But once achieved, many people go through “destination withdrawal.” Destination withdrawal is the psychological let down that often follows the attainment of some long sought-after achievement. The letdown can feel like an emptiness or an “is this as good as it gets” feeling. Sometimes this letdown approximates depression. In rare cases, even suicide may be contemplated. But what happens when the quest for the destination gets interrupted by some unforeseen catastrophe? The acute results can be even more psychologically severe. The withdrawal even more dysphoric. The abrupt interruption of an otherwise well-defined quest can lead to uncertainty, panic, desperation, frustration, anger and hopelessness.
Breaking the ‘Destination Addiction’
The phrase “life is a journey, not a destination” first appeared in the 1920s in a theological context. Secularly, Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” Breaking the destination addiction means understanding the journey of life is an ongoing process, not a series of quests defined by a beginning and an end. By embracing this notion, the concept of “failure” is eliminated. There simply is no such thing, only a journey replete with milestones that can serve to teach and even redirect. Thus, a catastrophe may shape the journey but never define it.
Past destinations try to define us. The past should never be allowed to define who you are or who you shall become. Psychologists often tell us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. In reality, research tells us that, overall, past behavior explains only about 15 percent of future behavior. As Maya Angelou noted, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” A journey without the concept of failure can be a powerful teaching tool.
The Stoic philosophers can help us navigate the journey of life. They argue people are not disturbed by things but rather what they say to themselves about those things. The power of “self-talk” is well-documented in cognitive science. Remembering three immutable realities can be useful. First, “Anything worth having is worth failing for.” Then, “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger.” Finally, “Life is a journey, not a destination; there is no such thing as failure.”
Breaking the destination addiction means being protean. Navigating the journey of life like the Greek god Proteus can be useful. Proteus was the eldest son of Poseidon. He is most known for his ability to change his shape as to take advantage of each life experience no matter its nature. Flexibility in times of great change and uncertainty is key. A destination approach to life renders one brittle. People, as well as organizations, that can adapt to forces known and unknown will bend but not break. They will be sustained.
So, what are the lessons to be learned that will guide us through the next catastrophe? Break the destination addiction, be open to all experiences in life as opportunities to learn and perhaps even grow. The journey of life does not end until you draw your last breath, and for those who believe in something greater than themselves, the journey continues even then.