The Worst Things to Happen to Me Have Been the Best for My Growth

In weight lifting the expression “no pain no gain” is so cliche that even muscle-less men with dad bodies like me are familiar with it. Often times being sore is an indicator of a successful workout. What is cliche and commonly known for physical growth seems to be talked about much less for mental and emotional growth. Last month I lost my job due to a “reorganization”. This was a first for me. My first reaction was frustration and anxiety with a light sprinkle of rejection. This got me thinking about how many other situations have I been in that seemed dark but resulted in personal growth. I feel like I could write a novel if I included them all but here are a handful.

1. Growing up lower class: I had a financially unconventional childhood relative to a lot of my friends. I always had food to eat and a roof over my head but we moved around a lot. As a kid I didn’t realize or understand it was often because we were being evicted. At one of the lowest times we were living in government housing in Melbourne Florida called Temple Terrace. Skateboarding is universally “cool” now (thanks Tony Hawk Proskater on PS1) but in the mid 90s I got a lot of puzzled looks being the only white kid with a bowl cut, skateboarding on the basketball court in the middle of the projects. Watching my mom struggle had a huge impact on me. The embarrassment of not wanting to invite friends over to my house or sometimes not having a home phone number made me want to never experience that as an adult. I told myself that when I grew up I’d make sure I never had to experience these things again.

How this helped me: In Florida you could legally work part time at age 15. I got my first job at 15 at a computer store called Mr. Chips in downtown Melbourne Florida. Since 15 I’ve never not had a job. Having my own money was my first glimpse into the ability to control my own destiny. I’m still wired like I live paycheck to paycheck even though I don’t. This has played a significant part in my work ethic and drive.

2. Being suspended from work: In 2006 I was a Team Leader in a call center. One of the things I was rated on (as well as my own boss) was the percent in which my team adhered to their schedule. At the time if you fell below 90% adherence you were written up. Three write-ups and you were terminated. One lady on my team consistently had low adherence and my boss asked me to talk to her and explain if she could not return back from lunch on time this may not be the right place for her. When trying to deliver this message I learned she went home every day on her 30 minute lunch break to feed and walk her dogs. She told me that her pets were her life and she didn’t have anyone else to help her. After hearing how passionate she was about her dogs I told her it was okay if she was late from lunch but to to just make sure she stays above the 90% rate. When my boss learned how I communicated the message she brought me into HR and suspended me for insubordination.

How this helped me: At the time I was so angry and resentful because I thought I was doing the right thing. When I returned to work I searched the internal job site looking for a different role under a different manager. I found one in the corporate office in Pennsylvania and emailed the hiring manager. Eventually he offered me the job and I relocated to PA and laid the foundation of my career.

3. Losing my father: In 2016 I was on vacation when I learned that I lost my dad to suicide. This is an uncomfortable thing to consider anything positive from. If time machines existed I would surely go back in time and do everything I could to change it. But time machines don’t exist. And I can’t change the past. I’ll spare the details of his death, but the manner in which it happened and the note he left I learned it was pre-planned. I felt robbed of the chance to say goodbye and his note left me no closure. There’s this odd feeling of abandonment that comes with losing a parent this way.

How this helped me: Losing my dad reminded me life is fragile and time is limited. But it also made me more empathetic and sensitive to the depression of others. What I used to think was “just a bad day” I now recognize as a debilitating condition. I realize those with that severity of depression are victims inside their own mind. I also realize the responsibility I have to my own children when it comes to taking care of my own mental health. For me I know this is not a path I can ever take. I proactively invest in my own mental well-being much more than I did before. Since then I also invest more time in my relationship with my mom and fly her out to Arizona for visits a couple times a year. I now know how important it is for my own kids to know and spend time with her.

4. Losing my marriage: My parents separated and my dad moved out when I was in elementary school. When I became a husband and a father I took on the view that divorce was not an option. I was determined to have a home where my kids grew up with both parents. But that determination didn’t stop my marriage from falling apart and us growing in different directions. What seemed like one of the worst things I could experience ended up being necessary for the both of us.

How this helped me: I found an amazing girlfriend/partner and came to realize my marriage was very unhealthy. What I thought were the typical peaks and valleys of a relationship actually were very emotionally abusive, taking a toll on me. In the last couple of years in my marriage I became a shell of my former self. I had to go through that experience to understand what I did not want and to find the right partner for me. I now have someone that sees the value in me and even helped me to rebuild my confidence and self perception.

5. Losing my job: One Sunday evening last month I received an invite for a one-on-one meeting for the next morning with my bosses boss. It had no agenda and was scheduled for 15 minutes. I had no idea what to expect. I thought maybe he was leaving the company and wanted to tell each person on his team first before it was announced over an email or something. Instead I learned that two large organizations were merging and my role was being eliminated at the end of 2018. I’ve known layoffs have been a reality to many. Over the years I personally knew people that were laid off. Even with that knowledge, I was not prepped to experience it myself. Waking up one morning with a job I enjoyed with career plans and goals I was excited about and learning hours later I no longer had a job shook me up. It’s an interesting mix of panic and feeling useless.

How this helped me: After being pissed off and resentful for a few days I had to take an inventory of my skill sets and learnings from the past few years. I had not had a cold interview for a new role in a quite some time. I had a couple of interviews I bombed which forced me to go back to square one and I re-learned how to sell myself which in turn boosted my confidence. After a handful of emails, conversations and interviews with different companies I was offered a position that pays more money and a role that is a much better fit for me.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and what I am thankful of this year is finding the value and lessons during the dark and negative times. Unlike physical strength and resilience, it’s very difficult to proactively strengthen our mind state and emotional intelligence. Sure there are thousands of books on these topics. There is therapy that can arm us with coping strategies. But just like muscle growth, the most significant mental growth occurs under difficult and uncomfortable circumstances. The average person does not go out and seek emotionally challenging situations. Sometimes the best mental workouts are the ones we didn’t want or ask for.

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