This feels like deja vu.
This time last year, I was thinking about difficult gratitude, although the trigger was different. Here in the US, we had just gone through an election. For many of us, it was an incredibly challenging time to find anything for which to be grateful.
Grasping for anything to make the Thanksgiving holiday bearable, I wrote about the difficult gratitude practice that I picked up from James Altucher. It’s a habit that forces him to be grateful for things that are difficult.
It’s not about ignoring the pebble in your shoe. It’s about being grateful BECAUSE of the pebble in your shoe.
Funnily enough, I find myself going there again this year. It’s for an entirely different reason though, and it feels a whole lot lighter (and less depressing!) than last year.
This time, I’m grateful for a past experience that was so difficult and painful for me. And for a bit of meta, I’m grateful that I’m finally at a point when I can be grateful for it!
Here’s a brief backstory: I had a long corporate career (successful by my own definition of success) which I decided to leave towards the end of 2013. The inciting incident for this career pivot decision was me landing in a hospital in February of that year, as a result of a long history of unhealthy work habits (zero work-life balance, that kind of stuff) and an extremely stressful and difficult work environment leading up to it.
This year, I can finally say that I’m grateful for those 3 difficult years that led to my hospital trip in 2013.
I’m not merely twisting something negative to make it sound like it’s positive here. There are three genuine reasons (that I’m now thankfully able to recognize) why I’m grateful for those difficult years.
Reason #1: Those three years led to the hospital trip that led to my career pivot.
This is the whole point about being grateful for the pebble in your shoe. If those years had not been as difficult as they had been, who knows what I would have tolerated? Who knows how much twisting-myself-into-a-pretzel I would have continued to do?
The silver lining in all that experience is that it created my break free moment. It led me to a point when I was forced to remove myself from the situation, which in turn gave me the white space to think about what I want for my future. It led me to a career pivot decision which paved the way for me building a company that I would like to be my legacy.
Reason #2: Those three years brought out some of my best work.
This may sound contradictory at first glance. How could those painful years produce my best work, right?
I’ve been working with a leadership coach who’s been helping me understand my conditions for success. In one exercise, she asked me to imagine all the times in the past when I felt on top of my game. She told me to focus on the details—what I was doing, where I was, who’s there with me, how I felt, and why I felt that way.
Many of the scenes that came to mind happened during those 3 difficult years. At first, I was surprised, but as I dug deeper, I understood why.
Those years were very trying times for me, in all respects. I was being tested and pushed to my limits. As a result, I was rising to the challenge. I was bringing my A game all the time. No wonder, it was then that I produced my best work.
And yes, eventually, the stress took a toll and the roof caved in. But I can mine the positive aspects of that experience.
Now I know how it feels to be on top of my game. I know what I need to thrive and do my best work. And for all the times that I doubt myself, I now have “proof” that I can use again and again. I can go back to those times when I knew I delivered my best work. I can only improve from there!
Reason #3: Those three years taught me how to walk away from something that wasn’t good for me.
On the surface, I had a job that had all the bells and whistles I could ask for. The title. The salary. The “prestige.” But dig deeper, and it’s clear it was not really a good situation for me. In fact, it was doing a massive amount of damage internally (headspace-wise) that would take me months and months to address.
It took 3 years—longer than I would have wanted—of me pouring myself into something untenable. But eventually, I found the legs to walk away.
My coach, a few weeks ago, pointed this out to me. Now I know how it feels to walk away. I will never wonder if I have what it takes to choose myself. Because I will always know that I had been able to do that once before.