Bullish: Responding to Disappointment with Awesomeness

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice every Tuesday here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

If you grew up with stereotypical dad — one who said “okey dokey” all too often — then he probably had some version of, “Life is unfair and then you die.” (I think this is supposed to make you feel that everything is going to be hunky-dory.)

Life is indeed unfair. Or rather, life is a thing to which fairness simply does not apply. Just as a baby or a turtle isn’t immoral, but rather amoral; life isn’t unfair, but rather an enormous collection of random goings-on and fly-by opportunities and drive-by shootings, with tiny pockets of ostensibly fair systems embedded within.

We should simply learn to expect disappointment, not to fear it, and to respond to it with awesomeness. If you’ve been recently disappointed, or are living tentatively for fear of losing your job, boyfriend, looks, apartment, or beloved elderly Weimaraner, here are some ideas.

Disappointment is simply unexpected freedom.

If you discover that, actually, you won’t be going to grad school, or your job will not be needing you, or, surprisingly, your husband has plans to not spend the rest of his life with you, you are suddenly going to have a lot of free time on your hands. Maybe not at first — you have to find a source of income really fast, or get a divorce lawyer. But in the big picture — you’ve got years of free time you weren’t really planning on.

When disappointment hits, try to say to yourself: I’ve been given a gift of unexpected freedom! I just have to fill out a bit of paperwork first.

What do you do with that freedom? That’s the fun part.

Respond to disappointment with awesomeness.

Do you worry too much? The solution to worrying is to make mutually exclusive plans.

If you are not laid off from your job, you will campaign for the top job in x, y, and z ways. If you are laid off from your job, you will become a yoga instructor, or decamp to Thailand for three months. If you’re broke, you could take every free workshop in town — finally getting to see what it’s like to wander the city at 2pm on a Tuesday — until you figure out what you want to do. The point is that it is not possible to take both of these paths. Yet, if both of these paths are exciting to you, then you really can’t ever be disappointed.

When I say that we should respond to disappointment with awesomeness, I mean that we should keep some plans in our back pocket for things we probably won’t do if all the good stuff in our lives works out the way we want. Because it does seem unlikely that you’ll lose your biggest client in the same week that your boyfriend comes out of the closet, it’s pretty easy to make awesome plans for what you’ll do in just such a circumstance. (Get ballsy! Go teach English in Korea and have hot sex with someone whose language you don’t even speak! See Bullish: When To Make Massive And Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career.)

That is, it’s pretty easy to imagine awesomeness when we don’t actually plan to follow through anytime soon. If your darling dog did, sadly, succumb to his heart murmur — think of all the other needy dogs you could foster. Pickles’ chew toys could provide joy to dogs who have been deprived the pleasures of chew toys. Maybe it’s possible to become #1 dog foster parent ever by, for instance, using your photography and marketing skills to showcase the dogs’ most charming qualities and thus find them new homes like some crazy dog yenta.

If, for some reason I could no longer write this column, or teach or coach anything at all, well, the next most awesome thing I can imagine doing is becoming an action-adventure hero. I doubt I’d get cast in the next Hollywood blockbuster, of course, but I think I’d try to script and film a hilarious superhero web series, and then I’d probably find that exhausting and need to make some money, so I’d make little instructional videos about how to do all the things I’d been learning to do (rappelling! punching not-like-a-girl!) and open some kind of action-hero academy that mostly took place in city parks and thus didn’t have to pay rent (see Bullish: You Can Start A Business By Tuesday). I’d try to start a movement kind of like burlesque, where ladies get all creative and craft their own costumes and personas, except we’d all be superheroes and wear athletic footwear and we’d never have to worry about getting glitter out of our ladyparts.

Of course, some disappointments in life are much more serious than losing your job. If, god forbid, your whole family died in a fire, you could abscond to an ashram in India, or you could develop a Ms. Fire Safety persona and visit elementary schools telling your story in a way that won’t terrify the kids too bad. You could help others, or just have a completely different life, as most people don’t get — or don’t take — the chance to live more than one life in a lifetime. If you find that sort of squicky — living a full and flourishing life following great tragedy — well, why? If you suffer eternally and live a limited life forever, who are you helping?

I talked in Bullish Life: How to Reduce Your Stress Level Immediately about mapping out worst-case scenarios and putting them in their place; your anxiety generally lessens quite a bit when you realize that, no matter what happens, you’re probably not going to die or go to jail. Maybe on that map, you could make some arrows leading someplace awesome that you would never otherwise go.

Fear of disappointment poisons the system. Fear can be replaced with excitement.

If you are living in fear of losing your regular paycheck or your lover, it probably shows. You are probably undercutting yourself, acting subservient, and living anxiously where you could be living joyfully.

You avoid living in fear by living with excitement for the possibilities that open themselves to you when randomness strikes, as it always does. If you lost your job, you would be able to fully throw yourself into starting a business. If you got divorced at fifty, you could go flirt with young men in the Bahamas, and then fill your entire house with floral patterns and plastic flamingos. You obviously shouldn’t walk around filled with excitement for all the fun things you could do if your family died in a fire, but you certainly can walk around impressed by the sheer unimaginability of all the possibilities available should your life take any kind of unexpected turn.

The world is a huge place, and there are so many other lives you could be living. I always recommend traveling, and especially traveling alone, to really help see that (see Bullish: How to Travel Like a Gentlewoman). While a pack of American tourists just tends to breeze through places, a thoughtful lone traveler can usually sit quietly in one place for long enough to think: I could live here. And so many things would no longer matter. I’d like to start some organization that just scoops up suicidal people and puts them on a plane. And then they wake up in Istanbul and someone brings them some tea and they walk around trying to find breakfast and they realize, All those things that were so bad just aren’t relevant here.

Living in fear of disappointment is often worse than disappointment itself. You quell that fear with the knowledge that every disappointment is simply a sudden freedom, and a certain space and emptiness are needed to make room for awesomeness.

Share This Post:
    • andrea dunlop

      My bucket list for Chasing Thirty was spawned right after a relationship and job ended unexpectedly so I couldn’t agree with this more. Great column Jen!

    • Emily

      Thank you. Thank you for all of your columns, but especially this one.

    • Meg

      THIS is awesome! I actually just sort of blew an opportunity that I really, really wanted a couple of days ago and have been wallowing a bit ever since. I needed to hear (read?) something like this, and “respond to disappointment with awesomeness” may or may not be my new motto. So thank you.

    • Amy

      So great! Thank you!

    • Abby

      I just recently found your posts, but they have really changed my perspective. This one today could not be better timed. I’d love to see you expand on the idea of how ‘living in fear’ is probably showing. Because you are so right. I can’t stop living in fear. And it is destroying everything, probably more so that if I just let what I was afraid of happening, happen.

      Is there anywhere else to read about your insights into life/relationships more regularly?

      Really, you probably get this all the time, but thank you.

    • Geraldine

      “I’d like to start some organization that just scoops up suicidal people and puts them on a plane. And then they wake up in Istanbul and someone brings them some tea and they walk around trying to find breakfast and they realize, All those things that were so bad just aren’t relevant here.”

      Best paragraph ever. I’ve always sort of had this thought (not about starting an organization, just the gist of it) but have never been able to/thought about putting it into such a great little explanation.

      You are so fantastic!

    • Jen Dziura

      Thanks so much, ladies! I really appreciate the comments.

    • Lauren Sab

      This quote right here:

      “If you are living in fear of losing your regular paycheck or your lover, it probably shows. You are probably undercutting yourself, acting subservient, and living anxiously where you could be living joyfully.”

      LIFE CHANGING. Love it. Thanks so much.

    • Kate

      I can’t agree more.

      I was laid off from a job that I loved in April. A neurotic, career-obsessed overachiever, I took this as the end of the world. I knew that finding a marketing/pr job in a terrible economy would be an uphill battle, and I felt deflated. So I called my dad.

      Surprisingly, my father, who is a former executive and the source of my career-obsessed neurosis, had only one piece of advice: “You should go to France for a while. Don’t worry about looking for a job now. Just go somewhere you love and then deal with all of this when you’re ready.”

      So I did. I spent the money I had traveling and eating and laughing and learning. And after a month, I came home and quickly found my dream job. (Or, at least, the rust belt version of a dream job for a 25-year old.)

      Every disappointment is a great, big, beautiful learning experience.

    • Geraldine

      Just reading this again a year later (I had forgotten I had read it but see my comment below – how cute!) and had another thought.

      Imagining plan b’s that you would enjoy is a good idea, but I think I do this a little TOO well when it comes to relationships – like make myself so okay about breaking up in order to avoid disappointment if this does happen that after every argument/discovery of their flaws/revealing of my own – I’m like, okay let’s break up!

      This is not helpful and makes me seem like a 15 year old.

      So my new solution in regards to avoiding disappointment is to really know that I’m fine with a plan b of doing other cool stuff that I could do when broken up, then putting that into a little mind box.

      And then I try to treat them as if we would be together forever and they would be the father of my children – not in a way that means I am hoping this will actually happen (ew).,but more in a way of, if an argument happens, instead of just opting for my rosy break up plan b – I try to actively think

      “do I really need to have this argument with the father of my children? look how adorable he is! I bet he will even drive them to soccer. When we are 80 years old, watching our last sunset in our rockers I will be glad I skipped this unnecessary argument and spent my time giving him hugs and appreciating his youth”.

      I’m still experimenting with this technique but I feel that it has made me a lot nicer girlfriend so far.

    • Giovanni

      It’s not so easy to forget someone though…. but this might work, after all life is so short and need to cherish each happenings. So, BYE2x to you JOAN AMANCIO, i’m gonna go jerk off and see what’s new, by the way I don’t like you…!