Often as we go through our lives we encounter situations where we feel, “I can’t take this.” There’s a lot of subtle reasoning behind this: our emotions are derived from whether we think we can cope with losses (secondary appraisal), how well we think we’re doing in relation to others (relative deprivation) and our disproportionate fear of short-term losses compared to short- or long-term gains (myopic loss aversion).
These are reasonable fears. A sufficiently large short-term loss can kill you. SO it’s rational to worry more about those. And we can’t see ourselves from the outside; looking at how others are doing around us as a guideline is also reasonable. And we certainly don’t want to tackle situations we can’t cope with.
But we’re often wrong about all of that. We often catastrophize potential failures as being far worse than they are, our comparisons with others can become unhelpful if not pathological – and since we unrealistically distort threats, we often far underestimate our ability to cope with problems.
When real shit happens, it sometimes puts things into perspective. For me, I used to complain that grad school was hard, and it was, but it wasn’t as hard as Grandmother breaking her hip after midnight on Christmas Eve. I used to complain that work was hard, and it was, but not as hard as getting the call that you’ve lost your mother. And preparing for a complex business trip can be hard, and maybe it is, but it is not as hard as discovering that you misread the expiration date on your passport just before flying.
When any of those things happen, you have to stop fretting about it and just get on with doing it. Now, admittedly, some people can break down when that happens, but for me personally, I find that my emotional fretting turns off, and my mind just focuses on what I need to do to get it done.
Case in point: above is a tree.
My wife and I used to walk under the limbs of that tree almost every night that we took a walk. You’ll note you can’t do that anymore, because the tree started leaning. As best as our tree doctors can figure, many of the trees that the previous owners planted on the property were planted with the transport basket still on the tree; while the tree would remain healthy for a while, eventually the roots get too big to go through the mesh of the basket, the roots turn inward, the tree becomes root-bound, and the whole basket turns into a big ball bearing as the tree gets bigger and bigger … and unhealthier and unhealthier, preparing to fall.
This one began leaning a month or two back, but we didn’t notice it until one day it just was too low to walk under. Shortly thereafter we saw that the tree was beginning to tear up the ground as it twisted in its great ball bearing. We’ve done this dance before; this isn’t the first tree we’ve lost to this process, or the second.
Now, after I left Google, we deliberately dialed back our work on fixing up the yard – which, due to the year and a half the house sat between owners, needs a lot of work. It’s been a juggling act as I spun up my consulting business, and fretting was involved as we traded a goal to fix this broken thing against an aspiration to improve that thing that versus a desire to maintain this other thing. We’re blessed to have this nice yard, but at some points, it can feel like we might be more blessed with a small apartment.
But once we started whacking ourselves in the head with that tree limb we used to walk under, we had to focus, make a decision, and get it done. We had to get on with getting it gone, as I said in the title.
It’s sad to lose the tree. But, if there’s any silver lining in that, it feels good to know you can solve a problem when you need to. And I find focusing on that is really helpful, because the next time something happens, you can remember times you solved those problems, and use that emotional resource to solve the next one.