Something strange happens to our brains in the wake of adversity, disappointment, and bad luck: we start to become sluggish, depressed, and bogged down.
Say your business takes an unexpected downturn, or you’re fired from your job, or you fail a critical test at school. It’s in these moments when you feel that swampy brain drain take effect. We’ve all been there. And in the moment, the sluggishness and depression you feel seems insurmountable.
But the good news? It’s not. In fact, if you can work to keep your brain in shape and prevent that descent into complacency and dullness, you can beat adversity and come out of it stronger.
1) Actively seek solutions for the challenge you’re facing.
We all have a tendency to focus on the worst aspects of our situation during times of adversity. We tend to convince ourselves that it will never end, or that we’ve irreparably ruined our lives.
But not only does this tendency drain us of mental energy, it also encourages us to do things which are actively bad for our brains, like sitting around binge-watching TV and eating ice cream.
Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, work purposefully to direct your mental energy toward thinking about solutions to your current problem. This will get your brain moving and get you thinking in a productive manner again — like getting back on the mental treadmill. As it happens, the best way to get your brain back in shape — to lift yourself up and start thinking positively again — is to try and ideate solutions.
2) Celebrate small victories.
To create momentum in building a more positive reality, you need to take small steps.
Break down big tasks into smaller parts and enjoy the completion of each stage. When it comes time to tackle something unpleasant, divide the unpleasant thing into smaller chunks, and dedicate 10–15 minutes toward completing them at a time.
Then, mentally pat yourself on the back each time you get one of these done. Hey, even actively celebrate: treat yourself to a new experience, visit a new shop, or go on a small trip out of town. Reward yourself, and you’ll train your brain to crave these small victories the same way it craves big ones.
3) Recommit to learning.
You should, of course, learn from other people who’ve gone through the same challenge. But you should also strive to read widely, connect with mentors, and study those who’ve come before you. Visit museums and art galleries, even if just for inspiration and a quick respite.
Learning so purposefully and committedly will, of course, serve to sharpen your mind, but it’s also true that sources of knowledge and wisdom contain elements of the solutions you seek.
You can’t conjure answers or good ideas out of thin air, after all.
4) Remind yourself the challenge will eventually end — because it will.
To this end, work to not only seek solutions and achieve small victories, but to also truly believe in their potential.
Here’s the truth: The more you tell yourself that your situation is horrible and your challenges are insurmountable, the more readily you’ll believe that. The brain is a self-reinforcing engine, and negativity is practiced.
But so is positivity. And the more you convince yourself that your challenges are not insurmountable — and that your solutions will in fact create a better tomorrow — the more adamantly you’ll believe that. You are the designer of your reality.
These are all things I did when my company, Skylum, wasn’t performing as I wanted it to.
For a moment, I thought things were lost.
But I applied myself to the task of improving Skylum, getting my brain in top shape, and finding solutions. I also told myself, “Hey, this will end. And more challenges will come in the future. You can get through this just like you’ll get through what comes next.”
What that taught me is, ultimately, whether you succumb to the brain drain of sadness and depression or fight through it to become better comes down to you.
You alone have the power to say you’re going to overcome your challenges and do great things — or not.
Choosing the former starts with keeping your brain healthy and sharp. In fact, it’s helpful to think of your brain as any other organ or muscle in your body: to keep it in shape and powerful, you have to work it out. Just as your abs will disappear if you drink lots of beer night over night and never exercise, your brain will prune up like a raisin if you just let it sit there idly.
Of course, I don’t want to forget or overlook the fact that combating the depression which stems from disappointment and adversity is remarkably difficult — especially the longer you allow yourself to wallow in it.
But it is possible to lift yourself up and get your brain back in shape. It just starts with reminding yourself, every day, that your mindset and your reality are things you create — things you design.
The harder you work to internalize that, the better positioned you’ll be to get off the couch and start working to improve yourself, sharpen your mind muscle, and find the solutions which are waiting for you out in the world.