When Sh*t Happens. Overcoming Adversity.

It was a warm summer evening in Toronto. As I sat on the park bench I felt light headed. My stomach felt knotted and I was short of breath. I was confused. My life was derailed forever. I was 16 years old and my girlfriend had just told me she wanted to break up.

For months I holed myself in my bedroom, refusing to speak to anyone. I was too distraught over this unfair tragedy.

While at 16 most everything can qualify as a tragic event, as we progress through life, very real and difficult events will happen to all of us.

Relationships fail. People get sick. Accidents happen. Tragedy is is a part of life.

Even when we seemingly do all the right things, take all the right precautions, sometimes things just don’t go as we hoped. As the saying goes, sh*t happens.

I had read Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book, which outlines Sheryl’s recovery from the tragic sudden loss of her husband. Adam Grant, a psychology professor from Wharton, adds scientific insight to Sheryl’s story. I found myself quoting the book on a semi-regular basis to friends, so I decided to structure and capture takeaways from their book here. In this post, I also included additional takeaways from other sources or my own experiences.

“Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B.” -Sheryl Sandberg

While we can’t control what happens to us, we can certainly control how we handle what happens to us.

I believe it is this interpretation of external events is what enables us to recover from tragedy, and hopefully even come away better as a result.

Three areas covered in this post are:

  1. 3 Common pitfalls to recovery
  2. Creating happiness
  3. Forward growth

3 Common Pitfalls to Recovery

When something bad happens to us, often times we feel a mix of strong emotions, pulling us in various directions. We run endless story loops in our mind, none of which usually makes us feel any better.

Research by Martin Seligman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that a person’s ability to recover from a setback depends on how we define the setback. Seligman has defined 3Ps, three common emotional reactions that can hinder our recovery over negative events.

When we face a negative event, it’s important to keep these common pitfalls in mind and to not let them persist.


“If only I had…”

Many times when I’ve experienced something negative, I think to myself over and over  if I only I had done something differently, things would’ve been better.

But not everything that happens to us happens because of us. It seems natural to blame a bad event on something we did or did not do. Our actions are inputs to what happens to us, but we need to look at the overall picture and understand what is in or out of our control. We may have done everything we could, but things can still go wrong.

We should, however, still take responsibility for what we can control. Taking responsibility is different from taking blame. It’s important to fairly assess and define what is and isn’t within our responsibility and control.

Once we know what we have responsibility over, we can seek to do better in the future. For everything else, we have nothing to do with what happens.


 “Everything sucks”

Too often, we let setbacks permeate all parts of our life. A failure or tragedy in one area does not mean failure on all areas of life. But it often feels like that.

When I flunked a job interview, one which I thought was the biggest interview of my life, I doubted my entire ability to be a have a successful and rewarding career. I doubted myself, lost motivation to do anything, and thought I would never achieve a rewarding career. I just wanted to hide under the covers.

We need to fight the feeling of pervasiveness and remember that there is a lot more to our lives, much of which to be grateful for.


“What’s the point?”

When we feel pain, we feel like it can last forever. When we experience a setback, we feel like it our life has gone awry and things are over.

It’s important to accept our feelings and to accept the setback, while at the same time accept that the feelings don’t last forever. In fact, research has suggested that if a major life trauma happened over 3 months ago, it has no significant impact on a person’s happiness.

Creating Happiness

“I don’t have one minute of regret. It was a glorious experience.”

These were the words of Moorese Bickham, a man who spent 37 years in prison. How could a man who spent decades in prison describe the experience as glorious?

Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, in his excellent TED talk describes how some people, after tragic events can seem to be just as happy or happier than before tragedy struck.

It turns out we all have a psychological immune system, which helps to shelter us from the worst effects of misfortune. Our psychological immune system allows us to create happiness, “synthetic happiness.” Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.

At it’s core, synthetic happiness comes from accepting things for what they are. When we’re stuck with an outcome, our brains are capable of finding a way to be happy with what has happened.

Interestingly, we often get in the way of our psychological immune system. Our brains grossly overestimate the intensity and duration of a negative event. We let the negative event drown out positive events and we prevent our brains from construing what happens into a positive light.

dan gilbert happiness chart
Lottery winners and paraplegics were found to be equally happy one year after their event. Source: The surprising science of happiness, Dan Gilbert

An interesting aspect of synthetic happiness is that Gilbert’s research has shown synthetic happiness is every bit as real as “natural happiness,” the happiness we feel when we got what we wanted.

The trick is to accept our events, and let our brains move on.

Our brains grossly overestimate the intensity and duration of a negative event.

Growth through Tragedy

Post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, the stress and difficulty encountered after trauma experiencing or witnessing terrifying even is a fairly well known concept. Tragic events can be a shock to our systems, causing severe distress.

But there’s also a less discussed after effect of trauma – post traumatic growth. Post traumatic growth is positive change as a result of adversity, tragedy, or traumatic events.

Here are some ways that one could actually grow from a traumatic event:

Forming Deeper Relationships

We all know that a support system of people is crucial in helping overcome setbacks. Sometimes we benefit from the support of those close to us, sometimes we benefit from the support of those who’ve also gone through the same experience as us. In both cases, there are opportunities for deeper relationships.

In my second year of engineering school at Waterloo, I failed calculus (MATH 211, Advanced Calculus for Electrical and Computer Engineers), a course fundamental to the curriculum and identity of an engineer. The fact that I studied hard and still failed made the failure especially difficult.

However, my friend Anish had also failed the same calculus course. We ended up studying together over the summer as we prepared to re-take the exam. To this this day we still share stories of the intense difficulty of the coursework and we laugh at the stories of trying to study over the summer.*

Gaining Appreciation for Life

It sometimes takes a negative life event for us to take pause and count our blessings. In our everyday lives we can get so consumed with the minutiae of life that we see experience more stress and negativity than calm and optimism. We often focus on why things aren’t better. The impact of a negative event can provide us with new perspective that cultivates gratitude for life.

Sometimes it’s only after a negative event we realize things could’ve been worse, and we realize how lucky we are.

Finding Personal Strength

I came upon an interesting quote recently:

“As long as you’re reading this, you’ve survived 100% of the negative events that have happened in your life.”

It’s difficult and often painful to survive difficult events. But sometimes, when we look back at what we’ve gone though, we find strength in our experience. Sometimes it takes a setback for us to discover how resilient we really are. Through finding strength, some people can actually propel to greater heights following a tragedy.

Connecting the dots

“You can only connect the dots looking backwards” – Steve Jobs

I frequently refer to the above quote. It encompasses the idea that no matter what happens, no matter how confusing, difficult, or crazy life gets, we have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future. To me, it’s the faith that everything will make sense looking back one day.

Faith is not only a belief that it’ll all make sense one day, but faith is also belief that things will get better, that tragedy will pass. Life can get confusing and difficult when setbacks occur. If there’s no faith that a tragedy shall pass, we’ll never get through it. Faith provides us the strength to muster on.

“Start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud” – Admiral William McRaven

All life involves some level of tragedy or suffering. It’s part of what makes life the complex, yet beautiful existence we all share.

We’re not always in control of what happens to us. But we’re in full control of how we let events affect us.

With some of the tactics outlined here, perhaps we can all move towards our best futures.



* I credit this summer as a major catalyst towards my obsession with DJing while in college. Anish had a set of Technics 1200 turntables at his place in Toronto. I had started to get into DJing, but didn’t have a full set of DJ equipment yet. More often than not, meet ups to study calculus at his apartment turned into sessions on the turntables, as I fumbled my way trying to mix records. So failing calculus also helped cultivate a decade plus passion. 🙂


What do you think? Let me know your comments.




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