The key to growth comes with accepting the darker side of the future.

by Sean Kernan

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I was drunk with false expectations. Adulthood ambushed me.

I felt like a porcupine who’d just wandered into a balloon shop. The disappointments, brutal heartbreaks, and personal failures seemed to exceed their quota.

Yet it was all so normal.

A part of me dies when I see a teenager on Facebook, posting idealistic, corny poems about how much she loves her boyfriend. Not because I don’t want her to be happy. But because I know, statistically, she’s probably in for a big letdown — just as many of us still are.

Embracing the ugly truths of life is like bringing an umbrella to an outdoor event. You don’t want it to rain. But if it does, you are ready. You’ll still enjoy the show. You are prepared to be uncomfortable.

1. Death cares little for timing, ‘good people’, or perceived great health

My uncle was a leading neurosurgeon and worked at, arguably, the best brain surgery hospital in the world (John’s Hopkins).

On a Sunday morning, he had a massive heart attack and was dead by the time he hit the treadmill he was running on. He was 50 years old. He died in the hospital gym while jogging next to a trauma surgeon.

Many years earlier, I was a young child, laying in bed with my mother tucking me in. I can vividly remember asking, for the first time, “Will I ever die?”

My mother, very kindly said, “We’re all going to die, eventually.”

It’s an unpleasant, albeit necessary conversation that many of you probably had early on. And with it, there was the implicit idea that it was mostly old and sick people who died.

Just remember that good, kind, moral people — who you are close to — could go at any moment.

Between 4%–10% of heart attacks happen before the age of 45. Death doesn’t owe anyone a calendar invite or a ‘warning shot’. Sometimes you’ll lose loved ones in rapid succession.

Life isn’t just short, it’s chaotically short, picking and choosing on a whim. This ugly truth should give you perspective and urgency.

Make it count.

2. Some of you shouldn’t be having kids

So many of the world’s problems would be solved if people who aren’t prepared to be parents just stopped.

Yet, alas, people have this weird obsession with their gene pool — or they treat sex and contraceptives like it’s a game they can hack.

It’s worth repeating the obvious: becoming a parent should be a calling, a deep and long-held desire. Not something you do on an impulse. You don’t have to go far on the internet to find grown adults talking about how terrible their parents were.

In fact, many people spend the rest of their lives trying to recover from bad parenting.

3. Most of your people problems are unrelated to malice

My ex-GF raged behind the wheel. In bad traffic, this 5’4, 100 lb woman morphed into a 600lb raging gorilla of an alter-ego.

If someone cut her off, she acted as if they’d just hit her pet. She’d shout swear words at her steering wheel, holding her hands up, calling down god’s curses on their futures.

Meanwhile, if she cut someone else off? It was just a cute little oopsie.

“B-b-b-but, I’m just a sweet little girl! <bats eyelashes> ”

I suspect many of us do this (a lighter version I hope).

We tend to view the world through an overly-adversarial lens. Modern media machines don’t help. They turn every public act into one of malice, rivalry, and deception.

It’s all so much simpler. Hanlon’s Razor asserts that:

‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.’

More plainly, you can attribute most misunderstandings to innocent ignorance (and idiocy) rather than aggression.

Most of your many issues with other people won’t be about ‘you’ per se.

Save yourself the mental hot air.

4. Much of your destiny is shaped by things bigger than yourself

I was born in a great country. I have awesome role models. My family is educated and has access to resources. These blessings were never more apparent than when I traveled to third world countries.

Yet the moment an employer passed me over for another candidate? I immolated myself as a cursed failure.

It never occurred to me that, “Hey, maybe the other candidate just nailed the interview or had a great reference.” And maybe I should remember just how good I have it.

Contrary to popular opinion, I think society has done a rather good job of teaching the importance of accountability and perseverance. Parallel to that, those who embraced those lessons usually set high bars for their lives.

If you count yourself as one of them, just remember that you are one individual, working to bend a very large future in your direction. There are lots of outside forces — timing, the economy, feuds, goodwill, competition — that will shape your outcomes, without you even knowing it.

5. You won’t always get full resolution

Someone can stop loving you for no reason. You can be the best partner there’s ever been, checking every box. It can still end. Humans are fickle and irrational. The why’s of it won’t matter. How much you loved each other in the past won’t matter.

Even further, statistically, a majority of you will be fired at some point in your career.

You won’t always be able to reconcile these experiences in your mind. Surrender to the fact that you are helpless to change the past. Let that pain be a source of growth.

For many, it already is. A study by Inc revealed that 91% of executives who were fired, ended up in as good or better jobs than the one they were terminated from.

6. We aren’t likely to acquire those hard traits we desire

There’s no research that supports one can significantly increase their intelligence or 10x their work ethic. In fact, those traits tend to stay relatively stable over time. Yes, you can improve. But keep your expectations modest.

The bigger message here — stop trying to be something you’re not. Society has done a great job of confusing us about happiness. Being the smartest, hardest working person in the room isn’t happiness.

You are you. Love the factory version.

7. People are selfish and that’s OK

Even the most generous people out there are selfish at times. In fact, altruism is often a form of self-interest: they are doing charity to feel better about themselves.

So expect people to view the world through a ‘me’ lens. It’s how they’re programmed to interpret reality. They will respond to incentives, their kindness often magnified by what is in it for them.

And when there is danger, figurative, or literal — don’t expect them to take a bullet for you.

Self-reliance is your best hope. The number of people you can count on in moments of great need is shockingly small.

The one side benefit I’ve taken from this — most of my most embarrassing moments aren’t really things anyone else remembers. Everyone is too busy reliving their own embarrassments to remember mine.

8. Lastly, people are going to say terrible things about you

I’ve always found it curious when people would go confront people and try to start fights because someone was ‘talking smack about them behind their back’.

At the end of the day, none of it matters. Terrible things will be said about you. Don’t expend energy trying to convert people into friends.

Let the people that want to be in your life, be in your life. Don’t sweat the rest of it. Best of luck.The Ascent

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