“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
—Nelson Mandela, political leader and philanthropist
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
What you gain from reward is not strength, it’s support, and support creates vulnerability. Rewards also create boundaries, and we need boundaries to create safety and a sense of direction. But boundaries are a liability when we need to change or change direction.
We build strength from adversity. Adversity arises in situations that strip us of our needs. Being strong amounts to either being able to recover one’s needs, or being able to defend one’s needs, or not having needs.
Insulating yourself in a rewarded position creates weakness, especially rewards you can’t control. These rewards could be material, like money and crops, or emotional, like prestige and authority. If these rewards come from within yourself, then you are strong. If they depend on the opinions of others, then you’re weak.
Vulnerability is not weakness, but it’s close to it. It’s a potential weakness. Vulnerability means you depend on support. You can use this to your advantage by working to overcome it, and it can be an asset if it helps you empathize with another person’s needs, but you want to be invulnerable at your core. Be vulnerable to new understanding.
You gain strength by learning to protect what satisfies your needs and by sustaining yourself in challenging situations. If you are not challenged, you will not build resilience, and lessons in wisdom will threaten you.
No matter how noble or visionary, we all seek rewards or are satisfied with them. This is the pretext of evolution, that rewards direct change, and despite rewards often being misleading, the future is defined by them.
We might elevate ourselves by seeking the higher rather than the greater reward. But rewards are set more by those who offer them, and less by those who seek them. As a result, the overall benefits are those that meet the goals of power, and not the higher goals of justice, morality, or truth.
The smarter among us seek smarter goals, but who’s to say what smarter means? The same people who offer the rewards, that’s who. So we’re left in a situation where we either find our own rewards, which we give ourselves, or we follow the leaders. And what the leaders provide is mostly what short-term thinking desires: security, comfort, and self-satisfaction.
Most of my therapy for others and myself comprises redefining rewards. This amounts to reconsidering goals. The problem usually boils down to recognizing that each person’s needs are different and not what they’ve been told or believe. We disparage money as a reward, but money has one aspect that’s essential to health and higher consciousness: it’s conceptual.
The best rewards are those that address how we feel. We often say necessities come first, but necessities are relative, feelings are absolute. We can change them in the future, but in the present they define us. Finding rewards that satisfy your deepest feelings are as deep as we can get.
Brené Brown is a pop psychologist who’s made a fortune out of selling vulnerability. What she sells is a rationalization for weakness, and I think it’s trash.
To use the concept of vulnerability, you must distinguish two kinds. The first is the vulnerability to change, and the other is vulnerability to injury. The line between the two can sometimes be thin, but the first is positive, and the second is not.
Vulnerability to change includes growth, exploration, and understanding. Vulnerability to injury includes destruction, damage, and death. It’s true that growth often requires getting rid of things, but intelligent growth balances risk with reward.
To risk injury without a clear reward is gambling. I know this from experience. There are some risks I took that yielded small rewards under penalty of death. I survived and perhaps I got some reward, but the risks were too great.
It’s often easy to overlook the bargain that you’re getting into, but one sees more clearly with hindsight. Part of getting more conservative with age is seeing how much more there is to gain, and how much less you can afford to lose.
Each of us has different strengths, and we all gain by testing ourselves. Tests teach us what we don’t know. In profitable circumstances, tests are explorations. Most of us know tests from our experiences in school, and these tests were not profitable in anything but the most crass and material sense.
Like many experiences, those that involve many levels are most valuable. My most valuable tests have been those that involved a constellation of related lessons. These tests are like a network in that their success or failure affects wide domains of knowledge.
A positive test was going to graduate school. This was related to a vulnerability to low self-esteem and lack of skills. The test was not school success; it was personal success. Success in that trial was measured in self-appreciation.
One of my first lessons in schooling came from Eugene Wigner, a close associate of Albert Einstein’s, who told me early in my career, “Don’t read too much!” Now, 55 years later, I keep reminding myself of his admonition. What he meant was, do not worry about following in other people’s footsteps. Break your own trail and find your own rewards.
To do this, you must remind yourself that you are both the measure and the source of your success, not the tasks set by others. You must be capable of self-satisfying; feeling that you’ve done the best that you can do.
A negative test was a flying experience where I let myself get too far from the airport to assure my safe return. Once you realize you’re in this position, in an airplane that has no motor, there is little you can do about it. Things will lead to their conclusion which, in this case, was going to put me on the ground, wherever that may be. Given that the only safe place to land an airplane is at an airport, all other alternatives are life threatening.
It is in my nature to explore alternatives; to look for rewards in places where others have not found them. This is safe to do in art, science, and explorations on foot, but not in the air. There are stories of daring airmen like Charles Lindberg and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but their stories scare me. (Lindberg’s story appears in my interview with Clarence See in my book, The Learning Project at https://www.mindstrengthbalance.com/learn/interviews/clarencesee.htm)
Most of what we do has a built-in measure of lenience, but soar planes, like medicines, can be dangerous when misused. Maybe it’s just my lack of confidence in crash landing, but how do you gain confidence in that? The answer is practice, but crashing practice is touchy business.
The question of where to draw the line can be difficult when you don’t get a second chance. People lose their lives in high-risk sports because of an overdose of risk. I’ve had the privilege of knowing many of these people, all of whom were at the top of their game and died playing. Normally, I don’t believe in learning from other people’s mistakes, but one had best do this where lethality is concerned.
We rarely associate failure with success, but we should. I emphasize this with all my clients. Their troubles are their opportunities. It may be better to avoid mistakes by learning from others, but finding yourself in the throes of failure is an opportunity that you hopefully will never have again.
It’s quite easy to see the potential for strength in failure. All you have to do is to recognize what went wrong. If this is your own failure, then you’ll have a front seat view like no other. This is why you cannot really learn from the mistakes of others, because there is no fully immersive experience like your own.
We often hear stories of life flashing before our eyes, or time seeming to stand still. These are reports from people in altered states of mind. It’s in those states where there is insight, and you can’t learn that in a book.
Crashing an airplane, falling off a mountain, having a baby, becoming a parent: these are situations that cannot be graded. Even failing a test, as a personal experience, cannot be graded. These experiences put you into an altered state where you see the world differently. These experiences change us in ways that cannot simply be defined as getting stronger or getting better.
Strength-building experiences are not always traumatic, but we remember the traumatic ones more easily. I’ve had many successful, significant projects, and those successes did contribute to my skills and self-confidence, but I find success rings hollow. We’re more impressed by those who survive than by those who succeed.
Growth is more about finding solutions than finding rewards. There is nothing to be gained from reaching the summit, finishing on schedule, or gaining a profit. It is the journey that’s educational, but few of us appreciate it.
Knowing success is possible and struggling without achieving it is more valuable than succeeding. To fail means you are looking beyond your ability, but not beyond your imagination. The unending pursuit inspires others, while the contentment of success creates indifference.
The greatest strength is not being undefeated, as that’s always temporary, it’s being undefeatable as that aspires to permanence. Reframing failures as the rungs of success is not only encouraging, it’s methodical.
Resilience is strength in failure, knowing that you learn more about more things when plans fail than when they work. And if you cannot recognize failure, then you may never learn at all. Consider what you’ve learned when you’ve solved the same puzzle for the hundredth time, and compare that to what you can learn from a new failure.
All the proficient physicists I’ve studied are successful, yet none of them understand what I feel is important. Declarations of understanding get published, but declarations of confusion almost never do. And that’s why Wigner warned me not to read these success stories, because they are actually stories that mislead us. They are constant digressions away from what we don’t understand. Stay confused; it keeps you on the trail.
In emotional territory, poor parents who deny their failure become emotional zombies, flawed and unable to regain life. My mother was such a zombie. Pleasant, incapable, and beyond reach. I have yet to have a client who is not disappointed by their parent’s closed mindedness.
Refuse to accept the final result as failure, and also never be satisfied with success. Living things need constant vitalization, and that applies to ourselves, relationships, and house plants. Your bridges may burn, but do not let that stop you from rebuilding them. I am disappointed by those who give up on their commitments.
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
—Maya Angelou, poet and Civil Rights activist
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