I will never forget the sight of my friend - let’s call him Antonio - sitting at my kitchen table, his face white as death and literally pulling his hair in despair. I’m sure we all know a guy like Antonio; a cocky investment banker, highly intelligent, highly overpaid, working hard and playing hard.
Unfortunately however, he had been working for Lehman Brothers… And like many others, he had invested most of his money in the bank. Being in his late thirties, he just had his first child and recently started to pace down a step or two to enjoy the merits of having worked like a slave for the last 15 years.
So here he was - stranded in my kitchen because he didn’t know how to tell his wife that she no longer was married to a jobholder and most “toys” would have to go.
I am sure every one of you could come up with similar examples of prior unpredictable cases of financial failure as the result of poor investment or poor judgment. And everyone will understand that the stress and consequences involved can dismantle the strongest character, leading to discouragement, depression and – worst case scenario – even suicidal attempts.
What such stress and all its side-effects such as the impairment of the immune system or ones mental health can do is worth a whole other column (that I will be sure to address soon). What I’m aiming at for now, is to cast a positive light on, believe it or not, the good side of that Worst-Investment-Ever.
The learning system of the brain is like a highly sophisticated “mega-computer”. It is “programmed” (if we stick with the computer metaphors) to learn nearly anything within our individual limits of intelligence. Amazingly enough, we have the capability to “reprogram” our way of learning and what kind of information we pick up faster or slower: by purposely exposing ourselves to certain learning environments such as the schools and universities we choose to visit, the books we decide to read and the people we surround ourselves with.
We can even train ourselves to filter out aversive thought patterns that aren’t useful to us by practicing special thought techniques (see my first column, How to turn your BMW into a Ferrari and “Cognitive Reprogramming”).
Unfortunately, we humans are primarily wired to learn from negative experiences.
Not only do negative experiences get assimilated into our memory system much faster and easier than positive ones, but our brain also actively seeks out negative information to process. To continue the computer analogy: it’s more important for survival to scan for viruses or bugs than to acknowledge all the systems that are working well.
This is one of many reasons why headlines present primarily bad news: the news services are catering to our brain’s eagerness to find and process negative information.
You might believe that this is a pretty gloomy outlook on life and protest the idea since if you’re an optimistic person (good for you!!), but this particular way of information processing actually keeps us out of a lot of trouble, educates us, and strengthens us for that to come…
What Antonio and others in his situation most likely are not aware of – cause yeah, their lives seem to be falling apart – is that:
a) Every devastating situation also brings about a manifold of new possibilities
b) They are force-fed an enormous amount of information that will most likely prevent them from repeating these mistakes
c) They gain insight in procedures and facts they would otherwise never have attained
d) They, like most people, neither like to leave a comfort zone nor change a winning team - meaning: that heroes or wildly successful people aren’t made by things going smoothly but when things go wrong.
Do you have any idea what Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford and Walt Disney have in common? They ALL went through bankruptcy and came out of it stronger and more successful than before.
So if you or a loved one is going through the experience of losing your job and/or your money then please keep in mind, no matter how painful the process is, it can be a growth-process if you let it. Take all the information you’re getting, regroup, reassess your assets and look out for new opportunities. If Antonio, now father of two and one of the CEOs of a fortune 500 company, can make it, so can you!
* Silja Litvin has a a Masters in Psychology and is currently working on a PhD in Psychology