When I was facing eighteen years in prison for a string of felonies long enough to make an organized crime boss proud, I made a decision that would alter the course of my life forever: I was going to change.
It’s not that I had a problem making decisions for myself before that time. I had begun my drug dealing career so I could get, and do, what I wanted: play music, party with beautiful women, get high, and have enough money to get my parents off my back. It worked, too. For a 23-year-old, I was hugely successful–as long as you only measure success by glitter and gold. I had the Teflon invincibility of a rock star, and the ego to go with it. Until the day the cops busted down my door and took me to jail.
It wasn’t automatic, but after speaking with my attorney and weighing our options, it was clear that I needed to go to rehab. Not only had I been addicted to crystal meth for over three years, but my attorney was sure that if I didn’t base my defense on my drug addiction, I’d be braiding someone’s hair in prison well into my thirties.
People think drug addicts are weak, but maintaining an addiction is hard! Addicts have powerful wills and incredible problem-solving skills: drop an addict in the middle of lonely road in Montana and that addict will find his drugs faster than you can find your car keys. I just needed to channel my abilities into something that wouldn’t kill me or confine me to a life behind bars.
So I did the thing that seemed to be in my best interest, not because I admitted failure or powerlessness, but because I decided to exercise my power in a new way. Yes, I had to change course dramatically and leave the world I had built behind, but I knew that I wasn’t about to give up on life.
It was made obvious to me, as it eventually is to most addicts, that the path I was on was no longer going to take me where I wanted. So I changed direction. Now, don’t get me wrong: powerlessness came into play quite a few times during the process of shifting course, most notably when I got kicked out of my first rehab for using. But powerlessness is not a new concept and it is not at all unique to addicts–we are all powerless over some events in life; we have all confronted moments of profound hopelessness and despair. All we can do, no matter the situation, is make the best choice we see at the time and go with it. We won’t always get it right. We will make mistakes.
The question, however, is how we deal with outcomes that don’t suit us–how we respond to the inevitable “failures” that are the near-universal stepping stones to success. Life is less about never making a mistake or never walking down a wrong path; it’s about what you do when those things happen. Because they will, and they have–in every success story there ever was.
We’ve all heard these stories–Abraham Lincoln continued to run for office after losing five political races in a row. Thomas Edison conducted over 6000 experiments in two years before he developed a reliable light bulb. J.K Rowling was rejected by twelve different publishers before finally finding a home for the Harry Potter books and a level of success beyond her wildest imaginings.
As Edison put it: “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
This simple mindset makes all the difference. For those who will succeed, failure is not an option; it’s not part of their vocabulary.
So how can we mere mortals adopt this sort of thinking, this lexicon of success? How can we develop an unfailing belief in our ability and allow that belief to drive us forward no matter what? Simply put, we must change our definition of failure and, in doing so, change our relationship with our struggles, our world, and ourselves.
You see, psychologists have long known that the best functioning individuals–those who seem happy and well-adjusted–don’t actually view the world realistically. They consistently overestimate their chances of success and their own performance. You might be thinking to yourself, “Shouldn’t I be striving for as objective a view of reality as I can muster?” Apparently not–not if you want a formula for success. It may be counter-intuitive, but if the old ways haven’t worked, we don’t have much to lose in trying something different.
It’s hard to imagine a realist continuing his work after 100, 200, 500 failed attempts at creating an electric light bulb. Now imagine Edison’s 6000 such attempts and see: anyone objective would have quit, realizing that the likelihood of success seemed low. What about being defeated in five consecutive races for elected office? Would a realist muster up the courage to do all that work again, knowing the odds of failure? Imagine what our world would look like if Abraham Lincoln had believed in his defeats more than his vision and himself–we may never have seen Barack Obama take his oath. Forget the “facts”–nobody has ever changed himself or the world by believing that what he’s seen before is as good as it’s going to get.
Successful people know there’s a chance of success, however distant or small, and they know they won’t quit until that success is in their hands. Period. So if true failure is really just giving up trying, there’s no way to fail if you simply keep going. Seems like a winning recipe to me.
After I got out of jail and completed rehab, people often told me how amazed they were at my transformation. I always told them, “I didn’t have a choice.” But even though I believed it at the time, it wasn’t true – I had many specific behaviors to choose from: keep dealing, keep using, move, stay, get a job, go to school, and more. And beneath those options, there was another, truly essential choice to make: to give up or not. Not giving up meant a lot of work, a lot of struggle, and many possible “failures”. But the alternative was simply not an option.
My first choice was to get a job, but after being rejected for a number of them, including one at a mall Apple store, due to my criminal record, I decided to go back to school. It’s not that a Masters degree seemed more likely than a job at the mall; it’s just that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I was not going to let my past mistakes determine what was possible for my future. As we’ve seen, success doesn’t work that way.
Eleven years later, I’m sitting here writing this piece for Psychology Today, holding a Ph.D. in my hand (not literally, that would be weird), and helping others overcome. So screw Apple, screw the mall–screw all the messages we hear and the messages we give ourselves about what we can and cannot do.
Whether your struggle is depression, addiction, a personality disorder, or a difficult marriage, just remember that part of the equation of powerlessness has to do with the way you see the world. With the idea of failure removed, each setback is only a wrong turn, a corrective lesson for a fresh attempt–and not a sign of falling skies. So let yourself feel sad or disappointed if you hit a rough patch on your way, but don’t believe for a second you’re hopeless. Don’t let failure be part of your vocabulary. If we could predict success by track record, we’d all still be reading by candlelight.