Consider driving to some destination, with your GPS guiding you.. It turns out that one of the main roads you were going to take is under construction, and you can’t go that way. Despite your frustration, the GPS begins “recalculating”. With its directions, you take some other roads you are unfamiliar with, but end up at your destination anyways.
Now consider an airplane flying across the Atlantic. Because it is moving so quickly, the tiniest deviation from its flight path could lead to the plane being way off-course. Luckily, it has an internal guidance system. When the plane starts veering off track, this guidance system kicks in and helps make the adjustment necessary to get back on its path. Most flights will be off-course for over 90% of their duration.
“Cool, Mike,” you think to yourself sarcastically, “but what do I care about guidance technology?”
Good question! Unless you are a nerd (which is totally acceptable :)), you probably don’t.
But I’ll bet you do care about your own personal goals. And I’ll bet it bothers you considerably when you experience setbacks. It certainly bothers me!
I used to practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a really badass martial art focusing on submission grappling. It was incredibly fun, and I loved the “physical chess” aspect of it. It’s a great martial art for people who enjoy thinking and planning strategically, such as myself.
Unfortunately, one day I dislocated my left shoulder while trying to brace a fall while getting taken down. Man, was that painful! But I have these crazy weird shoulders, so I was able to recover quickly. The next week, I was right back at it. Guess what? I dislocated the same shoulder.
Now, you’d think at this point I would have noticed a pattern and changed my behavior accordingly. You’d be wrong. About three weeks later, I dislocated my left shoulder for the third time. Mind you, there was no negligence on my instructors’ part; in fact, I had multiple different instructors during this time. Finally, after the third time, I’d had enough. At the suggestion of my orthopedist, I stopped practicing BJJ.
I experienced a setback. Something that had given me much joy was snatched away from me. I’ve been told that, so long as my shoulder doesn’t act up again, I may be able to start doing BJJ again in my late 20’s.
I’ve been pushed off-course. In this area of my life, I’m going to be a whole decade off. But that’s okay, because I can make compensatory adjustments in other ways. I can still stay in shape by doing resistance training (carefully), and I can still have enjoyable hobbies such as writing. Sure, I have had to change things up a bit, but I don’t think that it has negatively impacted me to any appreciable degree. I very much enjoy my new activities.
And the point of this whole story is…
I’m about to tell you something that, at first, may seem kind of crazy. But bear with me.
You can be off course more than 90% of the time, experience regular setbacks, and still accomplish your goals and dreams.
The “problem” isn’t getting off-course; that is a necessary and even welcome part of life. The problem is failing to correct. Your path in life will not be a straight shot. You will constantly be veering to the left, then right, and back left again. But as long as you can recognize that you have gotten off the path and take corrective action, you’ll be fine.
When you have a larger setback, you may need to change your direction entirely. I had to change direction because of my shoulder, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get where I’m going.
It would be a mistake to think that this principle applies only to your goals and aspirations; while they are important, they are just one aspect of your life’s path. This applies to living your values, making mistakes and poor moral judgments, and so on. You need to be able to forgive yourself for these errors, correct, and move on.
It’s inevitable that you will be blown off-course, and you must be prepared for this. In fact, a huge part of living an interesting life is taking risks. When you take risks, you will experience setbacks. They are an inherent part of the well-lived life, and that is totally okay.
Think of it this way: it’s fairly easy for you to recognize the utility of physical pain, right? You are quite thankful, I’m sure, that when you put your hand down on a hot stove, you feel incredible pain, which causes you to take your hand away. Were it not for this pain, you would leave your hand there, causing much more serious damage. This actually happens to some people, and they usually die very young because of some correction they didn’t make.
So if physical pain can be a good thing because it motivates us to do something different, why can’t mental pain? It may hurt to, say, fail out of law school, but this could very well be the sign that you should change course. Perhaps if you had just barely scraped by, you would have gotten stuck with a job you hated. And while you could and should still correct at that point, you’ve already gone further off-course, and it becomes more challenging to get back on.
Recognizing When You Are Off-Course
If you are going to successfully correct yourself when you have gotten off-course, you will need to recognize these situations first.
Usually, this is rather straightforward. There will often times be an obvious “feeling” that you are off track. In these cases, all you need to do is notice this feeling and act on it.
In general, this will happen either when you make a more discrete and obvious mistake (being a jerk to your best friend, eating a massive plate of pasta when you are on a diet, etc.) or if you have been off-course for a long time and the feeling starts to nag at you or weigh you down (Why haven’t I been saving money? Am I really going to stay in this job forever? Etc.).
But you don’t want to rely just on this feeling; after all, for nagging problems, it could take years before the feeling is strong enough to compel you to take corrective action! And by then, your behavior could be so ingrained that it will be far more challenging to correct anyways.
It’s far better to nip any problems in the bud. An ounce of prevention, to use another cliché.
Something that I’ve started doing very recently is to spend about a half hour every Sunday for a weekly planning and review session. For the review part, I’ll ask myself what went well and what went poorly over the past week, with an eye towards any lessons or generalizations I can take from it. For the planning part, I’ll think about my goals for the upcoming week in various areas; physical/exercise, work, financial, social, hobbies, etc.
And oh yeah, make sure you write this stuff down. I have a separate notebook for this, and it probably comes out to a page a week. I can read over my goals each morning, and it helps me know what is important for that day. This is such an easy thing to do with such a high return, it seems like it should be a no-brainer for most people.
It’s also helpful to take a long view of your life sometimes. Project your beliefs or actions into the future. In other words, ask yourself: if I continue to believe the same things I believe now (or do the same things I do now), what will my life look like in 1 year, 2 years, 5, 10, 20, or 50 years? Spend some time meditating on this question and bringing up vivid imagery while you imagine these scenarios.
This exercise can be particularly helpful for overcoming limiting beliefs or self-destructive actions that are holding you back. It really gets to the heart of the idea of being on track, because it shows you what track you are on. We usually imagine that we can change our ways in the future, and we can, but it gets significantly more challenging over time. If you don’t like what you see, this might give you the push you need to get back on course.
How To Correct And Get Back On Course
So you’ve made a mistake or gotten off-course. What now?
First, don’t be too hard on yourself. Wallowing in sadness isn’t going to help at all. Depending on the nature of the mistake, I would recommend identifying things that ARE going right in order to keep you grounded in reality.
Beating yourself up over a simple mistake only keeps you stuck for longer. So what if you ate a piece of cake when you shouldn’t have? Just get back on the horse, no big deal. You have still been exercising and getting good sleep, right?
If your mistake is significantly larger, perhaps hurting other people, it’s only natural to feel bad about it then. But only to a degree. You’ll have to forgive yourself and move on at some point.
In any case, you will need to stop dwelling on your mistake in order to get past it, regardless of the magnitude that you’ve fallen off-course. You’ll also need to take responsibility for the correction, whether or not the setback was your fault. It doesn’t matter what or who caused you to veer off-course, but you are the only person who can get yourself back on.
Ask yourself: do I have control over this situation? In some cases you can control the outcome, and in others you can’t. But you can always control how you react to the situation, even if you can’t control it directly. If you had a drug relapse, you can control whether or not you let it derail you completely. If you are paralyzed while playing football, you may not be able to fulfill your dream of playing pro sports. Unfortunately, that’s out of your control. In either case, you control your internal mental state. You may have to shift gears, but you can still get on track in some way, and it is your responsibility to do so.
Allow me to clarify this point a bit. You had plans, hopes, and dreams, and you were on track. Then something happened, knocking you off-course. If you can control your ability to get back on course, take responsibility and do so. But if your plan is no longer possible to fulfill, you’ll need to take responsibility for changing your mindset (more on this later). You may have to accept your condition and move on to a different, potentially even more worthwhile path.
In order to actually get back on course, you will need to take action. This can be challenging, and you may feel as though once you are off-course, you might as well just keep going down the wrong road. Skipped your workout today? I guess you can skip it for the rest of the week, too.
Bull! This mindset is absolute poison. Instead of thinking about the long term, think about what you should be doing in this particular moment to get yourself back on track. I’ve written about this mindset before (see here and here), and I highly suggest you read those posts for more details. Sure, you skipped your workout. But you can still eat a healthy meal and get a good night’s sleep now, and then work out when tomorrow rolls around.
But What If I’m Already WAY Off-Course?
While the above advice can be useful in all situations, if you are very far off-track, you may need some more heavy artillery.
For instance, what if you are experiencing a mid-life crisis and realize that you’ve spent the past twenty years doing something you hate? A situation like this can be a bit more tricky.
If anything knocks you this far off-course, whether it was your own fault or a complete accident, I suggest you do a round of the starting from zero exercise. A simple version would be to imagine a blank slate, that you had no commitments or restrictions, and you could design the ideal life for yourself from there. I strongly suggest you read that post for more detail, since this is an incredibly powerful technique if you do it properly.
I do want to throw in one caveat to the above technique here. It is important that you don’t cling too strongly to whatever plan you make for yourself. If you become too attached to your plan, your ability to adapt to the things life throws your way will be hindered. Some unexpected things can knock you so far off-course that you need to be willing to adapt and to change your plan drastically.
The Story Of Eric LeGrand
A very powerful example of this comes from the story of Eric LeGrand, former defensive tackle for the Rutgers football team.
On October 16th, 2010, with about four minutes left in the game against Army, Eric became paralyzed while making a tackle. While being carried off the field, he tried to give a thumbs up to the crowd in order to show everyone he was alright, but he couldn’t.
He was brought to Hackensack Medical Center, where he was put on a respirator. Doctors said he would need it for the rest of his life. Clearly, a situation like this completely threw him off track for his goal to play in the NFL. He would need to adapt and readjust his goals to suit his new condition.
Just over a month later, he asked the doctors to remove the ventilator so he could breathe on his own. The doctors said he might be able to breathe for a minute without it; he lasted for 90 minutes. Soon he didn’t need it at all.
Since then, Eric has fought hard. He’s regained movement in his shoulders, and has sensation throughout his body. His new goal is to be able to walk again, and finish the only play he’s never completed by walking off the field. In the meantime, he’s found a new appreciation for life, and has been sharing it with the world by giving inspirational speeches around the country, despite the immense challenge of daily living in his condition.
He even gave one at Dance Marathon 2012, which was incredibly powerful. And while he can’t actually play football anymore, former coach Greg Schiano got him drafted to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so he has actually achieved his dream of being a pro-football player.
There is far, far more to his story that I haven’t included here. For more information on Eric, I highly suggest you read these two articles about him here and here. And I even more strongly suggest you take a few minutes to watch this video of him giving a speech at the ESPYs.
In the course of your life, you may very well spend more of your time off-course than having things go according to plan.
That being said, you can still get where you want to go despite this. As long as you can correct once you’ve recognized that you’re off-course, you will make steady progress.
What do you do to pick yourself up when you have fallen? Let me know in the comments.