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Wallowing in the Trough of Sorrow

The last few weeks have been very strange for me personally. I was dealing with a major setback in my life and was wallowing in my “trough of sorrow” — a term made famous by Paul Graham of Y-Combinator and explained beautifully by Joe Gebbia of AirBnB in a must-listen podcast called “How I built this”. And then a few days ago, I read about the shocking suicide of a 24-year old student. He was in his trough of sorrow and decided to end it all. May he find his peace on the other side.

All of us experience the trough of sorrows. There is no way around it. Some of us are lucky and swim out of it. But there are many like Arjun, who get sucked in and never return. As a society, we don’t talk about our trough of sorrows, setbacks and failures. We are taught to keep our failures to ourselves because we might get exposed and someone might take advantage of our vulnerability. But I disagree with that. Being human and acknowledging that we are prone to failures is not a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

So as a first step, I am sharing my own trough of sorrow and hope that it helps any Arjun out there to know that he is not alone.

Here goes. March 22nd was an important day for me. After 4 years of back-breaking work, I was going to defend my thesis in front of an exam board appointed by my university in the UK. I was all set for the big day. After a gruelling 2-hour viva, I was sent out of the room to wait. I was cold and hungry. One part of me was tense and the other part was excited and planning my future. I visualised the successful outcome, imagined the scene of accepting congratulations from all quarters and basking in the warm glow of success. After a 55 minute wait, I was called back in and told these words “You will have to resubmit with the following amendments…”.

I was stunned. I knew my face had lost its colour and I was trying hard to hold my tears. My entire world began to collapse around me just like how it did in the movie — Inception. My supervisor immediately took control and led me out of the room. She drove me to a small cafe and kept cheering me up. I tried my best to look brave but deep inside, I was shattered. When I came back to my room, I spoke to my wife, crashed on the bed and wept inconsolably. I felt angry, sorry, humiliated and helpless.

18 hours after this episode, my mind came back to normal. I was able to think clearly. As a father and a teacher, I lecture my children and my students on “the importance of dealing with failure”. This was my turn to follow what I preach. Here are the things I did to deal with this episode. I would love to hear from you how you deal with yours.

  1. Accept the situation wholeheartedly — firstly, I was in denial. I just wasn’t ready to accept what happened. I even hoped that by some miracle, the board might change their mind. Or maybe, this was just a terrible nightmare and I will wake up. My mind kept shutting the reality out. But then I told myself that I will accept it the way it is. I cannot run away from the truth. I knew that the next few months won’t be pretty. I might lose few good opportunities that were due soon. There could be financial losses too. Maybe, I will be a topic of conversation and laughter for some time in my peer group. But I have decided to embrace and accept it all.
  2. Stand up, dust yourself and start walking again– A day after the setback, I decided that instead of wallowing in the mud, I am going to get up, dust myself and walk again. I had a hearty breakfast and watched a movie on TV. It was Patriot Games. Didn’t exactly cheer me up but it was a welcome diversion for my mind. I took a shower, dressed up and walked around the hotel. It was very cold. I realised that I am not Iron-Man and ran back to the warmth of my room :). My supervisor came by and we had a good lunch together. We talked about books, movies and life beyond my thesis. We celebrated the outcome together and felt good that we came this far. In the evening, I met a wonderful family who made a simple warm meal for me and made me laugh with their amusing stories.
  3. Stop beating yourself — A big villain in this phase is your own self-flagellation. One starts to feel low and it is quite natural. The self-esteem takes a big beating and so does one’s confidence. It is a vicious circle. But there is no magic pill out there to help you. The only way you can deal with this problem is to stop beating yourself. I told myself that this is not my fault. The outcomes happened because of a variety of reasons beyond my control and not because I did something wrong. Come to think of it, much worse things could have happened. I stopped beating myself up and felt a lot better. Watch this wonderful video from The School of Life on how to treat yourself with compassion.
  4. Find the silver lining– I read the feedback from my exam board. After a few minutes, I realised that things weren’t that bad as I had imagined them to be. I could see a clear silver lining within my reach. The good news was that my Viva went really well. They were very impressed with my work. The second good news was that my research was solid. Though my supervisors were quite happy with my thesis, the exam board wasn’t as they found it confusing. In my communication courses, I talk about the importance of listening to audiences. They decide the success of the dish. My audience didn’t like my dish. It doesn’t mean that I am a bad cook. All it means that I have to go back to the kitchen and cook something that they enjoy. The moment I put this feedback in perspective, I felt a lot better.

This is the third week after the episode. I am almost normal now and life goes on. In between, there were two other major setbacks but since I had already begun my steps to recover, they did not impact me that badly.

Failures and setbacks are inevitable. I don’t treat them as black spots on my resume. Instead, I am trying to get used to them. A professor from Princeton even published his failures in a CV for the whole world to see. A young CEO of a startup Ankur Warikoo published his failures as well. Vir Das shared his 12th marks just to prove that there is no co-relation between performance in exams and success or failure in life. All of them have learnt to swim in their trough of sorrows. Just like any other skill of life, you too can learn and excel at it. But please do not give up so easily. Reach out to any expert counsellor around you. Reach out to anyone you can trust — a friend, spouse, parent or even your pet. I know it is hard and the things are getting tougher for all of us to survive. But as Kash Shaikh says — good things never come easy.

If you see someone wallowing in his or her trough of sorrow, do share this article with them. Please also share your own stories and how you deal with your setbacks. Maybe they might save an Arjun out there.

About the Author

Rakesh Godhwani calls himself a nobody. He teaches, writes, reads a story to his kids every night before they sleep, bicycles his way to work when he can, does yoga, earns a fraction of what he used to, but lives a million times better. Check his online course Present with Confidence. Follow him @godhwani. Read his other posts at https://rakeshgodhwani.wordpress.com or on medium https://medium.com/@Godhwani

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