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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

10 Smart Moves to Make When Nothing's Going Right in Your Life

In the Army, I taught an introductory course on what to do if you became a prisoner of war. I’d start by saying that I hoped this would be the least relevant course the students ever took.

That’s my hope here too—although the truth is, things fall apart in people’s lives all the time. Maybe it’s a relationship, a job, a business—something that makes up the bedrock you’re accustomed to standing on.

Tuesday, it’s there; Wednesday it’s gone. Thursday, you still have to function.

All of which leads us to today’s lesson. When things aren’t going right, how do you keep moving forward? Here are 10 ideas.

1. Nose Down, Do Your Job

The top federal prosecutor in Manhattan is named Preet Bhrara (Disclosure: His brother is the CEO of my company). In a speech a couple of years ago, Preet suggested success involves emulating a line from the movie The Departed:

Be the guy who does his job.

When you don’t know what else to do, that’s a pretty good plan: Strive to be the Steady Eddie that everyone else can count on while you figure out your next step.

2. Look Out for Chances to Be Happy for Other People

Admission time: I get pitched all the time by people who are younger than I am and who are making tons of money. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder: Why wasn’t I the one with an internet startup at age 14?

OK, the strict answer to that is that when I was 14, internet access cost a dollar a minute. The broader point is that you’ll be happier and learn more if you make an effort simply to be happy for others’ successes—and maybe be willing to learn from them as well.

3. Make Connections for Others

An old friend of mine from school is looking for work. It turned out, another friend of mine from a completely different social circle has a connection at a company that my school friend might be perfect for. Will it work out? I don’t know, but making the connection made me feel great.

I think it’s important to take these kinds of steps without looking for any kind of quid pro quo. Personally, I can’t predict the future, but I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever be looking for another full-time job again, so that’s not my motivation here. But helping others in any way helps you take your mind off your own problems.

4. Say Thank You

Chances are you see someone every day who has a thankless job—literally thankless, as in, nobody ever thanks him or her for doing what they do. Maybe it’s the doorman or the bus conductor. If you can’t think of someone who fits the bill, imagine a traffic cop giving parking tickets.

Think about how much it means to that person on the rare occasion when someone actually says, thanks for what you do. Imagine how he’ll feel about you when you’re that person!

5. Prune Your Belongings

I have the zeal of a convert on this one. If a physical thing—clothes, books, papers—doesn’t give you joy, the best thing to do is to give it away. 90% of Americans have 2,000% more stuff than they need—or even want.

(Hat tip, obviously, to the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo)

6. Share Your Knowledge

Nothing makes you feel better or more useful than simply sharing what you know with other people. Much like looking for the North Star when you’re lost, look for chances to teach others when you’re not sure what else to do with yourself.

What do I know? Well, if you want to write a book, write an internet column with a million readers a month, or learn how to run a super-effective marketing campaign on Facebook, email me. (Also, I can teach someone to drive a stick shift and parallel park on a hill like nobody’s business.)

7. Visit Someone

The scarcest commodity any of us has isn’t money; it’s time. That means sharing your time with others is also your greatest gift. The truth is there are people for whom that gift is more precious than you can ever imagine.

We named my baby daughter after my wife’s 90-something grandmother, and one of the most joyous moments we’ve had was bringing her to meet her namesake in the nursing home.

8. Say “I’m Sorry”

You don’t need to go through life guilt-ridden, but there are things we’ve all done to hurt others—intentional or not—that we never got around to apologizing for. Taking that step is always a positive move.

I woke up recently remembering a class in junior high. We had to write stories each week, and I turned a classmate into a recurring character long after it was clear she was not comfortable with the attention. I don’t want to call her out here—even after all these years—but on the off chance she might read it, maybe she’ll remember. If so, I’m sorry!

9. Say “I Forgive You”

Related to the last one, of course, we all have people we need to forgive. Maybe it’s a family member, or a colleague, a friend—or even someone who doesn’t know you well or even know what they did wrong.

In my case, at that same school I was picked on by a group of bigger kids. Decades later, I’m not sure if they’d even remember, but I forgive them. (Caveat: That’s not the same thing as forgetting. You can forgive someone but still never trust them again.)

10. Show Up (A.k.a., Go to the Funeral)

There are moments when other people need you there, and while I’m fortunate not to have had many occasions that fit the bill for this example, showing up at the funeral of someone’s loved ones is at the top of the list.

My friend Griff taught me this lesson, when I went to his father’s wake a decade ago. To my mind—of course I would go. That’s what friends do, no matter what other ways their lives are tangled at the time. Still, to his credit, Griff has never forgotten, and I’m glad it demonstrated how much I valued our friendship.

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