What do you do when your life plans take an unexpected turn? How do you recover from failure, or disappointment, or things not turning out the way you would have liked? Having to rethink everything and start again, with almost nothing, is a common enough experience. It affects millions of people. Just how do you dust yourself off, salvage what you can and move forward to a better future?
You might have decided to become an artist and dedicated yourself to it, earnestly, but gotten nowhere. Alternatively, you might have finally decided to do what you love most, instead of what was expected of you, but you can’t see a way to make the transition. How do you get there? How do you go from being what you are, today, to what you want to be, in the future? What steps can you take and how do you know if you’re even pointing in the right direction or making any forward progress toward your goal? How can you tell that it isn’t all a gigantic, self-delusional waste of time (and other resources)?
I think that the key to it all is in reinventing yourself – re-imagining yourself and setting about becoming that person. Regular readers will know that I absolutely do not advocate becoming somebody else, in the sense of doing what is expected of you, to meet other people’s expectations, or image, of you. You can, of course, reinvent yourself in this way, if you choose and you might even meet with some success by doing so, but I do not recommend it. Rather, I think a setback is an opportunity to re-imagine and reinvent yourself as somebody closer and more faithful to your conception of your most authentic self. I think it’s a chance to be more like you and less like somebody else. You can use the fork in the road that has presented itself to you to reconnect with important parts of your essential being.
Practicalities may dictate that you take a detour into ordinary acceptability, to pay the bills, but having started on the process of realising your true potential, it makes no sense to stop now. It might be precariously difficult to balance being relevant to the world, as you find it, with personal integrity, but who said this was going to be easy? Nothing worthwhile ever is, it seems. You might have to proceed with your reinvention in stolen moments of spare time, but this is an important project you have embarked upon. Seeing it through is vital. Abandoning your vision of yourself and what you can be is not a rational choice.
Reinvention is a continuous process and it takes time. Sometimes, we don’t allow ourselves enough time for the change to take its course. For example, if you leap and fall, it might be that you simply didn’t have the wherewithal to last it out. You might have had to give up too soon, just when the corner was about to be turned. How long does it take to completely reinvent yourself? Some commentators say it takes around five years.
Five years?! How do you survive for five years without making a living at it? You might not. You probably won’t. All you can do is use whatever time you can eke out to make as much forward progress as you can. Sometimes, it isn’t enough progress and that is enormously frustrating. Sometimes, it turns out to be progress in a direction you eventually conclude is the wrong direction entirely, for you. It doesn’t matter. It all teaches you something. There really is no rush. You will, in all likelihood, reinvent yourself many times, in an interesting life. You will also, if you’re human, fail to reinvent many times, too. That has its moments of delight as well. It’s a cliché to say that it’s the journey that is important, but it happens to be true.
According to James Altucher, who writes on the subject of reinvention, the five years of effort break down into something like this:
- Year one – you are finding out how to be what you want to be; flailing and failing. Most of the time you are reading about it and doing it. You’re just at the beginning, trying to find your way and trying to understand how to be who you intend to be.
- Year two – by now, you have an idea about who to talk to and who to approach. The important thing is that you are doing what the person you want to be does, each and every day. If you want to be a musician, you make music. If you want to be a writer, you write. You get the gist of this. In this year of effort, you begin to understand the landscape and significant players in your new, chosen endeavour.
- Year three – now you’re good enough at what you have chosen to do to make some money at it, but not a living. This is more or less where I always get to, before I run out of steam, resources, cash, patience, determination, heart, whatever I needed to keep applying, but didn’t. For me, this is the most frustrating of years.
- Year four – you can be making a good living at your reinvented profession or pursuit.
- Year five – you are capable of creating real wealth, doing what you do.
Can this really be? I’m prepared to defer to others that know, on this matter. Making wealth for others has happened to me (several times), but not making wealth for me. I’ve certainly made a good living at one of my pursuits, but not at any of the others, so far.
By year three, you will have put in between 5,000-7,000 hours at trying to be your new self. That’s good enough to be in the top 200-300 in the world in anything, according to Altucher. The top 200 in almost any field typically makes a living at it. The competition is fierce.
Two thousand hours a year works out to be about 6 hours a day (give or take)! Reinvention takes serious commitment and time. You also need to read about five hundred books on your subject matter (that’s a hundred a year, or two a week), according to Altucher. This is also a considerable time commitment and you might not have any spare time, at this level of application.
If you’re holding down a full time day job and trying to do well at it, in the mean time, it can be difficult to find the time (and energy) for reinvention. If you can’t lavish this sort of time on your reinvention, it will take longer. Don’t forget that your goal is a moving target, too, though. The longer you take to reach the quality bar, the higher the quality bar moves. That sounds pretty bleak, but it’s still achievable. Just beware of this trap.
By year five, it is more than possible to be in the top thirty or fifty in your field, so you can make wealth. At this stage, you’re more than likely to be recognised, among your peers, for what you do.
James Altucher says that if you are going any faster or slower than this, you’re doing something wrong. Another of his interesting pieces of advice is that the choices you make today will be written in both your biography and biology tomorrow, so make interesting choices and have an interesting life. At least you can say it was well lived, that way.
By now, you may be getting the impression that reinvention is a pretty lonely, harsh, difficult and totally absorbing thing to do and that it requires enormous dedication and tenacity. There’s no sugar coating it. It does. If this is your only viable option, though, it’s what you have to do. Having other options is what makes sticking to the plan so difficult.
If you can find help in sticking to your reinvention plan, then grab it with both hands. Going it alone, without mentors or an understanding support network, can be and is very daunting. I have frequently found myself without sufficient encouragers, sage advisors and cheer leaders to keep going, even though those nearest and dearest to me were fully on side. Sometimes, your disillusionment with the whole thing can feel overwhelming.
When you’ve lost your footing, through failure and are still finding your feet, you can easily succumb to losing heart. Once you lose heart, it erodes the momentum of your reinvention project and you wind up back where you started, with nothing. Remembering you started with nothing is, paradoxically, a good thing to do, when you are beginning to falter, because it’s a good yardstick to measure how much progress you’ve already made against. Sometimes, just realising that you started with nothing and still have most of it left is enough to sustain you, when you feel that the whole process of reinvention will never succeed.
The other thing that can dilute your progress toward self-reinvention is having too many interests and not being able to decide which one of them to pursue. The best advice I have heard, again from James Altucher, is to combine them into some unique concoction of your own making. If you live in a world that demands specialists (you do), then be a specialist polymath. Define yourself in your own way and pursue your reinvention, incorporating everything that is important to you. Sure, that might be harder, but it’s more authentic and you never have to worry that you left something important behind; undeveloped and neglected. This may be the only way forward, for you, that gives you peace of mind. Peace of mind might be precisely what you need in order to go the distance.
This period of morphing from what you used to be (and no longer are) to what you know you need to be can feel precarious, in a sick-to-the-stomach kind of way. This is because you’re not yet a success at what you want to be and you can’t go back to being what you used to be. You’re nothing. You can’t reliably pay your way. What you are is rebuilding after a failure. It all feels like a delicate house of cards that you are building, which you know can come crashing down at any time. It’s hard to be in that transition zone between failure and not yet success. It’s a zone that you can be in for literally years.
I mentioned earlier that you have to learn to manage your energy, as well as your time. I’m still learning this. You’re not a machine that can be run into the ground. In your enthusiasm to reinvent, you can find yourself burning the candle at both ends and neglecting important things that are the foundation of your well being, in an effort to steal back more time, for the project. I am here to tell you that you can’t (or at least that I can’t). You have to protect your sleeping hours and keep getting enough of the stuff. This is number one. Sleep is the most restorative of things and you need it, when recovering from failure. It heals the blows.
Number two is making sure you eat well, tempting as it is to resort to comfort or convenience foods, while you’re trying to get stuff done, frantically. Put crappy, worthless food into your body and it will begin to fail. You also have to exercise. I hate exercise. It hurts, it makes me sweaty and uncomfortable, I look stupid doing it and it seems like boring, wasted time, to me, but I’m wrong. Exercise keeps you in a state of being able to take on physical and emotional challenges. When you get used to it, they say it makes you feel better. I’m prepared to trust that this is so. I don’t get enough exercise. This is my Achilles heel.
It can be very difficult to remain optimistic and motivated to reinvent, after the setbacks you have been through. This is natural. You are dealing with loss. There is a certain amount of grief involved. When you feel your optimism and motivation depleting, you can easily convince yourself that you’re not successful at anything (based on your history to date) and that, therefore, you won’t ever be successful at anything. This is not correct. The past does not determine the future. You have choices to make. You don’t have to doom yourself to a perpetual cycle of just missing your goals.
They say that in order to stay motivated, you should keep one eye on the end goal always. That’s fine, but sometimes you can’t make out your end goal, in your fog of confusion and uncertainty, or it can seem too far away to ever reach. When this happens, stop looking at your goal and instead, focus on taking the next small step. Trust that it’s a step in the right direction. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t. You can always make course corrections, one step at a time, when your goal becomes easier to discern, on the horizon.
Part of the discipline of doing what somebody like you does, every day, is getting the work out there, even if it’s just a work in progress. You actually do get points for showing working. Build interest in what you’re creating, while you build it. Why not? The grandiloquent unveiling when it’s a finished article might have a certain attraction to it, but nothing nails your shingle to the door better than showing that you can and are doing what you said you wanted to do. Your work is your proof. Showing it is proving it to everybody else.
Enthusiasm is contagious, but hard to maintain, when all you feel like doing is giving up in defeat. Draw from the deep well of faith you have in yourself and all that lies within you. After all, look how far you’ve come so far and how unlikely it was that you would even make it to here. The struggles your ancestors, grandparents and parents went through, so that you might have this chance, today, should not be dismissed lightly. You’re carrying their work forward. That’s something that can sustain your enthusiasm.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck between self-reinvention and total self-involvement. Immersing yourself in you, to the exclusion of others, is not a good thing to do. You need to remain connected with the ones you love and with wider humanity. Otherwise, what’s the point of the reinvention? It is, by its very nature, a profoundly social act (or it ought to be). Unfortunately, because of the time it demands, it can be very easy to lapse into being remote, difficult to reach, hermitic, hermetic, anti-social and just plain unavailable, emotionally or otherwise. Don’t be that guy. Stay relevant and stay in touch.
One of the best ways of staying connected to humanity, while reinventing yourself, is to share what you learn, generously. Help others succeed. Mentor them, sharing what you have learnt, so far. Teach. Teaching is a great way to learn. Don’t oversell what you know, but don’t undervalue it either. People are at all stages of reinvention and sharing what you have found, so far, can be the mentoring or guidance that they need to get to the same place. By then, you may have moved further forward and so, might continue to be a good mentor for them. They are right to mistrust the ministrations of somebody that hasn’t succeeded, but you’ve made it part of the way. That portion of any information you share is reliable, at least. You might not know enough to get them all the way to their end goal, in their quest for reinvention, but you can get them as far as you got.
Importantly, don’t forget that reinvention and recreation have much in common. I’ll just leave that there for you to ponder on.
Brian Eno, the music producer and polymath, writes about a thing he calls the “scenius”. By this neologism, he means that all artistic geniuses are the product of a vibrant arts scene. The collective genius of that scene, the diverse artists all striving for their own definition of reinvention and success, comes together to buoy each and every one of them up. This scenius is an important ingredient in reinventing yourself. The more you can connect with like-minded individuals, with similar goals, at similar points in their evolution, the more you will benefit as an individual. You will both feed off and contribute to the group’s collective genius. Confession time: This is another of those areas of self-development I have always been quite weak at. I find it hard to find similar, like-minded individuals, to bond with them in common cause and to work collaboratively with them. If I found them, I would feel like I could make more rapid progress and benefit from the frothing brew of ideas and techniques, as well as make my own contribution to them. You might feel the same. Finding your tribe can be difficult. If they are not co-located, working with them can also be quite difficult.
Anyway, all of this is what I know about authentic reinvention, so far. I’ve had to do quite a lot of it and continue to need to do so. I’m a work in progress. I haven’t reached my goal. Of course, statistically speaking, 97% of people don’t listen to or pay heed to people with brains wired like mine, so what would I know? I could be speaking for a tiny minority. Use my information and experience with caution.
I’ll close by noticing that opportunity really is everywhere, if you know how to look for it. Listen to the zeitgeist, wherever you find it speaking and contribute your unique gifts and talents to what’s going on. Things are always changing and now, faster than ever. Something is happening, because something is always happening and you can be a part of it. …If you want. …If you want to dedicate yourself to it.
What if you follow all of this advice and do everything you are supposed to do, to successfully and authentically reinvent yourself, but it still doesn’t seem like it is working? I ask myself that question all the time, because it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. It feels like I am getting nowhere, most days. Well, people I trust say that it will work. They tell me to just wait and keep reinventing myself, every day.
In lieu of any better advice, that’s the advice I shall follow. Why not?