Not too long ago, a woman named Joanne decided her most sincere wish was to be a writer. But each time she started to write her first book, it seemed like forces were conspiring against her.
First her mother died when she was 25. Then she found herself in an abusive marriage. When she got out of that, she struggled to raise her daughter as a single mother on welfare. At one point, she was so depressed she contemplated suicide.
When she finally finished her first book, the manuscript was rejected by 12 publishers. After 12 rejections, she started to lose faith. Should she keep trying to be a writer? Was her dream wrong all along?
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Joanne is J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, one of the most successful living writers around, and purportedly wealthier than the Queen of England. She’s sold more than 400 million copies of her books and created a veritable enterprise. Of wizards! That is no small feat.
But it wasn’t easy, as this brief bio o’ desperation illustrates. Rowling struggled mightily to overcome her limitations.
And her story is far from unusual.
Stephen King‘s mother also died young; he took a teaching job that he hated to pay the bills; he was addicted to alcohol and cocaine and his wife almost left him for it.
Zora Neale Hurston, of Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a black woman trying to make a living as a writer during the Great Depression! She also lost her mother as a child. (HMM, A THEME!) Then her father disowned her and she was forced to become a housecleaner as a teenager to make ends meet. She would read books on the shelves of the rich people whose houses she cleaned during her free moments.
When she was 25, having never received an education, she went back to school … to high school. She lied and said she was 15 to gain a public education AND IT WORKED. Eventually. She went on to become the first black woman to earn a living through her writing.
And on and on and on.
The point is…
We all have limitations that hold us back. We all have struggles, disabilities, illnesses, flaws, stresses, insecurities, obligations, money woes, chronic pain, mental health issues, and personality ticks that prevent us from achieving our dreams.
Some days it feels as if these limitations will destroy us, that we can’t possibly overcome them.
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default. — J.K. Rowling
My hearing loss means that I don’t speak up for myself when I should. I put things off for weeks or months if they involve talking on the phone. I say no to opportunities that might be fun or lead to connections (like podcasts or networking events or even dates in loud bars).
I rearrange my life to give my disability leeway — like it’s a scooter tyrant taking up the whole sidewalk! Get off the sidewalk, scooter tyrant!
But there are ways to cope with limitations, even ones we have to deal with every single day, forever and ever. Sometimes we succeed, not in spite of our limitations, but because of them.
Below are some of the tools and resources that have worked for me. I hope you find them useful, inspiring, or at the very least, that they help you feel slightly less alone. Because you’re not alone! Even if you’re reading this on the internet while drinking a wine slushie in the dark.
Read about the obstacles others have faced and triumphed over
Hands down, this has done the most for me, if you can’t tell by all the books and people I mention in this post alone.
For starters, it’s inspiring to read about other people’s lives that are vastly different than mine, and it puts my own shitty problems into (much-needed) perspective. Here’s an example from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (but really her entire life reads like a giant beating heart of triumph and you should learn more about her):
Keller, who became blind and deaf as a baby, not only learned how to communicate through sign language, she also learned how to speak by feeling and memorizing the vibrations in people’s throats, as well as their lips as they spoke. It took her years, as you can probably imagine, but she did it. Not only that, but she became a much-sought-after public speaker and an activist and a philanthropist.
One of my favorite quotes of hers is this: “I know I shall not fail.”
Other suggested biographies include: Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Edison, Teddy Roosevelt, Ruben “The Hurricane” Carter, and Josephine Baker. If you want all the inspiration in one place and a kick in the pants to boot, read The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, which is chock-full of these kinds of stories.
You don’t have to read entire books about people—an internet article will do in a pinch. Just do a google search for your hero, read more than a cursory biography, and you’re bound to find adversity. Because life!
Compliment random strangers
I got this advice, improbably, from Neil Strauss’s book Rules of the Game, which on the surface is a 30-day guide to picking up women. It’s actually about building up one’s confidence and dismantling toxic beliefs. I got zero dates from it, but the self-esteem lessons were invaluable. And easy to implement.
In one of the early lessons, Strauss suggests complimenting five strangers. Each time I have done this, I feel IMMEDIATELY happier. It’s like Prozac, only all you have to do is talk about someone’s bitchin’ fedora.
A word of caution: Do not compliment anyone in a sexual way. Keep it G-rated. You’re far more likely to get a better reaction if you do.
Set small, manageable goals
My favorite quote from Susan Sontag (another inspiring person who triumphed over a shit stew of sexism, homophobia, and cancer—read Reborn, her excellent journals) is also deceptive simple:
“Do something! Do something! Do something!”
Sometimes, when we look at the Big Picture, it’s fucking terrifying and it causes us to retreat into passivity, able to do nothing but watch 12 hours of Flip or Flop?
When this happens, it helps to think smaller. Sure, you didn’t write a novel today, but did you write a paragraph? Did you do five push-ups? Did you draw a a pretty good depiction of a panda?
Doing “something” triggers a couple different things. One, it changes us from passive to active, even if only for a little while. Two, often the simple act of starting propels us to keep going. This is the case 95% of the time for me in terms of writing. Three, it stops us from procrastinating. Four, having such small goals renders “failure” meaningless. If your goal is to write a single haiku, as mine was in 2010 (more on that below) then you basically can’t fail.
The impetus for my first book came about because my fiancee dumped me and my dad got cancer and I was making $6 an hour. All these things led to a wicked case of writer’s block.
The only way I could write ANYTHING was to do the smallest amount possible. Haiku. Seventeen syllables! This one small act changed my life in so many ways, but at the time I thought I was just making fun of myself for farting in yoga. (Perhaps it was both.)
This website is absurd and never fails to cheer me up, at least a little.
Focus on what you CAN control
And, along with that, don’t get mired in what is beyond your control. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Every day we’re battered with information and choices and decisions and setbacks. Focusing on what you can control in your life helps you prioritize and feel more in control.
We can’t stop shitty things from happening, but we can decide how we’re going to react to them. Let’s say I poured my heart and soul into an essay about dogs (I really am working on this) and it’s rejected by a publication. I can’t do anything about that, but I can send it somewhere else or send it to a friend for edits or take a motherfucking bath because writing is hard and we deserve to soak in epsom salts.
Create a “Self-Esteem” folder
Record your wins, your compliments, or your successes in some way. Mine is a “self-esteem” folder in my inbox. Every time I get a nice email or Facebook comment or Twitter mention, I mark it and revisit the folder whenever I’m feeling down. It’s nice because our brains are wired to remember the BAD things more than the GOOD. This helps tip the scales back in your favor.
If you’re more into tangible forms of validation, start with what Tim Ferriss calls an Awesome Jar. Write down your compliments, etc. on a scrap of paper and put them in the jar. Watch it fill up with awesome! Revisit it whenever you want. Feel better. Repeat.
Thank people who have inspired or influenced you
We get so mired in our own egos that we sometimes forget the world doesn’t begin and end with our problems. Similar to complimenting strangers, reaching a hand out to someone who has helped you in the past is an even more amazing pick-me-up because it’s someone you know.
The “thank you” can be as fast as a short email. Let people know you appreciated their help—your parents, your teachers, your grade school best friend, the ex who taught you how to stop burning rice, the professor who wrote you a letter of recommendation, and so on.
This has done WONDERS for me when I am on wallowing on the floor, and also makes someone else feel great. Win-win.
As much as culturally we’re taught to be “self-made” and to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” NONE of us can make it alone. Zero! We all need help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Or be afraid, but ask anyway. That’s what I try to do.
“Find your tribe” as Cheryl Strayed put it in a Dear Sugar column. Go online, text a friend, call your mom, read forums, or go to meetups or meetings if that works for you. But know that you aren’t alone.
As an advice columnist, I can tell you that LOTS of people share your pains and aches and loneliness. Find them. Reach out.
Tell yourself a better story
“Everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention.” — Robert Greene (tons of great stories in this book, as well)
Sometimes you have to muscle through even though you feel like hell. Sometimes you have to feign confidence when you feel anything but. Even Beyonce fakes it—she created a persona (Sasha Fierce) to overcome her shyness on stage.
When you feel like a fraud (aka imposter syndrome), it helps to remember that even the most successful people sometimes feel like they don’t deserve their successes.
In her wildly popular TED talk, Amy Cuddy talked about how body language affects not just how others see us, but also how we see ourselves.
To that end, it’s possible to fake feelings of okayness, of confidence and power until we truly feel more okay or confident or powerful.
“Don’t fake it ‘til you make it. Fake it ‘til you become it,” she urged.
Embrace your fuckedupedness
Last but not least, embrace your flawed, beautifully fucked-up self. Revel in it. There is literally no one else like you—your life is completely yours to do with it what you will.
Your limitations don’t have to limit you, and your failures don’t have to stop you. In fact, they just might be the forces that goad you toward success and creation and perseverance.
As J.K. Rowling put it:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.