Discover more from Ordinary Mastery
When our expectations awaken to crude reality
I’ve taken a break from substack for the last few months as I’ve had to focus on the real-life issue of dealing with joblessness which hasn’t been an easy ride. It’s now eight months since I was laid off and thus far my considerable efforts to find a new role or consulting opportunities in a very flat tech market have not borne fruit. Writing can sometimes be cathartic, that’s what brings me back to writing in this blog to begin working through my latest setback. This personal piece is about the universal experience of disappointment.
“Cruda realidad” is a Spanish phrase I picked up from a local scuba diving organiser in Mexico’s beautiful Isla Mujeres in the late 90s. It translates to ‘crude reality’. He was referring to the hangovers we were experiencing from the previous night’s indulgences.
I’m feeling my own crude reality right now as a sense of profound disappointment from being the losing candidate in the final interview stage for an Engineering Director role, an interview process that has been ongoing for the past two and a half months. I’m not depressed, I’m not bitter or resentful, I’m just profoundly disappointed, and it hurts. I had put everything else on hold to give my full attention to this one opportunity, and the hard work hasn’t paid off.
Shame and nausea
There’s a sombre feel in our household today, the anticipated success has turned to a prevailing gloom as our plans are put on hold once more. I feel a sense of shame as eight months have passed since I was made redundant and still, I haven’t solved the problem. I’ve only ever experienced very short periods of unemployment previously in life, I wasn’t prepared for this. The year has brought disappointment after disappointment, which thus far I’ve dealt with thanks to a stiff upper lip and the support of my family, but right now this setback feels huge and I don’t know what to do next.
Today I’ve felt slightly nauseous at times, a sinking feeling of dread, despair and loss. I’m finding it hard to engage with people and just want to be alone, too embarrassed to reveal my wounds. I have been waking up in the night with a sudden jolt of the full realisation of the situation, the feeling is akin to grieving. By immersing myself in preparation for the interview I’d unwittingly become attached to my imaginary future self in the role feeling I would be able to do a great job for the company and their teams. It’s a paradox that I feel like I’m the most employable I’ve ever been in my life with years of experience bolstered by hours of personal study and reflection, yet am apparently struggling. I’m on top of my game, I’ve learnt from past mistakes, and I’m ready to take on a challenge - so I’m bewildered and humbled by how hard it has been to find appropriate job openings or clients for my Human Centric Engineering consulting initiative - even though the Tech job market is currently on its knees I deluded myself that I’d somehow be impervious to the downturn.
A cascade of neurochemicals
This time last week I felt expansive, confident and full of hope, right now I feel closed off and diminished. Neurochemically speaking, as far as I understand, my physical body has reacted as if I’ve been defeated in a fight, like one of Jordan Peterson’s vanquished lobsters, a loss of status in the dominance hierarchy and the depleted serotonin that goes with it.
The neurochemistry of disappointment is not dissimilar to that of depression, but hopefully shorter lived provided one doesn’t obsess over the disappointment and allow it to manifest into something deeper. Along with a decline in serotonin levels, there is also a decline in dopamine, as well as releases of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA partnered with glutamate which is necessary for making GABA in the brain. Apparently "The more glutamate is released relative to GABA, the greater the 'disappointment' signal in the brain is likely to be” according to Dr. Steven Shabel quoted in identical articles in multiple places over the internet in an article called “Feeling bummed? How disappointment works in the brain.” - The articles don’t link to source papers so it’s hard to go much deeper with this line of inquiry.
I find it fascinating to contrast how different I feel today compared with last week. How could I go from feeling absolutely fantastic one day, and then like the world’s biggest loser the next? And what implications does this have for how we perceive our reality? Are my views on life dictated by my neurochemistry rather than my perceptions and rationality?
Preparation and practice
Wind the clock back one week, and I bursting with energy and enthusiasm. I’d had a month to prepare for a presentation to the senior leadership team. The topics I was asked to address aligned well with my interests, experience, and knowledge, so I decided to prepare for it as I would train for a physical challenge, applying the virtues of mastery - research, dedicated practice, repetition and rehearsal. I had fasted for seven days during the September equinox as usual and coming out of the fast I’m eating a ketogenic diet until Christmas - a prolonged abstinence from sugar and junky snacks - which has the added benefit of creating the conditions for clarity of mind as the brain prefers ketones over glucose as its energy source. I felt unbeatable.
So in a state of ketosis and with the most thorough preparation I could muster, I found the 90-minute interview an absolute joy. I’ve described it this week as a ‘peak experience’ and related it to the rare times in physical pursuits that you feel a runner’s high which compensates for all the dreary solitudinous efforts in the drizzle and dampness of a chilly English winter. Interviews are a performance and at every stage, I’ve felt calm, competent, and in control - as eloquent as I could ever hope to be in delivery, and with a presence of mind to balance my prepared content with the dynamics in the room as the session unfolded. Towards the end of the meeting, before wrapping up, I took the time to notice that I’d not felt at all nervous and hadn’t even felt the presence of a mild sweat as I would usually experience.
So to the outcome. While being acknowledged as competently suited to the role I was pipped at the post by a candidate whose experience was more aligned with the specific circumstances of the company and its mission. That’s life. The dice don’t always fall in the way we wish. The people I’ve met during the interview process have been great and I sincerely wish them and the successful candidate all the best.
Look at any big athletic competition, and you’ll see many competitors peaking for the event. Only one person can finish first, but anyone can achieve a PB, a Personal Best. Despite my current sense of overwhelming disappointment, I’ve bagged a PB in terms of my performance. A mental resource that I will be able to call on in similar situations in the future.
I’ve applied an awful lot of practice to presentations and public speaking over my life as it used to be something I dreaded and frequently screwed up. Even when speaking with friends and family I will stutter and trip over words, so controlling any nerves and speaking with relative calm and eloquence in a high-stakes situation is a major achievement. Each successful experience builds on the last so that those days of stumbling through a presentation have become a distant memory. The best way to overcome your demons is to face them.
The secret to mastering disappointment
Firstly, I don’t think there are any prescriptive secrets for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Disappointment is a natural part of existence, a natural consequence of striving. So here are some personal notes to self which may or may not be relevant to others.
”Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth.”
Fall Back to Your Systems:
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” as James Clear reminds us. It’s essential to have a foundational ‘uber-practice’ for physical and mental well-being. My regimes of hard exercise, eating well, and going for long meditative walks will serve me well during this tough time. If my current mood is dictated by a flow of neurochemicals outside of my cognitive control then perhaps the best remedy is to follow an ecology of practices that can predictably bring me into a good state of mind.
It’s important to zoom out and see the big picture in order to choose a more balanced disposition towards one’s circumstances. Disentangle your current disenchantment from the truth by seeing the big picture. This is ‘yet another damn learning opportunity’, unwanted but valuable in one’s long-term development.
This too shall pass, we must not cling to things. Letting go is eased by the passage of time as long as we don’t indulge in self-destructive rumination. It won’t be long before this episode is in the past and largely forgotten.
Be Open to Help:
I find this the hardest. I tend to reject offers of help, I find it awkward and embarrassing. I like to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. While I find it difficult to accept help, I find it even harder to ask for help. Yet if I am asked for help I’m always willing to comply if I can, it makes me feel good, so why is it so hard for me to ask? Something I need to think about.
No Hard Feelings:of introduced me to the song ‘No Hard Feelings’ by the Avett Brothers earlier this year and I’ve adopted it as something of a personal mantra. Stewing in resentment serves no one, there are so many wiser ways to handle life’s slings and arrows. I’ve found this easy and powerful, there is beautiful wisdom in the lyrics.
A fellow substack writer
“When you find your path, you must not be afraid. You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes. Disappointment, defeat, and despair are the tools God uses to show us the way.”
Paulo Coelho, Brida
My sojourn away from Substack has been partly to optimise my time towards finding an income, but also because writing about Mastery didn’t feel quite right while there is an important part of my own life that I am currently failing to master. But I must remind myself of the reason for choosing the prefix ‘Ordinary’ for this substack. I chose Ordinary because I wanted to reflect on the aspirations of mastery within the context of our ‘ordinary’ lives - and there is nothing more ordinary than what I’m going through right now, so perhaps I shouldn’t feel so awkward in continuing to write this blog while parts of my life are not as I would wish them to be.
One of the unexpected benefits of writing this blog has been meeting other substack users, some of whom I have had the pleasure to interact with outside of the platform. Only last week a reader of this substack reached out, having noticed that I’d not posted here for a while. We had a great chat and I’m touched by the concern of relative strangers. There’s a thriving community on substack of intelligent, thoughtful and gracious people - it’s more than a mere blogging platform, and I must remind myself to continue to make the most of it.
As I’ve been writing this piece a thoughtful article dropped into my inbox fromat with this rather apt paragraph:
”In my quest to achieve external markers of success, I had often overlooked the internal transformation taking place. I grew not only in knowledge and skill but also in character and wisdom. Each setback was a stepping stone, leading me toward a more profound understanding of myself and my aspirations.”
Once I’ve finished licking my wounds I will pick up this Ordinary Mastery project with increased purpose. One of my longer-term goals is to create an interview-based podcast where I discuss ideas and experiences of Mastery with Ordinary people. A look at people’s achievements and struggles through the lens of the ASPIRE Mastery Framework. This will be intended as an antidote to the plethora of podcasts which provide a pedestal for the elites of mastery. I believe there is as much potential value in discussing the approach to mastery of someone finishing last in their local Parkrun, as there is in interviewing elite athletes.
Disappointment is better than failure
So to wind up, do I regret that I put so much effort in for just one opportunity, eschewing everything else for a month of intense preparation, reading, thinking, and rehearsing? Absolutely not. I willingly sacrificed my time and other pursuits because had I not put everything into it, if I had not given it my absolute commitment, then instead of a disappointment it would have been a failure. It would have been a failure to even try, a failure to commit, and that would be a valid source of regret. If I’ve given it my all and still not succeeded then my conscience is clear and I can live proudly with myself.
I’ve come away from this with evidence that I am the kind of person who is capable of giving it their all as I’ve done countless times before when the situation calls for it. Once the acute disappointment has passed, and it is already easing thanks to this cathartic writing process, the personal pride I’ve gained from my efforts will drown out the momentary shame I feel from still being unemployed.
A half-arsed approach to life creates a half-arsed self-identity.
After publishing this post I’ve come across the idea of ‘ambiguous grief’, the pain one feels when their dreams die. According to Dr Scott Eilers, a person will go through an organic grieving process where ‘waves of grief’ will build and fall in their own natural way over time. See the video clip.
Thanks for reading Ordinary Mastery! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.