How to find gratitude when you need it most

From failure to gratitude

Early this year, I went on an entrepreneurial rescue mission.

We have this client – let’s call him Tom – who’s been our client for a long time. In this business, and because we are who we are, you get to know entrepreneurs very well. You know their finances, their hopes, their dreams. You know what they can achieve, and where they’re holding back. You know what they want to do for their families, and why they chose this path to begin with.

Tom is a great client, with a long track record of killing it at the helm of his company. But Tom had a big problem, the kind of problem that can derail a business completely, and Tom was freaking out. Hard.

That’s where the rescue mission came in. I know Tom. I knew how bad the problem was – trust me, it was bad – but I also knew he could recover. It would be painful, and difficult, but I know Tom, and I knew he could do it. But Tom wasn’t thinking clearly. He was panicking, emotional, ready to give up and throw everything away.

“Look, Tom,” I said, “You have so much to be grateful for.”

In that moment, Tom couldn’t remember all the things he’d achieved over the time he’d built his company. He couldn’t remember why he was doing this in the first place. And all he could see was the negative.

But again, I knew Tom, and I could see what he couldn’t. It was almost like therapy – I just reminded him about all the good things in his life, all the things he’d accomplished, all the possibilities that lay ahead if he was persistent and embraced his failure as an opportunity.

We’ll come back to Tom in a moment. The key here, as it was for me when I experienced failure, was gratitude.

Rejoice in the good things

Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving, my friends.

If you’re familiar with Stoicism, you know gratitude is one of its highest values. Here’s early Stoic philosopher Epictetus, a Greek man who grew up as a Roman slave (!) and lived with one useless leg for most of his life (!!):

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

The essential part of Epictetus’ and the Stoics approach: focus on what you can control, and direct your energy toward what you can actually affect. Turn your energies into a growth mindset, and you can start making constructive progress.

But first, gratitude.

How to practice gratitude when you need it most

If you’re in the mindset Tom was in, if you’re picking yourself up off the floor of a failure or an emotional setback, you may not be agreeing with me yet. It’s tough to feel gratitude when you’re in the dark place.

Even if you’re not in that dark place right now, your productivity will get more consistent if you establish a gratitude routine. For me, gratitude grounds me. It’s the starting point of my morning meditation, the endpoint of my workout at the end of the day. And if you are in that dark place, it helps to have concrete steps you can use to get out.

So, how do you establish a gratitude practice? Shawn Achor has you covered. (If you’re not familiar, his TED Talk on happiness + work  is a good place to start.)

Shawn’s Daily Habits give you a repeatable routine, something you can do quickly that refocuses your mind. Here are my favorite Daily Habits:

Write down your gratitudes. For 21 days in a row, write what you are grateful for and why. The act of writing it down rewires your brain, and uses your reticular activator to help you focus on the positive as a way of life.  This does not ignore the negatives or turn you into a Pollyanna; it helps you reframe what happens in your life from “negatives” to a way to improve. If you pay attention to this information, it will help you overcome some of your unconscious biases.  

I have been utilizing this system for years, and I can tell you from experience: it is a game changer.

Double down on good moments.  For 21 days in a row, think of one positive, meaningful experience each day and for 2 minutes, bullet 3 details of the experience. They don’t have to be big details – just bits that bring your mind back to that moment – like what you were wearing, where you were, or who you encountered. This deepens your scan for meaning.

Write a positive email / text message per day to a friend or colleague, thanking them for something real they have contributed to your life. Don’t take more than a few minutes doing this; it’s more important to reach out than it is to craft a perfect message.

I have been doing this one quite a bit lately. The takeaway for me is “wow, I’m the kind of person now that does this sort of stuff” and the responses have been awesome back to me.  I have turned my email inbox – not my favorite thing, normally – into something super positive and affirming.

Meditate. Yeah, I know, you’re over my hippie meditation crap. Don’t knock it til you try it, though. I’m far from the only one, these days – meditation has become a common theme amongst high performers.

For me, it’s about observing my mind so I can control it.  It actually grows your prefrontal cortex (the part you need for good judgement v. fight or flight). Neuroscience, folks!  Slow down your reaction time, and create space for a rational response to the inevitable curveballs.

Gratitude allows you to move past emotion into logic

Back to Tom, who we last left focusing on gratitude.

Once he was thinking about the positives, on what was going right, we were able to talk about a path forward. It would be painful, and require persistence and time. But if he’d do his part, we promised we’d do everything in our power to help.

In fact, he managed better than even we had expected. He implemented the changes we suggested, did the work, took responsibility, and kept up a positive growth mindset – and went on to make a cool $1.5 million in profit last year and over $2 million this year. From the dark place where Tom had thought his business was lost, his life’s work gone, he was able to use gratitude to climb back to a place of growth.

Not long ago, I got a wonderful note from Tom, thanking us for helping him see the “positives in the negatives” and telling us we saved his company. We didn’t, though – he did. Ultimately, he had to do the work, and find his gratitude – not just that day, but the next day, and the day after that.

One of my favorite quotes is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a more modern Stoic…

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

I’m grateful you read this. I’m grateful I was able to write this. And I’d love to hear how you practice gratitude – and what routines help you incorporate it into your work. Drop me a line in the comments or tweet at @FarWestCap – I’ll be ever so grateful.

Cole Harmonson is the president of Far West Capital, a company that funds the goals of high-growth entrepreneurs. Know a great company in need of capital to unleash their potential? Send them here and we’ll give them a call.

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