Your personal tragedy gives you a path.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — but that’s not entirely true. It can always come back to finish the job.
Don’t give it a chance.
Watching the cops arrest my mom over and over again could’ve given me a brilliant excuse to give up — even before turning 18. Instead I got a PhD and became a tenured professor by the age of 35.
It’s not like I always knew this would happen. It took seventeen years of tough work. Backslides. Mishaps. Reboots.
There’s lots of stories. The one about visiting my mom in a mental hospital on my birthday. The time when she threatened me with a knife. The time when she lost my college savings, all $50K of it.
The time when she told the cops I was a body snatcher from outer space. No point asking for an apology.
The time when she died.
And finally, the funeral I thought I’d never go to but did, for my dad and brother. The funeral with three people. The funeral that wasn’t. These stories all sound like whining now, so I’ll spare you the details. The main point is simple. A lot of bad stuff happened. A lot of bad stuff happens to a lot of good people. And yet, someone always has it worse.
Your it can always make you stronger, or weaker.
That part’s up to you and me.
As for me, it’s pretty clear. I chose stronger. Not always. But enough times that everything worked out.
There were plenty of 48-hour days. Ones where I stayed up half the night doing research, and the other half grading papers.
There was the car accident that forced me to pick up a second job tutoring. Instead of giving up, I chose to feel lucky that I walked away from a steel trap that practically got bent in half.
There were plenty of nights sobbing over a glass of Yellow Tail, sometimes with Netflix in the background. Plenty of rejection letters and asshole professors. Asshole coworkers. Asshole bosses.
And just random assholes.
Plenty of nights where me and 30 other idiots drank until we could barely stand up straight, and woke up next to each other in bed.
Plenty of nights in dance clubs, faking joy. Sliding our bodies up and down a stranger’s just to prove we weren’t broken.
But then we couldn’t hide that anymore.
So we got back to work.
It doesn’t matter how broken you are. You still want a life — a career, friends, a family. You figure out how to make that happen.
And you go for it.
You make mistakes, get dumped, meet someone new, learn not to repeat the same screw-ups. Same goes for your career.
Occasionally, it gets overwhelming. You shut down, peel yourself open and examine your damage, cry, think maybe you can’t do this after all. You wonder what’ll happen if you fail for good.
But every morning, you wake up ready to do it all again. You know the consequences of your failure.
You see the difference between little failure and big failure. Little failure means blowing one job interview, one campus visit. It means one rejection letter. Big failure takes longer to crest. Big failure builds and builds, and slams your shore later in life — when you look around and realize that you don’t even feel like running anymore.
happens when you run out of chances. But there’s good news. You don’t have to fail. You don’t have to be weak.
You can be stronger.
Tragedy taught me that a 15-year-old can do a lot more than talk on the phone and go on dates and pout. She can buy groceries and cook dinner. can play the cello. She can paint a house. can get a full scholarship to college. can drive her little brother to school, even if she’s only got a learner’s permit. can make friends that rely on her, and not the other way around. Because relying on people isn’t always a good thing.
This is what it means to be broken. Tragedy broke in every night — maybe for years — and vandalized the hell out of you.
But you repaired the damage. It taught you a kind of self-reliance that most people take a lifetime to learn.
made you relentless in going after what you want.
It was a gift.
You learned to chase what you want. To hunt it down. You don’t wait for it to walk up and eat out of your hand.
Because it won’t do that. Not ever.
Just look at what stops ordinary people. Fear of rejection. Unexpected setbacks. A bad breakup. A mean comment.
Not you. It doesn’t stop you. Maybe it slows you down, but not for long. You always come back.
If you’re lucky, life broke in and vandalized you at some point. You had to figure out how to fix yourself. Maybe you’re going through that now. Like I said, there’s good news. When you’re done, you’ll be stronger. A mean comment won’t bother you that much anymore. You’ll be able to handle pretty much anything. It’ll only get better from here, because you made it that way. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t stand a chance.