It’s a story that we see playing out around us all the time. Man has his heart broken, decides that he has “had enough” and hits the gym to “show her what she’s missing”. A young entrepreneur has his dream mocked and goes on a one-man crusade to “show everyone” what his dreams are worth.
I firmly believe that adversity is one of the many effective catalysts for positive change. This is something that has played out numerous times in my own life and in the lives of people around me. Being at rock bottom — whether emotionally, financially, or socially — often brings clarity that helps one chart a path to a better life. However, rock bottom is also fertile grounds for spite, bitterness, cynicism, and a horde of other ruinous emotions that can destroy the joy and sense of fulfilment from every achievement.
A hero fuelled by bitterness is a common device in our social discourse these days — Rambo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even Donald Trump, all draw power from private or public bitterness. In contrast, people like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew, and David Goggins based their achievements on optimism and positivity.
The changes and improvements made to spite a particular person are the most toxic. Chances are that the person who hurt you has long moved on from what transpired between you and them. People go through life stricken with the delusion that one day this person will realise that he/she was wrong and will rue their behaviour. When you embark on an endeavour with the sole intention of proving someone wrong, you inextricably tie your destiny to the pain that they brought to your life. You enter a grossly asymmetrical relationship where everything that you are — emotionally, physically, even financially, is linked to someone who doesn’t care about what you’re doing. It’s somewhat similar to loving someone who doesn’t love you back — only worse, because there is absolutely no chance of a happy ending.
In the movie Blitz, London police officer Tom Brant hunts down a serial killer who has been targeting London police officers while mocking the force through the press. It turns out that a year before the killings started, Blitz, whose real name was Barry Weiss, was in a fight that was broken up by Brant. At that time Weiss turned on Brant, who thrashed him soundly in self defence. Weiss carried this drubbing as a personal insult — embarking on a killing spree. The pivotal point in the movie was when Brant remembers Weiss — who until then seemed vaguely familiar — and emphasised that he was “a nobody”. This shakes up Weiss — he becomes increasingly careless and dies painfully — like every villian in a Jason Statham movie eventually does.
So if you’re rising from rock bottom in any way, you need to look within and question your inspiration. Are you doing this to get back at someone? Are you doing this to show someone how wrong they were in breaking up with you / insulting you / passing you over for a promotion / cutting your job / mocking your weight / etc? If so, you need to reframe your goal.
If you’re making life changes after a romantic disappointment, don’t do so to make someone regret their choice in breaking up with you. Do so with a mental model of yourself as a better person — a nicer body; the development of a skill you long wanted to pursue; or a professional path that leads you to greater satisfaction, financial fulfilment, and increased prestige. Discard the baggage. Your new self, minus the baggage, will make you attractive to others and increase the chances of you finding a fulfilling relationship that endures. On the other hand if you keep the baggage you’ll be rapidly rejected by any (wise) potential mate for being preoccupied with your former lover.
If you’re focused on rising out of professional adversity, don’t aim to shatter a glass ceiling or prove a point to an arrogant associate. Do so because of a sense of intrinsic motivation or because your work and achievements bring you meaning. Being motivated by hope and positivity will bring you more allies and supporters than being on a blinkered quest.
Positivity, like bitterness, is contagious. By improving yourself by its power, you make this world a better place.