Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I’m here with you on this journey to understand ourselves, others, and the world a little better. What if gratitude isn’t what you’ve always thought it was?
Today, I will share a personal story, something counterintuitive I have learned, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to turn a negative into a positive, and a person who can do that can never be defeated. Let’s begin.
If you want to learn faster, understand more deeply and increase your influence, teach one idea from today’s podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours.
Some time ago, my family and I moved to an idyllic community. It was white picket fences. There’s no street lamps. There were more horse trails than roads, and our children spent long days playing outside with our happy dog, riding horses, playing tennis. We took morning walks and bike rides. We planted a garden with apple trees, grape vines, and melon plants.
In short, we found ourselves living in a little piece of heaven on earth. One of our daughters, Eve seemed, especially to thrive. She’s a slim, brown-eyed blonde head girl with a mischievous grin. She simply cannot stay cross, and even when she tries to, she can only do it for a few seconds before bursting into laughter.
She loves to be in nature. Some family friends of ours still recall how she climbed to the top of their massive 50-foot fir tree the first time she ever visited their home. She ran barefoot whenever she could, wrestled with her younger brother on the trampoline for hours at a time, named the chickens. Carefully caught lizards by the dozen and gently released them.
Eve read endlessly devouring books about horses, bees, insects. Her favorite were a series about veterinary adventures with farm animals and their owners in Yorkshire, England, James Harriet. For those that have read those marvelous books, she wrote about her own adventures in her journal every day.
Once when I took Eve with me on a business trip, I called Anna from the airport and told her that Eve literally hadn’t stopped talking since we left. An hour and a half before. It was animated, scintillating, conversation, punctuated with laughter.
Then Eve turned 14. She hit a growth spurt, began to feel tired a lot, talked to us less, and took longer to do her chores. So pretty age-appropriate behavior, or so we thought. On a routine visit with a physical therapist, he noticed Eve didn’t respond properly to basic reflex tests. He took Anna aside and said, you might want to see a neurologist, and we didn’t have to be told twice.
From there. Her symptoms worsened on a daily basis. Within just a few weeks, she could answer only in one word, sentences, spoke in a slurred and monotone voice. We noticed that the right-hand side of her body responded at a lower speed than the left-hand side. It took her two full minutes to write her own name, hours to eat a meal. The light, once so vibrant and bright, in Eve dimmed, then it seemed to go out entirely when she was hospitalized with a major seizure.
What made the situation worse was the doctors couldn’t explain any of it. They could not offer us even the beginning of a diagnosis. Every day brought more visits to respected neurologists who looked to us with furrowed brows in one instance, literally shrugged his shoulders, tests and tests and more tests. All of them came back negative. The doctors still couldn’t find anything, not even a clue. So to watch our vivacious daughter in an almost constant state of free fall and have no explanation is the stuff true suffering is made of.
With each unfruitful doctor’s visit and each inconclusive test, it became harder and harder to see the road ahead. The challenge before us didn’t feel just hard. It felt utterly impossible. All we wanted in the world was for Eve to get better. That wasn’t just the most important thing, it was the only thing.
What came into view for me at that time were two different paths for dealing with the situation. One, both at the time and especially now in hindsight, was terrifying. And it wasn’t just the awfulness of the situation, the fact that we felt we had so little control. It was this added temptation, the gravitational pull to be consumed in focusing on the wrong things.
So, in addition to the first test, there was this secondary test, this toxic threat that we could, if we weren’t careful, become consumed in the negativity, the complaining, the frustration, the exhaustion, the impatience, how easy it would’ve been to torture ourselves with unanswerable questions, to worry ourselves perpetually by imagining the worst case scenarios, by complaining endlessly, even ferociously, that the doctors didn’t have the answers. Or on the other hand, to live in some sense of denial, well, it’s not so bad. And just to construct a pretended world and push away the reality and challenge of the moment. We could have fallen into this “why us” thinking. Why Eve?
But there was, perhaps faintly at first, the glimpse of a second path, this visceral discovery that in the midst of a personal family hell, we could be grateful. We could be grateful that we could go on walks together, grateful that we could read books together, grateful that we could play games together, grateful as we ate dinner together, grateful as we told stories, grateful as we laughed.
But here’s where the plot thickens. Because it was in this crucible, in this test, in this experiment with radical gratitude, that I began to sense that my own appreciation of gratitude was wrong. My understanding of what gratitude is was that what many of us have been taught about gratitude is so limited as to potentially be described as wrong.
I just looked this up today. It’s a description of gratitude for children. It says, “Gratitude is one of many positive emotions. It’s about focusing on what’s good in our lives and being thankful for the things that we have.”
Well, that sounds like what every person has ever been told about what gratitude is, but vitally important that is, at best, half of the story only to use the over-quoted metaphor, one side of the gratitude coin, a simpler definition is the following, the quality of being thankful.
Let me be precise so that I cannot be misunderstood. It doesn’t say anything about for the good things, and this is where my sense of the subject has evolved over time. Radical gratitude, the kind that can turn a bad day into a good one, the kind that can heal you from past trauma, even the most serious challenges you’re facing right now as you listen to this is the kind where we are grateful for the challenge itself. That to evolve, to really grow from the challenges of our lives is when we can say for those challenges, thank you.
The application feels absurd at first.
- I am thankful I am getting older because..
- I am thankful I was rejected because…
- I am thankful that my mother or my father struggles with X because…
- I am thankful for the deepest struggles of my life because…
- I’m thankful my friend doesn’t speak to me anymore because…
- I’m thankful I made this mistake in the past because…
When I followed this practice, I don’t know the end of the sentence as I start the sentence. It is in a sense, an act of faith because it shifts my understanding of gratitude from something that I feel into something that I do. Gratitude is something we do, not something we feel. Gratitude, in this sense, becomes a verb. The feeling comes afterward.
So gratitude begins when you don’t feel grateful at all. That’s where its central power is in expressing it. I’m thankful for this trouble because, and you wait and watch the way that that expression can invert your understanding of the situation, how it can turn something you assume, are in fact sure about, being bad into something that at least has upside.
As we tried to practice this kind of radical gratitude in the midst of this situation with Eve, we noticed an almost magical force at play. We felt less burdened. We were less exhausted. We didn’t burn out, and that’s not the same as our worry suddenly disappearing entirely. The reality of the situation was still very much with us. There were still doctor’s appointments to be kept, and test results, to be waited for. Some days were harder than others, some immensely, so there were plenty of tears. But through it all, there was also moments of increased perspective, singing, laughing, eating, making memories. We didn’t just get through that difficult period. We didn’t just survive it, and I’m not trying to take credit for it.
Our experience was gentler than that. From the moment we decided to choose this radical gratitude, we felt freer. We felt lighter, we felt less frozen. We felt less frenetic, less frantic.
Now, if this story were a Disney movie, this would be the part where I’d write how Eve was immediately healed and just a piece of cake. Well, it wasn’t after a round of successful treatments, she started to regress, and the troubles returned. But that, too, we found could be handled differently through this exploration and experimentation with radical gratitude. And if we hadn’t started that the first time around, what kind of a psychological and emotional, and physical state would we have been in the second time around?
She is, as of this conversation, fully back, and although I don’t really remember when precisely, I’m sure that I have shared much of that story with Eve with you before, but this morning I woke up feeling I should share it with you again.
Perhaps it’s because in the US, this greatest vacation innovation, Thanksgiving, is here. I can see you there with your families, extended families. Perhaps it’s a family you’ve had to piece together, friends. Perhaps you’ll be with just your immediate family. Perhaps you’ll feel more isolated and alone than that. Perhaps this will be a struggle of a day. Perhaps you’ve gone through something immensely painful, maybe this year has brought with it unexpected, unimaginable breaks in relationships, things you thought you could count on that you couldn’t. Disappointments. Maybe there’s been an unexpected death. Maybe somebody in your life became ill or is right now.
Such unimaginable times do come, and my experience a few years more along in this short journey of life makes me believe it happens to everyone. Well, when those moments come, and perhaps as I say, they’ve come to you, there is a principle, there is an action you can take, and it doesn’t resolve the challenges that you are facing. It doesn’t eliminate them, it doesn’t make them disappear. That’s not what it does, but it does reframe them, and it does start to open the possibility that these things in life are not happening to you. They’re happening for you, and that is not to trivialize the challenges whatsoever, but nevertheless, it opens the possibility, even now for me, the probability that there is no other way for you to become the next version of yourself. No other way for you to be able to become you 2.0, you 3.0. So whatever is happening to you, whatever hardship, whatever pain, however significant those things are right now, they pale in comparison to the power you have to choose between these two paths to choose what you do right now.
The word now comes from the Latin phrase, novos homo, which means becoming a new man or man, newly ennobled, you newly enabled, and the spirit of it is clear. Each new moment, this new moment is a chance to start over, a chance to make a new choice, a chance to choose, to say, I am thankful because. A chance to say, I am thankful for this heartbreaking thing because. I am thankful for this challenge because. I am thankful for this suffering because. I am thankful for this disorienting experience because. I am thankful for this struggle because, and then seriously, to watch what happens. I believe this is part of the 10X mindset, that if we can receive everything, all things, with that kind of thankfulness, we will be made into something far better than we are right now.
In that evolution, transformation, things will start to be drawn to us, maybe even 10 times better things, both in terms of quantity and quality, that these things will be drawn to us, and in this breathtaking process, we will discover something even beyond grit, certain invincibility. We will discover that the things we are least grateful for may be the raw materials for achieving and becoming what we really want.
What if the way you have thought about gratitude before is not really what it means? What if it is the mechanism for turning a negative into a positive? A person who can turn a negative into a positive can never be defeated.
Thank you. Really, really thank you for listening.
What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why did it matter so much to you? Who is one person you can share that with within the next 24 to 48 hours?
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(1) Roffey, S. (2013). Thought you knew about being thankful? Think again!!Gratitude in Education: A Radical View. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(1), pp.79–80. doi:10.1080/17439760.2012.747219.