Burn It Down: On the Merits of Personal Disasters and the Power of Rebuilding

Published on June 21, 2023 by Noah Bradley

I don’t think we should seek out personal disasters, but maybe we shouldn’t be so scared of survivable personal disasters.

Painfully obvious disclaimer: disasters suck. Personal & career tragedies, scandals, illnesses, injuries, famine, etc. They’re painful, people get hurt, sometimes people die, and we should all work to reduce human suffering. I’m not advocating for more pain in the world. I’m not suggesting you go out looking for these things. Furthermore, there is an obvious level of privilege in talking of silver linings. I’m not going to tell anyone the dumb advice of “it’s not that bad, haven’t you thought of how X is going to be better now?” Let’s look for our own silver linings, not try to dictate how others feel about their own trials.

Bad things are going to happen to all of us. Many times it will be the things that we least expect, other times that haunting fear that follows you through life will really come true. We can plan, prepare, and try to prevent it, but sometimes it’s going to happen anyway. It’s a rare life that ends unscarred.

I’ve been going through one of my worst nightmares for the last few years but it’s been unexpectedly therapeutic at the same time. Whether you think I deserved all of this or not isn’t really the issue here. Tough things are tough. A well-deserved prison sentence is still a hell of a thing to go through, even if a false imprisonment is probably objectively worse.

As I’ve gone through this mess, I’ve read about and seen others go through their own personal disasters and seen similar responses. They go through the fire and they come out in a better place.

I’m not suggesting anyone go out looking for disasters. But I am saying that perhaps we should all be a little less afraid of personal disasters.

The greater our success, the greater our sunk cost, or the greater our investment of time/money/identity, the tighter we hold on. As our grip tightens, our fear grows. The more that we need something to be ok, the more we dread that one day that thing might not be ok any more. The more we need, the more that can go wrong.

Fearing disaster does not prevent disaster

We can (and should) do our best to prevent disasters. Unnecessary risks are stupid. You should drive carefully. You should take care of your health. You shouldn’t play in the road. You probably shouldn’t take up base-jumping.

But there are an almost infinite variety of ways that things can go wrong. And the one that gets us will very likely not be the one we expect.

Amor fati, as the stoics say. Love the cards that fate deals us. We should prepare ourselves for the unexpected and disastrous—that’s just being a good steward of the precious life you’ve been given. But what good is fear doing for us? Obviously we should be aware of the dangers of driving, but being afraid every time we drive? That will cloud our abilities to drive well and prevent accidents, thus making our fears more likely to come to pass.

We steer where we’re looking, so stop looking at all of the ditches.

Survivable disasters are not as bad as you imagine

Imagine the worst thing that could happen to you this afternoon.

Easy, right? Amazingly bad stuff. Really shitty afternoon.

Now imagine the best thing that could happen to you.

Probably harder to imagine, probably not as amazing as the shitty afternoon is shitty.

We’re all great at imagining the things that can go wrong and most of us practice that skill every day. We assume the ways that people don’t like us. Or the way a project will go wrong. Or how we’ll mess up basic things with our work. Or the countless other ways that things will spontaneously sour.

But when bad things happen, they’re often not nearly as bad as your imagination has made them out to be. Even horrible things can feel somehow manageable in the moment.

Suffering is bad, but it’s inevitable. Suffering of suffering—the act of fearing and reflecting on suffering—is bad but avoidable. The Buddhists have this figured out and we could all learn a lot from them.

There can be power, though, in imagining the worst. Tim Ferriss does a thing called fear-setting. In imagining the worst, we can actually see that we will be ok. This is different from simply ruminating on our devastation. This is taking our pessimistic tendencies of self-visioning and using them as fuel.

Our courage grows to the level of our challenge

I don’t know if I could handle going to war. I might physically and mentally break, collapsing under the weight of fear and anxiety. I’ve never been through that and I have no idea how I would handle it. I feel for the folks who have gone through those things.

But if I went through a cancellation next year, say, I know I could get through it. I’ve been through it before and I know approximately what I can expect from it. I know it will be hard but I know I’ll make it through the worst of it.

We only grow stronger when we face adversity. We can simulate challenges, but training can collapse under sufficiently overwhelming trials. We may have prepared for the stones that life would cast our way—but maybe we weren’t ready for a rogue meteor.

When the worst happens, when the meteor strikes, when we’re faced with our worst nightmare, and then we get through it, that’s when we learn an incredible lesson about ourselves. We got through that. And if we can get through that, what else can we handle?

I have spent many years in fear. The years before my career were consumed by a fear of failure, of never making it, of being a perpetual amateur. Then the years of my career were full of the fears of losing it all or of not living up to my potential. And now, after my professional career, I fear that I will never regain a modicum of the respect and recognition I once had—that the remainder of life will be a pale shadow of my brief period of commercial success.

I can’t say I’ve fully eradicated fear. But I can see that it is there. In seeing it, I can name it for what it is. So named, I can choose to face it. Fears will always be present, we only get to choose the meaning we assign to the fear and our response to the fear.

Unexpected goods can come from unanticipated bads

In the same way that we rarely anticipate our own personal black swans, we often fail to anticipate the positive black swans that will result.

We can’t anticipate everything that’s going to happen in our lives. And we certainly can’t anticipate the second, third, or fourth order effects of those events. “We’ll see” is almost always the correct response.

Seeing my professional career in ruin messed me up. I had staked not just my financial success in that, but every bit of my identity. I didn’t just make art for a living, I was an artist. When I could no longer be a professional artist, I could no longer be me. But the silver lining was that it forced me to reinvent myself. To discover a new, more antifragile, kinder, more empathetic, more wholesome self-identity. I was no longer staking my identity on the rickety supports of external validation and rewards.

Along these same lines, it’s possible to rebuild a better version than the one that was destroyed. When we go through a horrible break-up and get out of a bad situation, we are better equipped to recognize and avoid toxic influences in our life. When we have suffered through a terrible job for too many years, we begin to see the warning signs of a bad work environment.

Clean slates are rare

Break-ups are hard. But, often, we see clearly after a break-up. After we have emerged from the tough feelings of a break-up, we see the situation and life more clearly. We have a new lease on life. We can do anything, go anywhere, be with anyone. We have gone from a clear path and one option to a murky path and nearly infinite options.

Making large changes in life is hard. It’s easier to stay friends with a deadbeat than to cut their negativity out of your life. It’s easier to stay with a given career or employer than to get out of there and pursue the course that lights you up. Even when things are good—golden handcuffs can hold us just as surely.

None of us want to lose everything. We worked for decades to get everything we have right now. But the hard truth is that our lives might be a bit better if we selectively pruned the dead branches holding us down.

Personal disasters can break us or they can make us. Sometimes a bit of both.

I don’t want you to feel guilty if you are undergoing a personal disaster and you feel hopeless. We’ve been there. You’re not alone and nobody is saying it’s easy. I’m not suggesting that you magically put a smile on your face tomorrow and act like everything is ok. Nor am I suggesting you lay down on the metaphorical tracks while the freight train of disaster is heading your way.

I just hope that on those dark nights, when it feels like you’re stuck and this mess will be the end of you, that you find a small glimmer of hope. Enough to get through another day, to try to do one right thing, to take the first or ten thousandth step out of the hole you’ve found yourself in.

Onward. Ever onward.