My early to mid-30s were a time of rapid growth and personal evolution.
I bought a house and moved from Sydney back to Melbourne.
I quit my comfortable banking job and pursued entrepreneurship. Within three years, I had built a 7-figure business and a dozen-strong team. I celebrated by buying a tax-deductible Tesla, as you do!
I became a published author and wrote two books for John Wiley & Sons — one of the world’s biggest non-fiction publishers, and became a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review.
I spoke on stages and at conferences worldwide, such as at SXSW.
My podcast generated over 1 million downloads and allowed me to meet and speak with some of the brightest minds of our time.
I built financial security by investing in real estate, index funds, stocks, and crypto.
I picked up new interests and hobbies — surfing and paddle boarding, riding motorcycles, skateboarding, videography, and drawing.
My girlfriend moved in with me, and we were slowly making moves towards building a life together.
Things were going just swimmingly.
And then January 2020 rolled along, and COVID hit.
At the time, I was 36 and still in my mid-30s.
I endured Melbourne’s lockdown — the longest in the world, and didn’t truly emerge from it until two years later, almost 39 and pushing 40.
I felt the pressure of father time like I never had.
I emerged from it without my best friend. My five-year romantic relationship fell apart — mostly due to my inability to show the love and empathy required. It left an indescribable void in its wake, and left me alone and feeling abandoned.
My business took a COVID haircut, slashing revenues and headcount, and battering my identity as a successful entrepreneur.
My investment portfolio was decimated by the economic downturn (at least in the short term).
I came out of COVID facing an identity crisis and a major life transition.
For the first time in my life, I felt as if I wasn’t making progress or looking forward.
For the first time ever, I felt like I was going backward.
For the first time ever, I felt…old and like I wasn’t living up to my own and and society’s expectations.
I had always been a Stoic, strong-willed, up at dawn and in the gym, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ type of guy, but it’s easy to be that guy when things are going well.
Who we really are is tested when things aren’t going well.
In light of everything I had endured, my mental health and emotional fortitude were challenged, and I felt an inner weakness that had been foreign to me.
My sense of personal agency, optimism, and hope had vanished.
I ruminated on negative thoughts and feelings.
I struggled to get out of bed.
I thought and said things to myself that I would never dare say to someone else.
I was at an all-time personal low, staring into the abyss.
“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” — Friedrich Nietzsche.
The abyss is where the darkest aspects of our character dwell.
If we allow ourselves to stare into the abyss for too long, and descend into our weakness, fear, and hatred, we become the abyss. Our attitudes, behaviors, and life outcomes reflect the darkness of the abyss, and we become the monster we’ve been fighting.
The abyss either consumes us whole, or helps us to learn, find our character, and emerge stronger.
Whether from personal agency or a fortunate predisposition, I took the latter path.
After months of dwelling, I decided to focus on what I could control.
I journaled voraciously about whatever feelings came up, helping to process them, gain clarity, and get thoughts and feelings out of my head and onto the paper — a cathartic process.
I took stock of all of the things I still had in my life, that if lost I would do anything to get back — my health, wealth, relationships, opportunities, and so on.
I took whatever lessons I could out of the past, so I could be a better person in the future to those closest to me.
I started a new business — one that was more aligned with my strengths, passions, and market appetite.
I redistributed my investments.
I took time off to travel.
I made time to do everything I had been putting off.
And critically, I showed myself love by forgiving myself for past mistakes. I did the best I could with the mind and experiences I had at the time.
I decided to be happy.
I found my character.
When we take ownership and focus on what we can control, we restore a sense of agency and progress — fundamental to human flourishing.
When we take ownership, as opposed to a victim mindset, we restore our power — instead of giving it to someone or something else.
Instead of judging circumstances as good or bad, how might we look back on things in 10 years, as opposed to in 10 months?
Might there be silver linings?
Even today, everything I’ve endured has made me so much more empathetic and resilient.
I’ve learned what I needed to in order to become a more understanding, conscientious, and loving partner.
I’ve learned that in order to be happy, I need to live in alignment with my own values and live my own truth — not anybody else’s.
I decided to accept that life is a little like a professional athlete’s career. We perform at different levels as we get older, and the roles we play shift with age. We might be on the starting lineup in our mid-20s, and then come in off the bench in our mid-30s, before transitioning to a role as a coach in our mid-40s. There is no fighting father time.
It’s unproductive to compare our older selves to our younger counterparts just as it would be unproductive for Michael Jordan to compare his 55 year-old-self with his prime.
On silver linings and not judging events as good or bad in the moment, I’m reminded of a Chinese fable.
A farmer had one old horse that he used to plough his fields. One day, the horse ran away into the hills.
Everyone said, “We are so sorry for your bad luck.” The old man replied, “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”
A week later, the horse returned with a herd of wild horses, which now belonged to the old man.
Everyone said, “We are so happy for your good luck!” The old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
While his only son was riding one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg.
Everyone said, “What bad luck!” The old man replied, “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”
One day, the army came to the village, and took all the strong young men to be soldiers for the emperor. Only the old farmer’s son was spared, because he could not fight with a broken leg.
Everyone said, “What good luck!” The old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that we shouldn’t base our value on external factors, but rather, on our relationship with ourselves. To be the best version of ourselves, we first need to start with showing ourselves true, unconditional, love.
Without that, we will always be fighting the monsters in the abyss.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.