Photo Credit: Free To Use Sounds, Unsplash.com

Written by Ramona Harvey
November 1, 2019

At the end of college, I had the idea to go somewhere far away from home. It was the summer of 1995, five years after Romania’s borders opened up following the fall of communism. Mine was the first generation of college graduates who could go to work in the West, living what would have been an impossible, wild dream for previous generations. 

I remember how nervous yet determined I was while preparing for the interview for a year-long internship in New York. During college, I’d borrowed books and business magazines that I barely understood from the American Embassy, keen to converse with foreigners and hear about life outside Romania. Before the job interview, I tried to imagine what I might be asked, and carefully rehearsed English words and phrases I thought I’d need to use in the conversation. 

During the interview, I was able to slow down my breathing and I got almost comfortable while speaking English with the hiring manager. I tried to keep up with the conversation and even asked questions about the company. I felt somewhat handicapped by my poor conversational English but hoped to show in the interview that I was driven. It must have worked because a month later I arrived in New York City. Excited and wildly optimistic, I sat down at my designated gray cubicle located on the 42nd floor of a building in midtown Manhattan, imagining great things in my future. 

The Growth Mindset

That first week, my impeccably dressed boss joked, “Hey, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”—a very New Yorker motto which I wholeheartedly adopted.

It was one of those moments that for some reason stick with us, watering the seed of audacious optimism that we plant when we’re ready to do big things. I believed her–although at that time my notion of “I can make it” was to hold on to my first job ever and have as much fun as possible while in New York City.

I taught myself how to type with both hands, and learned what a bank account is. My English improved pretty quickly (it was intense). Looking back now, I cringe a bit, but at the same time, I’m in awe of the way I pushed myself so far out of my comfort zone. Where did I get that motivation to throw myself head-on into such a deeply uncomfortable situation? Where do we get the instinct and desire for growth? 

Later, when I was interested in positive thinking and positive psychology, I stumbled upon Carol Dweck’s insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in which she explains the “growth mindset.” This is the way of looking at our shortcomings as opportunities to learn and grow as a person. Her research confirms what we all know intuitively: at some point in our lives we discover this ability to view challenges as adventures or opportunities, and we’re willing to put in the effort to make things happen, rather than viewing our shortcomings as barriers.

The “growth mindset,” Dweck explains, creates a conviction that any skills, and even qualities like intelligence or creativity, can be cultivated through effort and intentional practice. As I read this concept for the first time I felt I understood my choice to apply for that farfetched internship in the US. It made me wonder, where do we get this sort of deep-rooted belief that we can change our abilities and circumstances?  

The Power of Reframing

Back then, I had no background or knowledge of what I was getting into. I was eager to discover new places and new opportunities. I didn’t speak English fluently and was embarrassed by my accent.

I started an audio program recorded on cassette tapes that promised to Americanize a newcomer’s English. Three years later, when I met the man who would soon become my husband, my accent and my Romanian way of being intrigued him. He later told me he saw me as eccentric and interesting. It had never crossed my mind that my accent could be something positive. I wondered, what other things which I thought of as personal limitations could perhaps be viewed as advantageous?

At that time, I often felt awkward and lonely in the big city–something anyone who moved far away from home can relate to. And yet, I didn’t have any desire to go back home. I continued to look at being in the US as an opportunity to be somewhere different, far away from where I grew up, and probably most importantly, to be whoever I wanted to be. As I see it now, I sensed the opportunity to expand myself beyond my circumstances. 

About two decades into my corporate research career, I became increasingly aware of feeling overworked, stressed out, and dissatisfied with my work. I often tried to imagine another direction to find a more fitting path and found none.

Then, life took a tragic turn—my sister and her family got into a car accident and she passed away. The dark period of bewilderment, aimless days, and grief that followed shook me to the core. I paused and reflected on the fragility of life. I felt a deep desire to make my life count. “I’m here, and she’s not,” I thought. “What does this mean? What am I supposed to do? What could I do to find my purpose?”

As an homage to my sister, I wanted to do something to be happier. I wondered if being happy was even possible in the modern age for someone like me—a busy mom of two with a demanding full-time job and a high mortgage. I don’t think I would have quit my corporate career and built a coaching business without this urge to find a way to make my life meaningful. 

I’ve come to believe that frustration, pain, and even grief are sources of powerful insights into who we are at the core and what’s important to us. Strength and even happiness can actually come out of pain, not just in spite of it. As we go through difficulties, we have a challenge on our hands. When we work through it, we tap into a depth of inner strength we didn’t know we had. We begin to see that we can change our circumstances through our own effort, which forms the foundation of self-confidence and self-empowerment. 

All innovation starts with the willingness to see that there’s more than one way to view our situation. I found an unexpected sense of power in the idea that I can always choose to interpret pain as a starting point for something new and better. 

When my teenage children share the issues they face at school with me, I remember to ask questions to help them see that they always have a choice, and seize that feeling of self-empowerment:

  • How else could they view the situation? 
  • What could they learn about themselves? 
  • If it were an opportunity for something new and better, what would that look like? 
  • What’s the best next step they could take? 

This way they practice choosing to view any given situation as a new learning opportunity. My intention’s to show them they can empower themselves, no matter the situation.

Photo Credit: Free To Use Sounds, Unsplash.com