Recently, my friend Ling had a challenging turn of events in her startup that had her questioning the phrase, “everything happens for a reason.” One of the people on her new board was a friend she had met networking. Mark was unemployed but held good connections and industry knowledge that could be useful to Ling’s company.
Within a short period of time, Ling noticed Mark repeatedly failing to deliver on commitments he had made to the rest of the board. As deadline after deadline was missed, Ling also learned that Mark has leveraged his position to land a full-time job. Ling felt a bit used, but did her best to understand and trust that Mark would now make good on his commitments to her company.
Then, at the following board meeting, Ling and Mark had a disagreement in front of the rest of the board members. Afterwards, Mark worked to get an apology from Ling. Already annoyed and disappointed in Mark, Ling refused to acknowledge that she might have done anything wrong. Later that day, Mark sent her an email which said that, due to the lack of apology, he would resign from the board at year’s end.
As she read the letter, Ling realized that a large part of her had wanted Mark off the board months ago. However, termination required board approval and Ling didn’t feel confident she had the votes. So instead, she decided to quietly allow Mark to finish out the last months of his term.
Less than a month later, however, Ling inadvertently caused an issue with a vendor Mark had landed to do the startup’s payroll. In an email exchange about their new system, Mark called Ling out for being uneducated. Ling sat down to compose a response, and found herself venting many of the emotions and judgments she had stuffed away for months. She said that she just wanted to get the emotion out so she could think clearly, and planned to revise her language and tone before hitting send. But she didn’t get that chance; she accidentally sent the incomplete and unedited email, and the damage was done.
Since Mark was quitting the board anyway, Ling consciously chose to just let it go. Within two hours, Mark had sent an email back expressing his anger, and immediately quit the board.
I learned of Ling’s story when she called me, struggling to understand why all of this stuff with Mark had happened; the missed deadlines, the disagreements, the email that wasn’t supposed to be sent, her unwillingness to apologize. Ironically, she added, after she reflected on Mark’s point about the payroll system, Ling came around and decided to go with his suggestion anyway, making that whole final email altercation for naught.
If everything happens for a reason, she wanted to know, what was the reason for all of this?
“Everything happens for a reason,” is a well-meaning platitude, but even if you take comfort in believing something or someone else controls your destiny, it’s only real utility is to help you feel less bad when bad things happen. No one can know for sure that forces outside ourselves are at work in our lives, and even if you believe in some guiding hand, it’s hubris to think that you can know its intention. A much more useful phrasing and perspective, in my opinion, is, “There’s a reason in every happening.” In other words, you create your experience — or at the very least create the meaning that comes out of it. And if you don’t understand the reason for an experience you have, you may not be listening to yourself.
In general, our subconscious minds work to keep us in alignment with what we truly want. Sometimes these wants serve us for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Ling wanted Mark off the board, but didn’t have the confidence to bring it to a vote. She was being complacent, so her subconscious mind gave her a helping hand and created situations that would cause Mark to leave on his own, sooner rather than later.
The next time you find yourself looking for reasons in an unfortunate series of events, it might be more helpful to ask yourself questions like, “What am I telling myself via these events? How are my feelings informing me? How do these events get me closer to my true wants and desires?” You may not be able to stop problems and challenges from coming into your life, but you can find the value they provide and make the best of them.
“You are the sum total of the choices you make every day, both conscious and subconscious.” — Brit Marling, (Emphasis added by me.)