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Being Human Is Hard

Here's how to be awesome anyway.

Key points

  • Challenges are a part of daily life, but struggle is optional.
  • Emotional fitness can improve your endurance and resilience.
  • Psychological safety at work starts with authentic and honest communication.
  • A daily gratitude practice helps build your emotional well-being.

In a recent conversation with a well-known parenting expert, we agreed that helping humans be “human” is hard. In other words, raising children into adulthood sometimes seems like an insurmountable task. As I thought about life's challenges as we reach adulthood, it gave me pause to consider why we struggle so much later in life too. What is it that makes human beings so very complex? And how can we bring more joy into our lives despite the challenges we face? I turned to Nataly Kogan for some answers.

Nataly Kogan, used with permission.
Source: Nataly Kogan, used with permission.

Nataly Kogan, the author of The Awesome Human Project, outlines how we can struggle less, create psychological safety at work, and turn around bad days through a robust gratitude practice. In other words, being human can be less hard when we have the tools to deal with our own thoughts.

Navigating our internal worlds can be scary, and it doesn’t come naturally or voluntarily. Oftentimes self-reflection is a result of something bad that happens to us. According to Kogan, who has investigated neuroscience to help understand how the human brain operates, we require some type of interruption from our inertia because the brain prefers stasis over movement. Often we have to reach a pain point that forces us to think about the world and ourselves more deeply before we are willing to do so on our own. The key, according to Kogan, is to create a more supportive relationship with ourselves. “Going all the way in,” as she calls it, is the beginning of everything. In order to feel joy, we have to look within.

Kogan knows about struggle. In fact, she was raised with the fundamental belief that life is a struggle, and the only way to survive is to fight your way to the top at all costs.

In her 2013 TEDx talk, Kogan states: “Life is made of moments. Choose to create and collect the happy ones.” Having fled Soviet Russia in 1989 with her parents, she first lived in cramped quarters with other Soviet Jews in Vienna, then later in Detroit. Until the age of 14, she lived in a brain fog before she made the conscious decision to live the American Dream. For the next two decades, she worked herself into the ground, achieving great material wealth and professional success.

But at age 38, she realized she wasn’t happy. She was simply exhausted and burned out from always needing to be first and fastest. After some soul-searching, she realized her happiness came in the form of simple moments. It comes first and foremost from embracing ourselves fully.

With her characteristic entrepreneurial spirit, she started an endeavor called Happier in 2013. Since then, she has helped millions of people shift their views from jealousy to joy, despair to delight, and anger to abundance.

Kogan’s burnout taught her a powerful lesson: You can’t give what you don’t have. She views emotional fitness as a top investment in long-term success at work and at home. Self-care is an act of love, not only for ourselves but for those around us too.

Nataly Kogan, used with permission
Source: Nataly Kogan, used with permission

How to struggle less

Challenges in life are a constant. They can come in the form of small annoyances, such as heavy traffic, or larger concerns like health issues. While challenges are a part of being human, the struggle is optional. “Challenge is a feature, not a bug in our system,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. It is always there, but that doesn’t mean we have to suffer. “Struggle, on the other hand, is an option. We can reduce it because it’s internal.”

So how do we go about reducing struggle? According to Kogan, it is about improving our emotional fitness. Like physical fitness, it is a part of our toolbox. It is a skill that can improve with practice.

In order to create a better relationship with ourselves, we need to address our thoughts and emotions. How we deal with them impacts our relationship with others. Becoming an editor of our thoughts can create newfound resilience.

In other words, emotional endurance leads to resilience, which leads to your ability to positively adapt in the face of any challenge. Using our emotional, physical, and intellectual energy to struggle less will create a small shift in thinking. This, in turn, when practiced daily, can have a huge impact over time.

How leaders can create an environment conducive to psychological safety at work

Kogan works with numerous leaders, teams, and companies on psychological safety, which is key to a healthy workplace. Great leaders are skilled at emotional openness and emotional awareness.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Kogan talks about the emotional whiteboard we all are wearing in front of us at all times. Acknowledging what’s on our emotional whiteboard at the beginning of a business meeting, for instance, can help people feel safe. If you as a leader are having a bad day, sharing one thing from your emotional whiteboard gives people the context to help them understand your mood isn’t about them.

Leaders can ask for help, too. In fact, when team members feel empowered to contribute to an issue the leader cannot solve alone, it boosts employee engagement and motivation. Honesty and authenticity are the driving forces for psychological safety. Providing that kind of environment can be very transformative.

How to turn your bad day around by practicing gratitude

Gratitude is incredibly powerful because it too helps us struggle less. Kogan emphasizes our mission as human beings: We are not here to survive and just make it through the day. We are here to live and thrive.

Thriving is a human right. While our brain's job is to keep us safe and avoid danger at all costs, it could care less whether we are happy or not. Gratitude can override the negativity bias our brains are wired to focus on. According to research, the brain tends to ignore the good and familiar. Instead, it tends to exaggerate the negative while hiding the positive to save energy.

Gratitude is the most powerful way of balancing out negativity bias. Zoom into small, good moments in your day. When you pause to actively appreciate those small moments. It shifts your focus, improves your resilience, and gives you joy.

Yes, being human is hard. It takes work. But the effects of a daily awareness practice are worth it as we move from surviving to thriving, no matter the circumstance.