How to Overcome Disappointment in Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you struggling to recover from a setback? What can you do to help you move forward again?

To regain a sense of control over your life, Eric Barker recommends that you tell yourself two “stories.” First, write your own eulogy. Second, look at your life as though it’s a game. He argues that these techniques give you a sense of purpose that can motivate you to tackle difficulties.

Read more to learn Barker’s advice on how to overcome disappointment in life.

How to Overcome Disappointment

How can you ensure that you persevere through setbacks? Barker argues that telling yourself a good story is how to overcome disappointment in life. By nature, your brain tells stories about the random events in your life—doing so gives you a sense of control. These stories are often objectively untrue, as they lead you to ignore information that doesn’t fit into the narrative you’ve created. 

However, Barker contends that, when it comes to grit, ignoring facts is a good thing: A good story provides you with a sense of meaning that motivates you to surmount obstacles. If you didn’t have this story and focused instead on the facts, you probably would realize you were unlikely to surmount these obstacles—so you wouldn’t even try. 

When Telling Stories Is Harmful

Barker focuses on how inaccurate stories about the obstacles you’re facing can help you—but inaccurate stories can harm you, too. In Crucial Conversations, the authors agree that stories are how we explain the world. However, they add that as we develop these stories, our body responds with strong emotions—so once these stories are told, they control us and dictate how we feel and act. Since the same set of facts can be used to spin infinite stories, telling a bad story could demotivate you and cause harm—like if you convince yourself you’ll never survive an easily survivable obstacle.

Telling the wrong story doesn’t just cause emotional harm: In The Psychology of Money, financial writer Morgan Housel explains that it can also cause us to make poor financial decisions. Like Barker, Housel posits that we tell stories about the random events in our lives to help us feel more in control—but since finance is subject to the whims of human emotions, we don’t have as much control over our money as we tell ourselves. When we overestimate how much control we have, we’re more likely to ignore factors such as chance or others’ decisions and may make poor financial decisions as a result.

Specifically, Barker recommends that you tell yourself two stories. First, write your own eulogy: Creating a story about how you want people to remember you when you’re dead will motivate you to strive towards that legacy when you’re alive. 

(Shortform note: Writing your own eulogy may help you in your professional life—but to be romantically successful, one psychologist suggests imagining your future partner’s eulogy instead. He explains that people seeking a partner focus on that person’s achievements—like their wealth. However, you’re more likely to find a happy relationship with someone who has traits that one might praise in their eulogy—like kindness.)

Second, Barker recommends turning your journey into a game—which is a type of story because it involves reframing reality. Gamifying your journey makes it more enjoyable and thus motivates you to push through setbacks and stick to your plan even when you get bored.

How to Overcome Disappointment in Life

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Eric Barker's "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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