One of the first things I discovered when I began to surf was how arbitrary and punishing the ocean can be. You get up on the board, start to feel confident, and before you know it, you're underwater in the wash cycle, the sea tossing you around. Once your flailing is over, you make sure all your limbs are still bending the right way and you take deep breaths, grateful for all that beautiful oxygen in your lungs.
That’s not so different from real life. Sometimes a huge wave seems to come out of nowhere and knocks you down, leaving you disoriented and gasping for breath. That’s exactly what happened to me in the first months of 2020. I found myself sobbing on my apartment floor for months straight, wondering how everything had changed so quickly, and desperately trying to find a safe and stable shore where I could plant my feet.
When the Tsunami Strikes
It began with the breakup of a five-year relationship. We’d built a life together in San Francisco. He had kids, we had pets, and our social activities revolved around our life as a couple. That all evaporated in an instant when we separated and I moved back to Los Angeles.
The move happened right before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns began. Everything hit me like a full-on tsunami. After my separation, I badly needed to get out and have social distractions, and that was simply impossible. On top of that, the pandemic cut our company LSTN’s business in half—along with our salaries. We had to lay off employees who had worked for us for years and felt like family. Our philanthropic partner had to suspend operations.
My best friend and business partner, Joe Huff, was stuck in the Middle East—he and his wife had taken their newborn baby to visit his in-laws just before the lockdowns began. The neighborhood I had moved to turned into a crime hotbed nearly overnight after so many people lost their jobs. My new place got robbed several times…after I had just lost my job security and spent a small fortune replacing all my stuff.
Every single important anchor in my life had been uprooted: my most personal relationship, the city I lived in, my ability to travel, social activities with friends, my purpose, my safety, and my finances. All of them were disintegrating at once, and my mental and physical health crumbled right along with them.
Negative Experiences Can be Priceless
I was such a mess that I lost 20 pounds because I could barely force myself to eat (and I usually love food more than life itself). I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to do anything. The only thing to look forward to was the end of the day, when I could crawl back into bed, if I even got out of it.
One day, I was morosely unpacking boxes in my new place in LA when I stumbled across a very special matcha teacup. A few years earlier, on a trip to Japan, I had spent a day learning about samurai culture. At the end of my samurai experience, we had a traditional tea ceremony, and as I held my beautiful ceramic cup, I noticed it was filled with uneven gold lines.
When I asked about this interesting detail, the trainer explained Kintsugi, a Japanese philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. One manifestation of Kintsugi is expressed by a longstanding tradition with broken ceramics. Instead of disposing of the item or fixing it to make it look like new, the cracks are filled with a gold-colored metal. This emphasizes the break instead of hiding it.
As the samurai trainer explained all this, I felt an instant affinity with this philosophy. It’s a tangible demonstration of the idea that mistakes, brokenness, and the storms of life can have beautiful effects and shouldn’t be hidden or thrown away. Instead, they should be recognized and displayed. It was a powerful reminder that everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—can serve us, and we should waste no experience.
In that miserable moment, a teacup didn’t magically make everything better, but it reminded me that my negative experiences could become a priceless part of my life story. By being destroyed, I realized it was the best time to transform my future. In fact, despite all the fun, thrill-seeking, globe-trotting experiences I’ve had, the journey to overcome my depression and conquer my mental health is what I consider the most valuable experience of my life.
The Hero’s Journey
What has been the most valuable experience of your life?
When we think about the value of life experiences, there’s a tendency to focus on the positive. The vacation, the great date, the amazing meal, the time you won a trophy (well, it was just for participation, but still). But chances are, the most powerful stories you have to tell are actually about something very serious, maybe even quite harrowing.
It makes sense—when was the last time you saw a great movie or read a fantastic book where nothing bad happened? Never, of course. Where’s the meaning in that, let alone the magnetic attraction that keeps you glued to the story?
Not that the point of your life is to make it a good story, but, well… it kind of is. Because in great stories, relatable characters face big challenges and grow as a result. This is the hero’s journey that drives all great stories: a flawed main character goes through a crisis, overcomes obstacles to reach an important goal, and comes out the other side having changed for the better in some way.
Life Doesn’t Go as Planned
Now, that’s not to say that the only way to grow is through devastating pain (I don’t wish that for you), but it is true that tough times force us to take big strides toward becoming our best selves.
The inescapable reality is that life just doesn’t always go as planned. High expectations meet disappointment. Relationships turn sour. Accidents, illnesses, and natural disasters happen. Business deals go bad. Just ask any elderly person if they’ve always had it easy—I guarantee you’ll get an earful.
Here’s the thing: in the long run, negative experiences often turn out to not be all bad after all. And yet, we spend an awful lot of time and energy avoiding the “bad”—which basically means anything we expect to be uncomfortable.
Experiences Drive You Forward
Of course, in the depths of my depression, the last thing I was thinking about was how these events would change my life in a positive way. When you’re going through a terrible time, the most annoying thing in the entire world is when people tell you, “You’ll be okay! Just be happy! Time heals all wounds!” Not helpful.
You know what is helpful? Doing things—i.e., having experiences.
That’s what finally pulled me out of the abyss. I had fallen to a point that was so low, I was genuinely afraid of what might become of me. That’s when I decided there was nothing to lose—if I was ever going to be happy again, I had to do something different.
I started small. Every time I wanted to climb back into bed, I chose a healthier activity instead. I walked through parks. I read. I rode my bike. I cooked. Even basic things like taking a bath and cleaning my place helped. None of these things were revolutionary, but they interrupted my established pattern of sitting around passively and wallowing in my pain.
Embrace the Cycle
These little experiences started to nudge my emotions in a new direction, and the difference became obvious when I started doing them consistently. One new daily routine drastically changed my mood: doing a simple gratitude practice while watching the sun rise and set each day.
It forced me to get up, take my dog outside, and bookend my days by thinking about the positive aspects remaining in my life. It also helped regulate my sleep, which made me feel physically healthier and more energetic. This practice became my favorite part of my day, and I still do it.
It was important that these experiences were small because I didn’t have the drive for anything more. But when I took a walk instead of lying down and diving into a downward spiral of depressing thoughts, I felt a little better—at least I could pat myself on the back for getting out of the house. Bit by bit, I started to rebuild the energy and desire for bigger things.
Be More Present
As I refocused my mind away from the suffering, novel experiences became more powerful. I tried adrenaline-filled activities like spearfishing and rollerblading down the boardwalk, as well as calming ones like painting, writing poetry, and roasting my own coffee beans.
These experiences gave me natural bursts of serotonin and dopamine—feel-good hormones—that jolted me out of my depression temporarily. The novelty forced me to pay close attention to the task at hand, leaving little room to dwell on the past or worry about the future. And when I succeeded at something new, it helped build my confidence and courage.
My personal experience aligns perfectly with scientific research. The evidence states that simply being more present by doing something new stimulates and activates regions of our brain that improve our mood. So, the next time you’re feeling life close in on you, put down the remote and try something you’ve never done before.
It’s not as easy, but believe me—it works.
This Too Shall Pass
Along with doing new things, you can also intentionally reframe your negative experiences into positive ones (or at least take steps to resolve them and learn from them). Use the following exercise to help you do that.
First, focus on one negative situation in your life right now. It could be financial (“I can’t travel where I want to go because I don’t have money”), physical (“My bad back is keeping me from playing basketball”), familial (“I’m struggling to care for both my children and my elderly parents”), or anything else weighing you down.
Next, ask yourself what factors are contributing to this situation that you cannot directly control? For example, you can’t control the weather, the economy, or other people’s feelings and choices. Write them down. Focus on that list for a moment. For each item, take a moment to close your eyes, breathe deeply, and commit to not worrying about it. Worrying about things you can’t control only hurts you—it creates unnecessary stress and distracts you from the things you can control. Let this stuff go.
Finally, reflect on what factors you can control. What can you personally do to change the situation, or take yourself out of it? Which of those things can you do today, or better yet, right now? Go do it, or at the very least, put it on your calendar. Remember, experiences—positive and negative—are key to helping you move through the tough times, so start taking action now to build a meaningful, rich, and happy life.
About Bridget Hilton
Bridget Hilton creates tools to help teams and leaders connect in the workplace through rich experiences and shared goals. Her keynote helps Fortune 500 companies navigate topics of mental health and wellness, burnout, employee belonging and connection, inspiration, motivation, and goal setting. Her book Experiential Billionaire and card deck Treasure Maps is out now. She is located in Los Angeles, CA and is booking keynotes and workshops worldwide now.