Rock bottom is a phrase that is often associated with failure, and therefore surrounded by shame and stigma. Finding yourself at rock bottom is taking failure that one step further. It’s realising that failure can bottom out even further. It is the lowest of lows, it is a cesspool of self doubt, it is a chasm filled with all of the bad and none of the good.
A place where existential conversations happen and all those hard hitting questions come to pass; the self defeated “what’s the point,” or the self affirming “it was never going to work,” or the self fulfilling “this is a sign to throw in the towel.” It is the place where quitting thrives and perseverance dies. Where hope and joy become these far away concepts, out of reach and impossible to hold on to. Simon and Garfunkel probably sum rockbottom up best; “Hello darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again.”
The proverbial darkness looks different for all of us, we all have our struggles, a cross to bear, a burden to carry, and rock bottom is always waiting, one stumble, one push, one fall away from smacking head first into it. While everyone's rock bottom is different, I think the feeling must be similar. The moments of true doubt and unhappiness, the moments where we take stock and question the point of it all, the moments where giving up is the only escape route. And then the tremendous moment when we decide to stand again, standing upon rock bottom yes, but standing nonetheless. These moments are inherently human, and therefore, one might argue, that finding yourself at rock bottom might just be the most human thing we can do.
Rock bottom tends to provide one of two outcomes; quitting or persevering. We are interested in the persevering, in seeing rock bottom as a springboard in disguise.
So, how do you make a springboard out of rock bottom? To answer this question, I will share three rock bottom comebacks with you…
I’ve shared this one before, but it is worth repeating. “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor. If things are failing, you’re not innovating enough.” Said by Elon Musk, the man who is quite literally altering the trajectory of mankind and making multi-planet habitation look possible.
In 2013, Elon Musk almost sold Tesla to Google after it hit rock bottom with bug-filled cars, stalled sales and falling shares. Musk said; “the car sucked. That was rock bottom for sure.” And then, he remembers, “Oh no, wait, 2008 was definitely the worst year of my life. I remember waking up the Sunday before Christmas and thinking to myself, ‘man, I never thought I was someone who would have a nervous breakdown. It was pretty dark. I was getting divorced, more than broke, and I was looking at my fourth failure. It would have been gameover for me.” As we all know, Elon endured, and when asked how many setbacks the Tesla Company has experienced, as well as how many times a SpaceX rocket has failed, Elon just laughed and said, “thousands probably. Imagine if it was a million, imagine how much further along I would be.” Isn’t that an incredible mindset to have about rock bottom.
Marvel Entertainment. In 1998 Marvel was going bankrupt, and to avoid this happening, offered a deal to Sony. Sony could have the rights to virtually every Marvel character, including Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and Black Panther, for a cool $25 million. Sony Pictures was unimpressed with the deal. At the time, Marvel characters were a non event, so Sony offered this response; “Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters. We only want Spider-Man.” Marvel took what they could get and sold off Spiderman. It wouldn’t be until years later when Kevin Fieg, the President of Marvel Studios had the perfect response; “Rejection is a common occurrence. Learning that early and often will help you build up a tolerance to keep going. All of the Marvel characters have flaws to them; all have a deep humanity to them. They know rock bottom, and that’s what makes them believable.” Rock bottom became the stomping ground for Marvel, who recreated an entire franchise on what they called their B-list characters. 21 years and 22 movies later, Marvel has grossed over $25 billion in global box office.
And finally a story of my own. Not really mine, but ours I guess. Seed’s rock bottom moment, which would have been three, maybe four months ago. There were four of us sitting around a table in our office, our meeting had run well over an hour late, and we had talked ourselves into silence, not knowing how we were going to find the funding to continue operating. We all knew that Seed was close to shutting down. The darkness crept in, the self doubt too, and then our voice of reason, with her blunt delivery put words to the feelings; “so we’re at rock bottom then. The situation is dire.” It’s a remarkable thing, when a person can be brave and put words to a feeling that is so big and overwhelming. Because, yes, the situation was dire, and yes, we were at rock bottom. But we also immediately knew in that moment, that no, we were not done yet. On wobbly legs, we stood, and have remained standing since, believing for the impossible, and finding the dolla’ to make us holla.’ We still have a long way to go to fund our future impact, but we continue to pick ourselves up and fight another day.
And there is a common theme to take away from all of these rock bottom moments. When each of them stood from rock bottom, they knew exactly what they were standing for. A set of values. Simon Sinek describes it best, he argues:
There are two types of players in this world. The finite players, who play to win. And the infinite players, who play to endure. Finite players make decisions based on their interests, while infinite players make decisions based on their values.
Elon Musk values innovation so that humanity may have a future. It would have been in his interests to quit after his first failure, second, or third. But he didn’t. He made a values based decision and endured.
Marvel Studios values creating characters who have a deep humanity. It would have been in their interest to try and sell off as many characters as possible to whoever would take them in order to avoid bankruptcy. But they didn’t. They made a values based decision and endured.
Seed values a thriving community. It would have been in our interests to call it quits and avoid all the stress of preserving, and become passionate about planting trees or something. But we didn’t. We made a values based decision and we have endured thus far.
Rock bottom is a bitch, this will always be true, but it is also an experience that can make us wiser and stronger, and in some cases, better off, when we come out the other side. Rock bottom teaches us things that the mountaintop never will. It shines a light on our values, or lack thereof. It teaches us what is worth standing for, so that when we dust ourselves off and rise once more, we can be sure that we planted our feet in the right place.
I want to leave you with a final thought, the one that stuck with me the most across everything that I read, from a woman knew rock bottom so intimately, until one day, she didn’t:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. J. K. Rowling
Kendyl is Seed Waikato's Head of Learning and Development.