How I Cope With Change, Setbacks and Success

One of the things I’ve found with transitions, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they can trigger depression. I’ve built a routine to cope and I’ll share that routine.

Thinking through the changes in my life, I can group them into categories

Moving transitions – I’ve lived all around the world and each move can seem like a big deal. However, because my daily life stays the same, these are easy to navigate. As well, I feel like I’m in control because these transitions happen due to a new opportunity that I want to pursue. The key to enjoying moving is maintaining the ability to move without hassle. Until I was 25, I could move with a single taxi ride – after that wasn’t feasible, I subcontracted the packing, moving and unpacking. If you strip out the “move” the moving transition (when you’re single) is fun. Perhaps that’s why I still harbor romantic notions of easily moving between residences with nothing but an iPhone and a toothbrush. While moves are fun, owning geographically dispersed assets is a hassle.

With kids and a spouse, moving can become stressful because you’re creating an involuntary transition for others. This reality is why I’ve been hesitant to ask my family to move from Colorado. Besides, Boulder is a great place to live and it’s easier to change my attitude than my family’s situation.

New life transitions – This type of transition might involve moving, but it might not. These shifts means your daily routine is going to be completely different. Examples are:

  • Going Pro – recreational athletes deciding to become fulltime athletes. This is called living-the-dream in my peer group.
  • Athletic Retirement – making a decision to let go of elite athletics
  • Joining The Workforce – after University, living the dream, a sabbatical or maternity leave. Big shock to the system because you’re not in control of your work schedule any more
  • Boyfriend/Husband – having to consider the needs of another in decision making (I failed spectacularly for years at this)
  • Wife/Motherhood – the transition from single woman, to wife, to mother, to mother of adult children, to grandmother. Each phase potentially resulting in a new routine, and often, a new self-image.

These transition, even for “good” reasons can act as depression triggers. The trigger being the need to let go of an existing identity.

In 2000, during a year long leave of absence, I can remember sitting in an Aussie hotel room wondering, “why the hell do I feel so depressed? I have an opportunity to vacation for a year.” The trigger likely being my loss of identity as “finance guy.” I navigated through that transition and, from 2000 to 2002, changed my identity to an athlete.

In 2002/2005/2008/2011, same crisis but different trigger! I had dark patches when I wasn’t able to train at the level of an elite athlete. At first the trigger was fatigue from extreme training. However, when I turned 40, the inevitable decline of physical capacity made itself felt.

Having learned to separate my self from my emotions, the transition seemed bizarre. I remember riding up St Vrain Canyon on a beautiful day and wanting to cry the entire time. I turned around early on the ride and suspected that my elite career was over. Strange, or extreme, emotional events cause me to pause and look inwards.

I consulted with a athlete-doctor, now our team doc at Endurance Corner. He observed that extreme exercise, and variable training load, can have outsize effects on an athlete’s neurochemistry. Seeing the link between my physical choices and my inner mental state was an “a-ha moment” in my life.

The way I experience stress, exercise, alcohol, sex and many other experiences is different than most. I can make myself drunk with exercise – a strong sustained effort will get me “high.” I joke about fatigue intoxication but it’s real (and a lot of fun to get completely blasted in a socially acceptable manner). In my case, the same effect that makes me high, can also make me depressed.

Below, I share how to keep the buzz a good one. Whether you are an athlete, or not, the key to managing life transitions is have a core daily routine that you repeat. This core daily practice is universal – if you look for it then you’ll find it everywhere (religion, spiritual practice, bloggers, self-help gurus, success literature). Everybody has their secret recipe and, often, something they want to sell you.

Unexpected change – With a move, or a new life, I can see it coming and I feel like I have a choice. A sense of control, even via illusion, is comforting. There are some transitions that arrive on their own. They might be negative: unemployment, divorce, infidelity, fraud, injury or illness. They might be positive: financial windfall, promotion, fame or unexpected victories.

The negative surprises can get us stuck in a cycle of blame and anger. The positive surprises can trigger feelings of guilt and lack of self-worth.

Both types of surprise can fool us into thinking that we’ve earned the right to cover up our pain by following false gods. You can take your pick of the seven deadly sins – in my family we “soothe” ourselves with with anger, alcohol, sex, food, and my favorite, fatigue.


I have dealt with all these transitions, good and bad, around the world, on multiple occasions. There are four techniques that bring me out of the depression that results from a serious setback.

Give yourself time to mourn – I give myself 48 hours to feel awful. I let myself feel really sorry for myself. Then it is time to get back on track.

Getting Back On Track – keep it simple. One hour of exercise, low sugar diet, no booze, bright light and one positive step per day. This works every single time.

When I’m depressed, I’m fearful that my game plan won’t work and I’m tempted not to start. The dialogue goes… it probably won’t work this time, this time I’m really depressed. However, the simple steps have never failed me and is similar to what others report working.

The hour-per-day of exercise is flexible. I give myself a “win” if I start the hour. For example, I broke a few ribs at the end of 2011 so had to walk slowly around my neighborhood. In a particularly tough month in 2004, my wife staged an intervention to get me going by walking me around the block. We joked that she was walking-her-gordo; it worked and I got going again. The big thing for me is getting out of the house and into natural light. Having restarted myself a zillion times, I don’t mind the dark weeks. They make me appreciate the majority of my life, when I’m rolling along just fine.

Create Space – when I have no idea what I’m going to do. I give myself time to figure it out. I used to find an open schedule terrifying until I noticed that I enjoyed those days tremendously. Remember that we don’t need to quit our jobs and move to the Himalayas to find space. Simply block out time where you unplug from technology and chill out. To chill, I like being near water, or walking in a forest. Here in Boulder, I’ve been known to stare at the mountains – sometimes I need to drive there, but I prefer to ride.

Gain perspective – the best part of these setbacks is the realization that they aren’t fatal. Eventually something will prove fatal. However, it’s not going to be a broken marriage, a bankruptcy, an act of white-collar crime or some guy cutting corners to race fast.

Two books that helped me feel my Family Mantras: The Last Lecture and Tuesdays with Morrie. Those situations were fatal and I aspire to show the protagonists level of courage.

Learning to cope with serious transitions makes us useful to our friends, families and employers. An ability to continue to move forward under duress is a valuable life skill.

Start by overcoming the small setbacks that appear in daily life.

I can get through highly charged situations so long as I remember to breathe!