January 7, 2014

‘Bitterdankenfreude’: Joyful Thanks for Bitter Defeat—a Powerful Life and Career Tool

BITTERDANKENFREUDEHave you never been wronged in a way that was just right?

It begins with someone or some situation wrecking your life or at least making it a whole lot harder, crushing your hopes and bitterly disappointing or discouraging you.

Setting the Stage for “Bitterdankenfreude”

You apply for a dream job and are ignored, or worse, get it and lose it to downsizing. Or a malicious colleague at work engineers your being passed over for a promotion, or, unthinkably, gets you unjustly fired. Then there’s the teacher who told you that you would never amount to more than an insignificant shadow on society.

Happens all the time, even if not always to the same person, e.g., Biblical Job. But then or somewhat later, you discover that the dark cloud of wrong had a bright right silver lining, turned things around, came out from under the shadows, and realized you owed a debt of gratitude to your previously unrecognized, unwitting benefactor or at least to your luck.

At that moment of realization, your bitterness changes to a kind of joy—for which we have no word in English.

So, having recently explored “schadenfreude”, “freudenschade” and Visa Canada’s “smallenfreuden” in other articles of mine, I now extend and probably end my foray into [ersatz] German with one more Germanic-sounding contribution, coined to capture the joy of realizing that having been hurt really helped, that your willful enemy has become your unwitting friend, and that, as the Chinese and Japanese are always quoted as saying, “every crisis is an opportunity”.

That concept is “bitterdankenfreude”—an apt pun on German’s “bitte” [“please”], “danken” [“thank”] and “freude” [“joy”].

Speaking of and in Japanese, they have a similar concept: “arigatai meiwaku”—“trouble [or nuisance] that merits thanks”, used ironically, as an equivalent of our “thanks for nothing”, with a comparable nuance suggesting that the “thanks” is for something that is less than nothing, i.e., a net negative.

Emotion as a Goal

Normally, emotions are outcomes, rather than targets—with the familiar exception of mopey teenagers and Harlequin-novel addicts who “want to know what love is” as an all-consuming ambition. But bitterdankenfreude should not only be the emotional consequence of finding opportunities in a crisis, but also a consciously set goal—the objective of experiencing bitterdankenfreude once circumstances warrant it. 

This does not mean seeking out adversaries, cruel twists of fate or what appears to be bad luck. That is neither necessary nor desirable, since adversaries and bad luck will always find you; and unpleasant detours are just that—really unpleasant.

However, once they have found you, the smart thing to do is to for you to proactively find or create bitterdankenfreude as a catalyst and focus, by transforming or using whatever setback or loss that has been inflicted upon you, to your net and ultimate advantage.

Once [anticipatory or retroactive] bitterdankenfreude is your target, the opportunities are likely to follow or be appreciated.

Big Payoffs from Failure and Adversity

       Here’s a list of illustrative celebrity career and life successes fueled by adversity that must have triggered, been catalyzed by or certainly warranted prolonged bitterdankenfreude. Among them, this well-known example, quoted from the afore-cited source:

       “He did not speak until he was four years old, and couldn’t read until he was seven. His parents thought he was ‘sub-normal’. He was expelled from school and his teachers described him as ‘mentally slow, unsociable and adrip forever in foolish dreams.’”

       That was Einstein.

       The Forms of Bitterdankenfreude

       Bitterdankenfreude has at least three forms that involve succeeding because of as well as despite “failure” and adversity:

      1. The emotional result of sticking to a goal in response to rejection, humiliation, scoffing, skepticism, being mocked and even more intense resistance, including from Fate. In this instance, the forces of rejection are countered with a more than equal force of persistence and tenacity.

       Speaking of “freude”, the story of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis as a discipline, perfectly illustrates this form: Despite hostile and mocking rejection of his early ideas, e.g., of the “unconscious mind” as an absurdity, because “mind” is defined as “conscious”, Freud went on to dominate scientific and pop-cultural psychology for the next century.

       2. The emotional result of switching goals because of such negative responses from others or cruel Fate. Freud and many others who got hostile receptions for their ideas and ambitions persisted.

       But, just as often the path of least resistance is to switch, rather than to resist and fight. Nonetheless, in this instance too, adversity, discouragement, hostility and obstruction can and do pay off spectacularly, as many confirmed cases of amazing career and goal switching amply attest.

Consider this case, for example [cited at the foregoing link]: “…started out as a newspaper editor, but was apparently fired because ‘he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.’”

       That was Walt Disney, one among 15 movers and shakers, including Madonna and NY’s Mayor Bloomberg, who responded to being canned from jobs by creating financial empires after switching or while sticking to their ambitions.

       3. The emotional result of refusing to accept repellent recommended goals: Imagine what would have become of teenager Sylvester Stallone if, while enrolled at the American College in Leysin, Switzerland, he had accepted what has been reported as his school vocational aptitude test result that suggested he was best suited for a job in an elevator.

He probably never would have had the spectacular career that has utterly surpassed the limitations suggested by “expert” opinion about his career prospects. Moreover, if that test result frightened him into boundless ambition or triggered denial, it and the test designers and administrators earned a bitterdankenfreude-tinged nod of thanks.

On the other hand, if that test result so traumatized Sly into a state of psychological inadequacy that he lost even the confidence required to do a minimal elevator job, e.g., operator or repairman, any eventual bitterdankenfreude would have been warranted for his ending up in any career better than that one.

Note that this third form of bitterdankenfreude is not reducible to either of the first two, because it doesn’t require sustaining or switching any goal.

Instead, it operates purely negatively, through rejection of external pressure to choose a given goal. Nonetheless, life being what it is, by default some alternative result, if not explicit goal, will ensue after rejection of the pressure-backed goal.

Whenever the eventual outcome—even if only resulting from personal drift or sheer luck, rather than purpose—is better than what acquiescence would have yielded, bitterdankenfreude is as warranted as it is when the result of planned switching or persistence.

However, given that the best form of bitterdankenfreude is proactive, when presented with the “rebellion” scenario presented here, the best strategic course is to set an alternative goal of one’s own to set the stage for subsequent bitterdankenfreude opportunities in goal-pursuit or goal-switching.  

Optimal Bitterdankenfreude Management

The key to effective, optimal bitterdankenfreude management is to interpret that emotion as the cause of success rather than the consequence of setbacks, even though if it is one it is the other.

This difference in perception is reflected in the greater degree of proactivity, optimism and organization that characterizes a causative bitterdankenfreude perspective, in contrast to that of reactive bitterdankenfreude.

As I put it in my adolescent journal, a very long time ago, under circumstances I can’t recall, “Emotion can be the midwife as well as the offspring of action.”

Following up on that longstanding claim, I now propose that, as a “new” emotion, bitterdankenfreude can, does and should be used to prove and illustrate it.

Read more in Career Advice

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).