Where You Stumble Is Where Your Treasure Lies


When you look back at your life to date, do you tend to assemble the events, and your reactions to them, into a cohesive narrative? Is it a cheerful tale, or a wistful one, or are you living an adventure story with hairpin plot twists and an unguessable ending?

At the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, a psychologist named Dan McAdams studies the stories people tell about themselves. We all write our life stories as if we were novelists, McAdams believes, with beginnings, conflicts, turning points, and endings. And the way we characterize our past setbacks profoundly influences how satisfied we are with our current lives.  Unhappy people tend to see setbacks as contaminants that ruined an otherwise good thing (“I was never the same after my wife left me”) while generative adults see them as blessings in disguise (“The divorce was the most painful thing that ever happened to me, but I’m so much happier with my new wife.”)

Those who live the most fully realized lives — giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves — tend to find meaning in their obstacles. In a sense, McAdams has breathed new life into one of the great insights of Western mythology:  that where we stumble is where our treasure lies. (The jewel lies between the dragon’s teeth, the golden key lays buried in the tangled thicket — that kind of thing.)

I’ve thought a lot about this idea in terms of my relationship to public speaking (which I’ve written about a lot, for example, in this post about the body’s Stop and Go systems, and my Year of Speaking Dangerously.) I would love to be the kind of person who assumes the spotlight without a second thought. I would love not to have endured the sleepless nights and abject horror that I’ve suffered too often in the days and hours before giving a talk. Yet I sense that there is meaning to be made from this shyness.

Where have you stumbled?  Did you make something meaningful of it? If not, it might be worth revisiting.




  1. Tracy on 05.05.2011 at 10:57 (Reply)

    Susan. I love this blog. I love narratives. I checked out the Foley Center website - amazing work. Thanks for all you put on here. I really like being an introvert . . . . and yet on the days it proves to be a challenge (in this society) I love to come here and see what you have to share. I even come on over when the days are not so challenging. Cheers! And here’s to introverts!

  2. Patricia on 05.05.2011 at 11:52 (Reply)

    I stumbled by choosing the wrong career for me because my motivation was to show how “intelligent” I am to over come my Dyscalcula and be able to get into a Doctoral program and teach for a University. My Master’s Program used me as an example - I was treated like a “woman” and made an example of at every turn…When Nixon abolished the drafted I should have been one of the 100’s who picked up and left - no I had to stick it out and spend years paying off the $48,000 a year in debts I racked up.

    The good news is my cancer and Dyscalcula would allow me to describe myself as a creative survivor….It takes me awhile to work it through but I am great at making lemonade..from life’s lemons

    I have grown terrified of public speaking though from all the attacks on my person and for awhile my small children

    I do not understand why I am suffering so since our 2008 financial disaster and why I can not get a job…I seem to be stuck in the mud right now?

  3. Susan Cain on 05.05.2011 at 11:54 (Reply)

    Hey, Tracy, thanks for your note! You know, more than half the stuff I put on this blog is not about introversion per se, but rather info that I think would appeal to thoughtful, cerebral people in general. Which is to say, I wouldn’t limit your visits to times when you need an introversion fix….

    Speaking of which, I always love to hear readers’ ideas of topics that you’d like to see covered here. If you have any, pls let me know.

    thx again.

  4. David on 06.05.2011 at 10:45 (Reply)

    I’ve been reading this blog for a couple of weeks, and your words are really helping me make sense of some of the thoughts I wrestle with.

    My thought on this particular issue, is can someone simply choose to ‘invent’ meaning in their obstacles without such a discovery having come to them? Using your divorce example, how could someone see a painful divorce as a blessing in disguise if it has not led to a better relationship?

  5. Unemployed and Clinically Depressed in the Midwest on 06.05.2011 at 20:25 (Reply)

    The good news is that all of the major religions (and many of the minor ones) can lead to heaven. The bad news is that they all pass through the same portal-the gates of hell. Having a breakdown (major depressive disorder) after losing my job of 30 years was no fun. Now in my third year of recovery, possibilities are opening which never would have occured had I stayed employed. Thanking the people who tossed me into the wild is not going to happen anytime soon. But thanks to my family and friends who have helped me through this, it will one day happen.

    The compassion of the universe is profound; its rules, strict. It doesn’t keep count on how many times you fall down. It only does its best to help you back up.

    I’m a Demolished Man, slowly rebuilding his life. I never liked that show, but what’s a Six Million Dollar Man worth today, adjusted for inflation?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

  6. The meaning is up to me | Journey Through the Chrysalis on 07.05.2011 at 19:53

    […] Cain, of the blog The Power of Introverts, recently wrote a post entitled Where You Stumble is Where Your Treasure Lies that talks about this very idea. In her post, she reports on some research that psychologist Dan […]

  7. Danielle Gauthier on 08.05.2011 at 20:57 (Reply)

    I’ve stumbled more times than I care to count. Being from the older generation, we women had only three career choices back then:

    1) to be a nun;
    2) to be an at home mom;
    3) to be a secretary. I picked the latter.

    In hindsight, I am now realizing, all too late (due to age and physical health)that I’ve basically missed my calling. If I had known then what I know now and if I were given a chance to start my life all over again, paleontology, archeology and marine biology would certainly be my three top career choices. I sure would love to gaze once more into the eyes of a beautiful whale like I did in my early twenties while in Lahaina, Hawaii. That was the most magical moment of my life.

    Such is life.


    1. Susan Cain on 08.05.2011 at 21:21 (Reply)

      Oh, I’m really sorry, what a shame that you didn’t get to pursue that dream. Did you ever read “A Ring of Endless Light,” by Madeleine L’Engle (who also wrote “A Wrinkle In Time”)? It’s a children’s book, but deals with the wonders of marine biology in a way that’s always stayed with me.

      Even if you can’t take them up professionally, is there way for you to enjoy these subjects educationally?

  8. Danielle Gauthier on 09.05.2011 at 13:05 (Reply)

    Dear Susan:

    That’s a thought. I’ll have to look that up although I’m sure universities require basics which I probably don’t possess. I was lousy at zoology in high school, but then again, I hated high school until I took adult classes at night. Adult night classes really turned my hatred of high school around on a dime, which just goes to show that changing the environment you are in can change your life dramatically. I’ll let you know if it can be done in my spare time. In the interim, I have lots of books to read on the subject, I’ve watched countless documentaries on marine life and I have beautiful pictures to look at. But in my head, I can still see that big beautiful eye, it was like going through an X-Ray machine. We were surrounded by a pod of about six humpback whales and one was so curious, she swam five feet away from the katamaran. It could have smacked its tail against the boat and made it sink, but it was enjoying our company as much as we were enjoying its company. I fell in love with that whale that day. Later on, I was in an open-air restaurant and saw a mother whale and her new born calf splashing away in the distance and jumped for joy while clapping my hands at the wonderful sight I was seeing. The restaurant employee said it was the first time he ever saw someone give whales a standing ovation. We had a good laugh.

    Aloha for now.


    1. Susan Cain on 09.05.2011 at 20:21 (Reply)

      Let me know what happens. There may be continuing ed courses that don’t require much in the way of basics. Worth a try!

  9. Danielle Gauthier on 10.05.2011 at 14:53 (Reply)

    I’ll do just that. Who knows, perhaps it can develop into a part-time job or spending vacation time helping out at an aquarium for a couple of weeks per year to get to live my dream if only for short periods at a time. Caring for a beautiful whale or dolphins would be such a thrill.

    I also have a subject matter to propose for your blog. I’d like to know if I am the only introverted person who seems to unknowingly attract manipulators and/or stalkers. I’ve had more than my fair share of such people showing up in my life during the last 20 years or so to the point of putting myself under house arrest to avoid them. I wonder if my quietness is the reason this happens, or if it has to do with body language that I am not aware of.

    Let me know if you are OK with such a subject matter. I’ll understand if you decline.

    Thanks a bunch.


  10. Quiet by Susan Cain - Book Review, Part 1 ⋆ Emojo on 29.01.2015 at 12:12

    There are three words that stand out to me after reading Quiet by Susan Cain; understanding, balance and challenge. It is helpful to understand what makes you who you are and then use that knowledge to determine what will make you happy. It is important to remain balanced throughout the process, regardless of what side of the introvert-extrovert spectrum you land on. Each extreme brings its own set of issues. Aim to challenge yourself - if you’re an introvert push yourself to make small steps to be more extroverted. After all, ‘where you stumble is where your treasure lies.

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