The biggest triumph is getting out of bed


Psychology Today did an interview with me. It was about my most triumphant moments in my life, and how I overcame obstacles to get there. I knew immediately that the interview was going to be a disaster, so I told them I wanted to do the interview written, rather than on the phone.

Then I didn't write the interview for a week.

Then I complained about the questions: I don't really believe in triumph. Because the most triumphant moments are the days when I have no idea how I’m going to fix anything, but I get out of bed anyway. On the other hand, the moments of huge achievement are not actually that hard to get to. By the time you’re close, you are so motivated to get there that it doesn’t feel like work at all.

So I wrote that. And then I felt bad. So I tried to give an example. People like examples. And I like Psychology Today. And I didn't want to disappoint them.

So I wrote that the moment when I was a freelance writer and a new mom and had post-partum depression but I knew I had to keep working so I had to get out of bed and write. Maybe there were fifty moments like that. Or five hundred. But those are the moments of triumph. The thing is, I think it was probably messed up that I kept working and did not check myself into a hospital. And then I started thinking that all my moments of triumph came at the heels of me having done something totally terrible.

Like, let me tell you right now that before I could play volleyball professionally, I was literally starving. So I stole bagels at the bagel shop. I have had about ten editors take that out of my writing. Out of my Business 2.0 column, out of my book, and my editor will tell me now that this is not good to put in a post. Stealing is bad, right? But my point is that it's very hard to do some extraordinary triumph without taking some extraordinary risk or making an odd judgment that other people would not make. That's why the triumph is extraordinary.

Another thing about the bullshit of big triumphs: Our big moments — where we can change the world — come because so many other people have helped us, and luck has come to us. But our small moments, when no one is watching and no one cares and the only thing that makes us try again is an unreasonable belief that we can get what we want for ourselves — those are the triumphs that we do all by ourselves.

When I have been on the cusp of huge success, there have always been people to help me. For example, my agent stayed with me when I was out of money but about to get a six-figure book deal.

But there was no one helping me get out of bed the day I knew I had to start writing my book proposal even though the odds of getting a big book deal from it were terrible. The daily task of believing things will improve when then things look bad. We do that on our own, and each time I do it I am thankful, in a deep, spiritual way. I’m not sure what keeps me going when everything looks terrible, but I know that each time I do it, it’s a triumph. And it happens a lot.

Another thing. Everyone, please shut up about your biggest failures. I hate when people write about their failures because they always write about how they pulled themselves up, or what they learned. And really, then, it’s not a failure, is it? It’s a learning opportunity, or a chance to shine. Failure is something you did not overcome. You did not learn from. And most people are too embarrassed to write about it. High achievers don’t have failures because they can learn from everything.

There is no finish line, there is no gold prize. There is only living with yourself, day after day. So each day needs to be a small triumph so you can pat yourself on the back before you go to sleep. I try to do that. Today’s triumph is doing this interview with Psychology Today. Sure, I couldn't quite do it, and I had to be quirky and weird, and it probably cost me getting into the article. But at least I wrote something.

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  1. Avid blog reader
    Avid blog reader says:

    This is the best post thus far. When things are really not going your way (and they did not for a long time) just getting out of bed and putting your game face on, is the most triumphant thing to do. Been there! Kudos to you!

    • Physiochch
      Physiochch says:

      This is a deeply insightful post. I too know what it’s like to not want to get out of bed. To want to throw the phone into the wall whenever it rang. To live with what many of you might know as the ‘Black Dog’.
      Triumph is to soldier on when all hope seems lost. To get up and make yourself look respectable when you have lost all respect for yourself.
      I have since achieved many great things in life and none of them seemed as difficult as answering the phone or getting out of bed during the dark days.

      Success is to take that next small step as painful as it may seem and with a little momentum the larger steps are much less painful!

      • Tim Giles
        Tim Giles says:

        I have to join you with your feelings of ‘black dog’ it seems that the worst times are during the colder winter months. Maybe there is something to be said for the SAD syndrome.

        When the sun is shining the whole world seems to be a better place.

        I think that alarm clocks should be made that flood the room with natural light.

        this would help so many people have the desire to jump up and embrace the day

  2. Michy
    Michy says:

    Well said. I definitely agree. Kind of wish we got a little more credit for our “small triumphs” sometimes, but hey, what can you do?

  3. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    Loved this, esp. what it takes in the small moments when no one is watching. It was a rude awakening in my teens to realize that unlike a great film, there is no soundtrack or sympathetic audience pulling for me. Even though I’m married and have friends, etc. In the quiet dark, it’s just me, alone. And that is good enough. Sometimes it can even be extraordinary.

  4. JillPR
    JillPR says:

    I think it’s important to write about failures, for the exact reason that you can show other people what you learned/how you pulled yourself up. Then when they hit that roadblock they’ll see that this kind of thing happens to high achievers all the time, and the only thing to do is move on. I think the most profound moment of my career was realizing that all these “overnight successes” had actually been working nonstop for years to get that success.

    And Penelope, you write about your failures all the time. Although you’re a high achiever, so maybe they could be more accurately called “setbacks”. But why play semantics? Failure is more interesting, because we learn something hard.

    • Maureen Anderson
      Maureen Anderson says:

      To me the word failure is a lot like the word regret. It's a function of time. The time between, "Ooh. I wish I wouldn't have done that." And, "Oh! I am so glad I learned that lesson."

      Thank you for this story, Alex! I thanked you more formally on my blog.

  5. Joanie Wilcett
    Joanie Wilcett says:

    I was fascinated with your experience with pseudonyms, complexity is normality I think, then moving forward to the present I can sympathize with your achievement for getting out of bed.

    Personally, through the darkest of times that ability for myself I put down to either by force or by panic. By force I mean the crashing into consciousness caused by an alarm clock, originally, then later years by children. By panic, I mean by the oncoming problems of the day coming at you like a brick wall in your path makes you get up and get on with things as if by getting up makes them disappear.

    There are sweeter ways…

  6. Tara
    Tara says:

    Soul food. Thanks for helping me through so many of the exact kind of moments and times you talk about in this post.

  7. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    Heroes are the people who get up, day after day, and show up.

    They’re the ones who work to put braces on their kids teeth, pay the utility bills, put food on the table, take the garbage out – do all that mundane stuff.

    That’s if’n u ask me. And I know you didn’t.

  8. avant garde designer
    avant garde designer says:

    I’m curious if you were literally starving the same way another person may be literally starving. I wonder this because you’ve said yourself that your parents gave you a very affluent childhood and, even when your budget is tight, you regularly spend excessive amounts on things you could easily buy for less (jeans, running clothes, eyebrows, etc).

    Literally starving can be a relative thing. Someone else may have been able to easily afford to buy food with the resources you had at the time.

    That being said, money management is also a relative thing. Someone whose income is regularly less than mine would probably jump for joy at my paycheck. However, someone who regularly earns more would wonder how in the world I make ends meet.

  9. Alisa Bowman
    Alisa Bowman says:

    What you just wrote seems more triumphant to me than anything else I’ve read about triumph. This morning I thought to myself, “I really don’t want to face this workday.” Then I thought, “I’ll feel better once it’s done.” And I will. Once I am done. And not goofing off my commenting on your blog.

    I also feel triumphant that I somehow am here leaving the 5th comment. Usually 100 other people have already shared genius thoughts by the time I’ve clicked in, and then I feel as if I have nothing of value to add to the discussion.

    I’m also glad you got to the point when you are allowed to write about stealing the bagels. Some day I’ll be able to write about… (oh never mind)

  10. DAVE
    DAVE says:

    P –

    Thought of you while watching this last night:

    House Season 6 Episode 14 Preview:

    House and the team take on the case of an avid blogger admitted with sudden bruising and bleeding. From her hospital bed, the patient blogs about her symptoms, doctors and prospective diagnoses to her dedicated band of followers and solicits their advice on a course of treatment. Such openness leads the team to contemplate the value of privacy, especially after House and Wilson uncover secrets from one another's past.

    • Celine
      Celine says:

      I thought I was the only one who drew that conclusion. I thought this woman was totally obsessive and that her husband had it right. There is something called TMI and blogging about every aspect of your life falls into that category, especially when you (P) draw conclusions that are totally inappropriate to some of your young readers, some who actually take you seriously.

  11. Philotera
    Philotera says:

    There are all kinds of triumphs.

    Here are the ones that matter to me.

    1. Forgiving my husband for an affair. No one thought I should, I wasn’t even sure I should, but it came down to whether or not I believed he loved me. I’ve never regretted my decision to stay with him. Being able to overcome my rage and feelings of betrayal was a triumph.

    2. Getting my son through high school. He was angry, anti-social, and drug-raddled. I refused to let go, no matter how it hurt. I believed it had to get better. He’s going to grad school now. Surviving those hellish teenage years was a triumph.

    3. Helping my husband survive a catastrophic surgery, coma, and recovery. No one believed he would live, except me. I slept in his room, talked to him, held his hand, read books to him. When he left the hospital he was paralyzed. Today, he still has neuropathy in his feet, but is mentally fine, can walk the dog, and bring me coffee in the morning. If I had given up when everyone told me he was gone, he would’ve died. Now, every day together is a triumph.

    The rest of life is not so important compared to those.

    • Lisa Earle McLeod
      Lisa Earle McLeod says:

      Wow! What I what to know is did you forgive the affair before or after the surgery, coma, recovery, etc.?

      I think that man better be bringing you some damn fine coffee.

      • Philotera
        Philotera says:

        The affair was long before his surgery. Yes, it was tough.

        He’s gotten up early every morning to make coffee and bring it to me as my “wake up” call for years. So it was a big deal when he was finally able to walk on his own and do it again.

  12. Lisa Earle McLeod
    Lisa Earle McLeod says:

    The reason people – including me – like to yammer on about how we turned our failures into triumphs is because we’re still trying to convince ourselves.

    If I admitted the truth, that it was a royal screw up and that it was doubtful I had learned anything, then I really would have to stay in bed forever.

    • JillPR
      JillPR says:

      Haha, I love this comment. It’s also very true. But it has a good side effect in that all of us try so hard to turn our failures into successes.

  13. Alan
    Alan says:

    Great thoughts. Thank you. It resonates with a quote I have pinned to my tackboard by Mattie Babcock:

    “The workshop of character is everyday life. The uneventful and commonplace hour is where the battle is lost or won.”

    Here’s to small moments.

  14. Dan Owen
    Dan Owen says:

    As always, my understanding and response to this kind of post from you is completely different now that I know about your severe Aspberger’s than they were before I knew about your Aspberger’s. Part of my response has to do with your resistance to doing the interview as they requested. From a non-Aspberger’s perspective, statements like, “I knew immediately that the interview was going to be a disaster,” or “I don't really believe in triumph” have a meaning that changes almost completely when you interpret them through the lens of Aspberger’s.

    Did you try and discard the headline, “The Bullshit of Big Triumphs”?

  15. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    Penelope, You are uncommonly candid and I enjoy that. This post is so true! I’ve sent it to all the women I know who, like me, have an adult son with muscular dystrophy we care of at home. All of us tend to worry that we didn’t do enough, when, certainly for us, just getting out of bed every day is a triumph!

  16. LPC
    LPC says:

    Penelope, best post ever. Maybe. One of, at least. And something most young people may not yet know. I believe that women tend to learn this from having children, if not elsewhere. Sometimes you want to give up, you want to stay in bed, you feel you can’t go on. But that’s just not an option, when little kids are out there in the kitchen. When you make the difference between them eating or burning themselves.

    • TLM
      TLM says:

      Don’t really know if you need to have kids to learn that the smallest things are often the bravest and hardest. In fact, I think that those moments are available to all people, though I’m not sure if all people recognize them as such.

  17. Gabi
    Gabi says:

    I think part of the issue is that these small moments – getting yourself out of bed, working up the courage to go to a networking event, finishing an interview when there isn’t someone staring at you expecting an answer to their question – aren’t hard for everyone, and that is why Penelope occasionally gets crap about these things being unimportant.

    But I like to frame things differently. A lot of people talk about the courage to get up and face the day. But what about going to sleep and facing tomorrow? Not staying up late, dawdling online or finding a new show on hulu to watch, but preparing for you day so that you go to bed calm and early, both taking care of your health and your psyche? I think this is something that most people don’t think about as being hard, or detrimental, but so many people do. In an otherwise banal article on tips for falling asleep, Web Worker Daily just shared some research about the rise in insomnia in the US ( and I have little doubt that, apart from medical reasons, a lot of this comes from people who aren’t being courageous enough to really take care of their life and concentrate on important things.

    • Erica Peters
      Erica Peters says:

      I loved PT’s post, and hated reading this. Perhaps because PT’s post allows me to take pleasure in my small triumphs, while Gabi’s comment reminds me that I screw up every day (staying up too late, etc.) But in the end, PT is the one who is right: “There is no gold prize. There is only living with yourself, day after day.” So, if I’m not courageous enough for Gabi, I guess I’ll have to live with that.

    • Celine
      Celine says:

      WTF? Are you the voice of everyone’s life? Are you deliberately trying to depress us to boost, what appears to me, to be your insecurities? I know this music so I’m switching up this channel.

      • Jennifer Ellis
        Jennifer Ellis says:

        While I think Gabi’s comment is a little disheartening, I agree with it to a certain extent. It is so easy for me to put off the hard work, the really taking care of myself, in favor of the messing around. I’m really making it harder on myself.

        There are a 1000 ways that we do this (I’m projecting onto the rest of you) and I think it could be another post about these digressions and self awareness. I mostly like Penelope’s self awareness posts.

  18. Jan Hogle
    Jan Hogle says:

    My biggest triumph yesterday was resisting the urge to eat a large handful of Hershey’s kisses. I love them, and might have some this weekend instead. Patience is a virtue. I like the little successes; bigger isn’t always better.

  19. Glenda Pitts
    Glenda Pitts says:

    I appreciate everything you said in your article. I’m 50 years old and am truly wondering how close I am to you and/or at least suffering with ADHD – I feel like I run in 1000 different directions and many days I feel like I’ve conquered the world and other days I feel like I’ve failed everyone and everything I love. I thank you for your openness in this article and really hope that Psychology Today publishes your article…It’s worthy of it in my mind…

  20. Kay Lorraine
    Kay Lorraine says:

    When I got to the part about “Everyone please shut up about your biggest failures” I laughed my ass off. (No wait, I just checked and it’s as big as ever. Bummer.)

    But you are absolutely correct that if you survived them then they weren’t really failures. A true failure is when you do something that ends in catastrophy & pain & agony and you come out of it without having learned a darn thing. My ex-husband comes right to mind.

    I just loved this blog post. I may be one of my favorite ever!!!

  21. Annemaried
    Annemaried says:

    This post came to me on exactly the right day to cheer me…as I made a very sad, very difficult decision yesterday to declare bankruptcy. I feel like a horrible, miserable failure. But I did get out of bed this morning, and I plan to do it again tomorrow. Thanks for making me able to enjoy this small triumph. It’s a start. Right?

  22. Siddharth Sarda
    Siddharth Sarda says:

    One of the better posts from you in along time. I totally loved this post and how.. Its small things like “getting out of bed” which are much more difficult to do. When we see the big triumph its easy to get all motivated, but small things are which we need to keep on doing inspite of them being the most difficult to do.

  23. C.Z.
    C.Z. says:

    A-freakin’-men, Penelope.

    Long time reader, first time commentor. This post finally pulled me out from behind the scenes. I know it’s incredibly narcissistic for me to say this, but I NEEDED to read this post today. Just when I was feeling totally defeated, useless, and stuck in a situation I was too terrified to leave due to the risk involved, I decided to check in with my favorite blogs (yours being on the list), and just like that… it all makes sense.

    Thank you for helping me to triumph today, so that I may go on to have more of my own triumphant moments, all on my own. Your words have given me the energy to do something – to take a chance; one that I’ve been too scared to take for far too long. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  24. Necie
    Necie says:

    Bravo! This is me everyday. The moments I don’t give up are my triumphs. The moments that I start over everyday. The times when all I can accomplish is one foot in front of the other, one moment at a time…

  25. Liza
    Liza says:

    Just because you told your readers to shut up. :D

    I failed once…And then I took a different direction. No triumph, no perfect ending. Nothing. It just happened.

    Here is something that interests me all the time:
    I believe everything happens for a reason-especially the things you have no control over. Is this even possible?? Or does it just mean that bad things can’t continuously happen forever, so in the end, it appears everything happens for a reason?

    Also, I completely believe in Karma. People who make bad judgment calls end up eating it in the end. A bad attitude= negative things occurring in your life..Or is it just that because you have a bad attitude, it appears negative things are occurring in your life?

    What do you think?

    • Wayne Allen
      Wayne Allen says:

      Hmm. It seems to me that we tend to categorize things into good/bad, right/wrong etc. and then act from there.
      I suspect that things continue to happen, and that all we can do is choose to act. Adding in our personal judgement of “This is good/this is bad” adds nothing to the situation.
      So, in your first example, I suspect “bad” stops happening precisely at the point that you stop labelling your experience that way. Or, the way it is, is the way it is, until it isn’t.
      In your second: it seems to me that I only “see” what I choose to see. This is why expectations are also self-fulfilling prophesies.
      At the end of the day, all one can do is to be disciplined enough to act. Which is what I impress myself about Penelope. She shares her stories, her self created dramas, etc., and in the end, she usually manages to actually do something. And wonder of wonders, it tends to be very “real,” by which I mean Penelope-like.
      Adding the “spin” of good/bad, right/wrong allows the sanctimonious among us another soap-box, and really doesn’t appear to amount to much.
      When in doubt: Act. Evaluate result. Act. Just like shampoo: wash, rinse, repeat.
      What’s it all mean? Who knows. There’s no goal, no destination, just elegant walking.

    • Sara
      Sara says:

      I once told my dying mother that I thought that everything happens for a reason. She got very quiet, and lowered her voice and looked at me and simply said, “I don’t think that everything happens for a reason”.

      I just think that life is hard, man. Shit happens and we deal with it and hopefully learn from it. And we need to be kinder too each other because we’re all living here. But most importantly, we really have to be kinder to ourselves.

  26. simonjm
    simonjm says:

    “There is no finish line, there is no gold prize.”

    So right, so well said and so very helpful today. Love you every day!

  27. SL
    SL says:

    Amazing post. So true and so inspiring. I have had (like everyone else in this world) so many ups and downs in life and you are right. It is the day to day moments when I am trying to do what I need to even when I haven’t the slightest bit of interest in it, that I am my most sincere:)

    Also I totally agree about the role luck plays in the big triumphs (and I have had my share of those as well). I could never will these into happening. They happened when they did as a fortuitous combination of my work and lots and lots of luck events. There have been an equal number of times when I have worked as hard, and fallen flat on my face!

  28. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This is such a good post! It’s so true – our greatest triumphs are those we accomplish within ourselves. The times when, as you said, we have no audience. However, doesn’t recognising when you need help, seeking it and finding it also count as a triumph? And so maybe some of our triumphs do actually have audiences…

    Regarding failures, I’m not sure I agree with you. Why can’t you learn from a failure? Why is it that if you learned from it, it becomes a setback and not a failure? E.g.: I failed physics at uni. Failed completely and wound up pursuing a different subject. What did I learn from it? Uh, the obvious: failure sucks, and try something else. Does that make it a failure or a setback? I still don’t have a physics degree, so I’d say it’s a failure. But I learnt something (try something else) so would you call it a setback?

  29. Barry Selby
    Barry Selby says:

    Something we can all relate to, OK, I speak for myself, something I can relate to! Turning a failure into a victory stops it being a failure? I get that, and honestly, to keep the failure label is to maintain a crutch, as it becomes a dependence. Stronger at the broken places is a true lesson/transformation, and used in a powerful story by Rachel Naomi Remen (yes, I know the quote originates with Hemingway, however the relevance of the story is my point!).

    I love meeting folks who whether intentionally or not are change agents and catalysts like myself. Thank you for being a reminder to us all!

  30. Lynne whiteside
    Lynne whiteside says:

    You’ve obviously touched on a nerve with your honesty. Women are so smart and forthright. By keeping the dialogue going we expose ourselves to all the other women who feel exactly as we do.

  31. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Then I complained about the questions: I don't really believe in triumph.”

    If you don’t really believe in triumph, I don’t think you should have tried to write about it. I think you should have stuck with your guns and told them to come back with a better topic or set of questions. Remember your recent previous post – 2/22/10 – where you agree with the saying “learn to say no with panache”.

  32. Erin
    Erin says:

    Good luck with the article, I hope you make the cut. Your post has helped me today because I am going through a very difficult time and every day it is a “triumph” to get out of bed, and to keep on keepin’ on. I am glad there is someone out there, who has been in that place and knows all about it, but now appears to be in a much better place. It gives me hope for my ability to get out of bed again tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind.

  33. Anita
    Anita says:

    Yes, Yes, and Yes! I love this post. I also agree %100 about the triumphs. I also get a little annoyed about the big failure and then the wonderful triumph stories. Now I know why. You articulate this so well. It IS the little triumphs: the getting out of bed and managing the day to day. I have ‘learned’ so much in my life but I have no big stories to go with it. It’s the daily getting through and managing life – some days are better then others and that has brought me to this place today. And. Today is a good day. Thank you for your insight today Penelope. xo

  34. Jenna
    Jenna says:

    Is this a belated greeting Int’l Women’s Day?
    This post sounds too Oprah-ish/Lifetime-ish/The View-ish. Too much estrogen for my taste.

    Woody Allen said it in less words: 80% of life is showing up.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jenna, my editor said the same thing you did. So I almost didn’t run this post. But then, I a whim, I ignored my editor.

      So I guess it’s good to have an editor and it’s good, on occasion, to override the editor.

      I still adore having my editor. So maybe this means, Jenna, that you would make a good editor, too :)


  35. Eric Brown
    Eric Brown says:

    every struggle and failure that we overcome becomes our very strength. learning is a never ending cycle keeping us more and more human,.

  36. Zoilo
    Zoilo says:

    Woody said it best:
    80% of success is just showing up.

    It took me years to figure out what that meant. First in the literal and then in the figurative sense. Then maybe 50% of success is getting out of bed. That would add up to 130%. That’s a whole lot of success.

  37. Anya
    Anya says:

    This made me reflect on some of my little triumphs of the day. Like holding my anger in and having patience for my 2 year old. Thanks for the inspiration to reflect.

  38. Mark
    Mark says:

    Indeed! I noticed your fans are fairly trite. You’re mostly the only one giving real advice. Real failure sucks balls. Don’t tell me how to tony robbins myself into being positive or looking at it differently. Tell me when you actually failed and what you did about it – lotta people looking for that advice.

  39. sylvain
    sylvain says:

    Dear Penelope,

    Your post is amazing, your honesty is amazing.
    I have to say that this post help me today. it remain me sometimes how little triumphs can be much important and difficult to achieve. However those little are the ones which make you feel great after.
    Thank you very much for this post. Thank you for your insight and your wisdom.

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