At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

Last year, I delivered the graduation speech for Oregon State University’s School of Psychological Science, and I think the message is even more relevant today.

Three lessons on purpose, persistence, and community can help you navigate life’s next chapter. From psychological research, we know that facts and figures are less impactful than personal stories, so I’ll pepper in examples from my own experiences along the way.

Think back to why you decided to become a psychology major. Was it because of a desire to help people? An insatiable curiosity about human nature? To make a difference in people’s lives? For me, it was all of the above.

I have been interested in psychology ever since I was born. I was born with Moebius syndrome, a disability characterized by facial paralysis and the inability to move my eyes from side to side. At an early age, I understood that the way I communicated was unusual, that people were confused by my lack of facial expression. I became fascinated with communication and social interaction.

These interests led me to study psychology as a college student. Toward the end of my bachelor’s I set out to do my very first college term paper on Moebius syndrome. I showed up at the library expecting to find pages and pages of answers, but I discovered there was only a handful of psych papers published on it! This was bad news for two reasons: First, I didn’t have enough sources to write my term paper. Second, my chosen field had not included people like me.

I realized I was at a crossroads. I could give up and choose another path, or I could start developing the psychological knowledge in this area.

I chose the latter. I knew that I had the unique motivation and insight to grow this field. So I applied to graduate school—but the first time I applied, I was rejected from every single program.

Graduate training in psychology research follows a mentorship model, and because there were few psychologists studying disability, and few psychologists who had disabilities themselves, I struggled to find an advisor who was interested in this topic. Eventually, I found supportive allies to be my mentors. I was the speaker at my own PhD graduation ceremony, when my mentor Dr. Linda Tickle-Degnen hooded me. Just over 10 years later, I spoke at the graduation ceremony, where I am now a faculty member, and hooded my first disabled PhD student.

I’ve spent more than 15 years studying ableism, or prejudice toward people with disability. Nearly 20% of Americans have a disability, making it one of the largest minority groups in the U.S. And one that is now a little less underrepresented in psychology.

My experience made me acutely aware of the importance of finding purpose to live a fulfilling life. Personally, my work provides meaning by helping others with similar conditions and teaching students about a broader and more diverse swath of humanity.

I encourage you to find meaning in your work. It doesn’t have to be as entrenched in your identity as mine, and it doesn’t even have to be connected to you job. But find a field, a project, or a hobby in which you feel an intense curiosity, an excitement for learning, a passion for change, and it will drive you to persevere. Success will follow. Studies consistently show that individuals who find meaning and purpose in their work are more engaged, fulfilled, and resilient.

Purpose is your own personal mission statement. What is yours? It could be to love your fellow humans, it could be to help others. Prioritize actions that align with your mission.

The quote from Thomas Edison that “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” rings true to me. My successes are due to simple perseverance, as well as a lot of support (see lesson on community below). What keeps me going is that I find great personal meaning in my work.

My day-to-day work is not glamorous. I spend my time working with students or sitting alone in a room and writing. I make a commitment to write around the same time every day. Disabled advocate Cassie Winter calls this type of work “butt in chair time.” This simply means creating a consistent schedule to work on your priorities. Sometimes this means staring blankly and thinking through ideas; other times it means writing furiously in a flow state. My butt in chair time creates a sustainable pace, instead of falling into boom or bust cycles, and prevents burnout.

Your work and hobbies may look different from mine. Swap butt in chair time to boots on the ground time, or whatever resonates with you. The point is, prioritize time to work on the things that matter to you.

Research links persistence with a growth mindset. It is important to note that the healthy kind of persistence involves flexibility, not ridged stubbornness. Albert Einstein said it well when he said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Failure is feedback that we can learn and grow from. Change your approach and try again.

For example, when I didn’t get into any graduate schools the first time around, I realized I needed to change my strategy. I studied for the GRE using a different approach and retook it. I also broadened my search to other areas of the country and applied to masters programs. I first got into a masters program, which gave me the opportunity to hone my skills. Then I was ready to move into my goal, a PhD program.

In college and graduate school, I ached for friends and role models who identified as disabled but found none. My experience made me acutely aware of the need for better representation of marginalized people in higher education.

Now, I teach a class at OSU on the Psychology of Disability, where I give students with and without disabilities an opportunity to see representation of this important minority group and its intersections. I also co-founded the Disability Advocacy Research Network (DARN), an organization for disabled psychologists and students to find the community that I didn’t have earlier in my career. Last year, I delivered the speech at OSU’s first disability graduation ceremony. I am so heartened that the next generation will be better able to find community.

That brings me to my last piece of advice. Find your community, or create it: a place where you can be authentically you.

As you enter a new stage in life, community will become all the more important. Seek out mentors who can guide you. Likewise, you are now in a position where you could mentor people who are just entering college. Studies have shown that strong social connections contribute to resilience and overall life satisfaction. In creating them, we not only enrich our own lives but also create a ripple effect of support in the lives of those around us.

Kathleen Bogart, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Oregon State University. She researches the implications of living with disability, rare disorders, or facial differences.

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At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

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