When Life Gives You Lemons, You Don’t Have to Make Lemonade

It’s no doubt one of your favorite things to hear after receiving bad news, experiencing an unfortunate event, or simply having a bad day: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” As far as encouraging platitudes go, this one is about as helpful as “it is what it is.”

Well usually intended to be comforting or uplifting, this phrase can often have the opposite effect and be overtly discouraging. So what if we took another look at this classic phrase and imagined a new way of looking at things through a more helpful lens?

Breaking Down “When Life Gives You Lemons”

You likely first heard the expression at an early age, and the intention was clear:

When life gives you lemons (something unexpected or unfortunate), make lemonade (the best of a bad situation).

Now, this isn’t the main point, but what did people in the past have against lemons? There’s so much to love about them! Freshly squeezed lemon juice adds an acidic zing to countless recipes. A glass of lemon water every morning has several documented health benefits. Yet, for some reason, they’re the poster child for dire circumstances and busted cars.

At any rate, we’re here for the expression, not to disparage actual lemons. And as far as the metaphor is concerned, a lemon is something you didn’t ask for and probably don’t want.

What it comes down to is expectations. If you’re expecting one thing (say, something sweet) and you end up with something different altogether (like something puckeringly sour), you might be a little less than jazzed about it.

Dealing with those expectations is the goal when life gives you lemons. When you needed, wanted, or expected one thing, and life gave you something else.

The Problem With Making Lemonade

The idea behind the adage is simple: If your day didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, that’s okay. Just adapt, be grateful, and keep going with the day you have.

The sentiment is well-meaning. People who tell you to make lemonade generally want to inspire you to make the best of a bad situation. The problem is, it can make you feel like you were wrong to be uncomfortable in the first place. That’s why this advice borders on toxic positivity.

Of course, fresh lemonade on a hot day is a magical treat. But what if perseverance and “sucking it up” isn’t the best of every bad situation? What if there are other ways to overcome it?

4 Things to Try When Life Gives You Lemons

One of the most misunderstood things about optimism is that it takes more to be happy than simply smiling through pain.

Healthy positive thinking often means adapting to obstacles rather than simply accepting them. This slight but often inspiring shift can change your life.

Before settling for making the proverbial lemonade, try out some of these options to see if there’s a better way for you to adapt to some of life’s unexpected little adventures.

1. Find out if You Like Lemons

So life gives you something you weren’t expecting. For example, let’s say you were planning to go out to meet a friend for lunch, and it starts pouring rain.

Before you jump to making lemonade out of this situation, maybe take a step back to see if this is even really a problem. Sometimes the lemons that life gives you are actually great things that just need a little bit of encouragement to shine. Nothing to be afraid of.

You weren’t expecting rain, and that can be jarring. But is rain such a bad thing in this case?

Sure, maybe drive a little more carefully, but it doesn’t have to alter your plans once you get there. You can still see your friend and enjoy your lunch, now with the added coziness of watching the rain through the window.

Just like that, frustration can supplant gratitude.

There’s more to life than sunshine. When that doesn’t align with your expectations, it can throw you off balance. But sometimes, a brief moment to recenter yourself is all it takes to regain that balance and find new joy in the moment.

2. Leave the Lemons Where They Are and Bail

What about when life gives you lemons that aren’t a blessing in disguise? What if, for example, someone starts yelling at you in traffic or because your coffee order is taking too long? How does a healthy optimist overcome a situation like that?

One of my favorite unexpectedly inspirational quotes says it best:

“Hey, here’s the deal: When life gives you lemons, just say, ‘f*%# the lemons,’ and bail”

– Chuck (Paul Rudd), in Forgetting Sarah Marshall

We’re all wired for negativity bias. When there’s something potentially dangerous nearby, we feel a need to focus on it. But that doesn’t mean we have to engage with it.

Sometimes all we need is to take a deep breath and let go.

This technique is one that I am personally still working on. It always rattles me when unkind strangers harass me in public over some perceived slight. But the great news is, I don’t have to make lemonade out of those lemons. I can just walk away because they’re ultimately not even my lemons to deal with.

If a person is so filled with anger and devoid of compassion that they need to lash out at me for slowing them down by a few seconds, it’s not up to me to assuage or deescalate. The best thing I can do for myself, in that case, is to leave those lemons right where they are.

3. Make Life Take the Lemons Back

I want to open this one up with another quote. Below is one of my favorite inspirational video game quotes of all time:

“When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what the hell am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons!”

– Cave Johnson, in Portal 2

This rant may be a little ridiculous and heavy on wacky sci-fi. But at the core of what Cave Johnson is saying here, there is a crucial point: when life hands you lemons, it’s not always your responsibility to passively accept them. Sometimes you need to take action.

When life gives you lemons in the form of work you don’t have the bandwidth for, burdens that shouldn’t be yours, or anything that doesn’t make sense for your situation, you have the power to say no.

Think of this as a form of self-advocacy. It is always important to believe in yourself and advocate for your needs. So instead of giving up and accepting the situation, exercise your self-confidence to send those lemons right back and ask for what you wanted in the first place.

4. Make an Arnold Palmer

Sometimes when life gives you lemons, it gives you lemons that you truly didn’t want, that you can’t walk away from, and that you can’t return to sender. 

At this stage, instead of making lemonade, let’s make a nice pitcher of Arnold Palmer. If you’re not familiar, an Arnold Palmer is a delicious and refreshing drink popularized by the American golfer of the same name. It consists of equal parts lemonade and iced tea.

Now, is this pretty much the same thing as making lemonade? Yes. Did I lie to you about the “don’t make lemonade” thing? Yeah. A little bit, yeah, I did. But I do have a reason. 

If you’ve already tried everything else, making lemonade may be a fine option. But remember, what we’re dealing with here is life breaking with your expectations. So wouldn’t it be something special if you responded in a wild and unexpected way? 

  • When your car doesn’t start, you can either call for a ride (lemonade) or try commuting by bike (Arnold Palmer)
  • The grocery store is out of an ingredient you need? You could find a substitution (lemonade) or learn a whole new recipe (Arnold Palmer)
  • Can’t work out because of an injury? Don’t just look on the “bright side,” use the newly free time to learn a skill or start a hobby!

Not every unfortunate circumstance necessarily merits this level of enthusiasm. But when life gives you lemons, and you have an optimistic mindset like this, you might start spotting this sort of greatness all around. So dare to go beyond, to dream big and make that dream come true.

The Next Time Life Gives You Lemons

When life gives you lemons from its seemingly always-in-season lemon tree, a small positive attitude shift can work wonders. With it, you will never be stuck with only one option. Live your life on your terms and be yourself. Show yourself the kindness of reading the situation and overcoming it in a way that works for you.

Sometimes a lemon is an unexpected situation that doesn’t turn out to be bad at all. It’s beautiful and perfectly tart, just the way it is. Juicing it can only dilute that.

Other times, a lemon brings legitimate adversity. When that happens, don’t limit yourself to self-talk like “just deal with it.” Instead, conquer it. Next time life hits you with its lemons, limes, or any other citrus fruit it sees fit (yes, even the humble limoncello), you now have a mix of tools you can use to adapt, adjust, and create new, sweeter opportunities for yourself.

That’s all for now. I’m off to drink a glass of tasty homemade lemonade.

Avatar for Sam

Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

3 thoughts on “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Don’t Have to Make Lemonade”

  1. Sam,

    I love this, too much time is spent trying to change things. I am all about acceptance and finding new perceptions.

    Thank you for these pearls of wisdom.

    Cynthia Fabian

    of many books that help kids overcome obstacles in life (without magic.)

    • Thank you, Cynthia! I’m glad you enjoyed it. We can’t control whether or when life will send us lemons, but we do have power over how we respond. There are always options!

  2. I really like this way of thinking and acting positively. There are times in life when you face difficulties – Think of it as a challenge to overcome and then you will feel stronger, more experienced and have a wonderful experience with it.


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