Flourish or Fold?
Let me begin by telling you a story about Nelson.Nelson’s story doesn’t begin in a manner that is differentiates him from other children who grow up with challenge, change, and complexity. In fact, if you saw him on the street as a little boy, you would have likely kept walking, unfazed by his presence, unaware of who he would become. Nelson was raised in the equivalent of a small town by parents who were illiterate. He was the first member of his family to attend school, and during his early years, because of his antics, he was dubbed a “troublemaker”.
At the age of nine, his father died. Later, Nelson would say that the loss of his father left him with a sense of being both listlessness and adrift. Without a father, his mother took him to live with another family member, who became his legal guardian, and after his mother departed that day, he did not see her again for many years to come.
He began studies at a university, the first of his family members to attend college, but by the end of his freshman year, he’d became associated with activities that lead to his suspension from the university. As a result, he would not return to formal education.
Following his suspension, Nelson learned that his guardian had arranged for him to be married to ground him. Instead of returning to the home of his guardian, he fled to another town. He found work as a night watchman but was fired when he was discovered to be a runaway. He rented a small room in an area rife with poverty, crime, and pollution and signed up for correspondence courses to complete his degree while working to support himself.
Let me stop here for a moment and check in with you. As you can see, Nelson’s life is not looking bright and promising. Given that I’ve told you about Nelson, I’d like you to answer the following question: What do you think becomes of Nelson for the balance of his life? Take note of your answer.
Now, I’ll ask you a few follow-up questions:
- Does Nelson work a menial job and struggle to emerge from poverty?
- Does he father multiple children and work doggedly to provide for them?
- Does he face mental health concerns, like depression or anxiety or grapple with addiction with little access to the healthcare he requires?
- Does he end up living on the streets, begging for food and die a young man?
In this case, despite what you might imagine, exactly none of these experiences manifest within Nelson’s life story. In fact, this is the story of Nelson Mandela, now thought to be a bastion of bravery, a profile in courage, and an incarnation of resilience.
The Gifts of Adversity
“Usually, life’s greatest gifts come wrapped in adversity.” Richard Paul Evans
So, how did the man we credit as a global hero and an anti-apartheid revolutionary transition from his humble beginnings to change the world? How did he avoid the life-long pitfalls of poverty and the paucity of resources with which he began his early years as a young man?
These are great questions. I’m glad you asked. The answer is that: Nelson’s story, represents the power of resilience, available to all of us, to shape and change our lives. Nelson’s story demonstrates that our beginnings do not have to define our endings, showing us that, through a series of behaviors and choices, despite facing challenge, all of us can become much more than we are today. Mandela’s story embodies the concept of resilient leadership.
How Do We Harness The Power of Resilience
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the
ending.” C.S. Lewis
Resilience is not about where you start – it is about engaging in a series of behaviors that allow each of us to chart a different, more resilient path, and change our lives, making the world around us measurably better through our heroic acts of self-improvement. I want that to sink in for a moment. Heroic acts of self-improvement. SELF IMPROVEMENT.
This means that when we seek to improve ourselves, heal ourselves, better ourselves, we are also, by definition, engaging in an heroic act to improve our world. Through our up-leveling of self, through the enhancement of our own resilience, there are ripple effects for the planet as a whole.
In the spirit of Nancy Willard, also a University of Michigan alumnus, who said, “Some questions are more important than answers”, here’s a question that is foundational to resilience: Did Nelson become the man we revere and honor despite the challenges he faced as a young man, and continued to encounter over the course of his lifetime? Nelson’s greatness emerged, not despite his challenges, but as a direct result of the gifts that are inherent in adversity.
As Richard Paul Evans’ quote states, some of our greatest gifts, our most important opportunities for growth, development, and personal formation, do not come when it is easy, when we’ve had success, but rather, are wrapped with the trappings of adversity. Later in life, Mandela would attribute his capacity for challenge, change, and complexity to the adversity and loss he experienced in his early, formative years.
Harnessing Resilience - Toward a New Definition of Resilience
The concept of resilience is well known, but not well understood. At best, there are highly inconsistent definitions about what resilience is, and isn’t, and a lack of understanding of the behaviors that contribute human resilience. Making matters worse, the definition of resilience is often circular, as in “resilient living” or “resilient in the face of tragedy”, leading to inconsistent and diverse interpretations.
Current dictionary definitions of resilience often cite unhelpful concepts such as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness, and the ability for a person to elastically spring back into shape. Let’s examine each of these elements of the current definition of resilience one by one.
First, the commonly held beliefs that resilience is synonymous with “recovery”, “elasticity”, and the notion of springing back into shape are faulty assumptions that cloud our understanding of what truly constitutes resilience. Humans are fundamentally and forever changed by the challenge, change, and complexity we encounter. We do not recover, but instead, rebuild. We do not bounce back, we bounce forward.
Second, the word “quickly”, is often associated with resilience, yet resilience is not defined by speed. The pace of recovery does not define our capacity of resilience. As a clinician and Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), I have often found the opposite to be true. Those that are willing to sit with the experiences associated with challenge, change, and complexity, to sort through the pain, to engage in the full magnitude of the difficulty, to really feel their feelings are the ones who often have a richer understanding of themselves. These are often the people who develop the most from challenge, change, and complexity, but this work is not a race; it doesn’t happen quickly.
Third, toughness or grit are often associated with resilience. In fact, resilience is often demonstrated through vulnerability, the ability to be soft when encountering hard things. The ability to be molded and shaped by our experience instead of remaining rigid. Grit is the ability to stay the course, but we find that the notion of productive perseverance, the intelligent pursuit of a goal, the ability to determine when to stay the course and when to pivot in a new direction is a key resilience practice.
Instead, the description that best encapsulates resilience is:
The human capacity to be present in the face of challenge and to leverage the lessons inherit in challenge, change, and complexity for deeper personal growth and development.
In this definition, resilience is our willingness to be present for both the affirming and adverse challenges life presents – to show up completely, instead of hiding, numbing, or ignoring these experiences, and by way of being present with our experience, to allow ourselves to be fundamentally and forever changed by our circumstances, ultimately, for the better.
Resilience is more than a definition. The word resilience is a noun, but the demonstration of resilience is a verb. More than what resilience is, resilience is about what we do, what behaviors we practice on a regular basis. Our lives are not made up of one grand stand, one monumental moment. Instead, living a resilient life is comprised of the ordinary choices we make every day.
Resilience is not achieved in one monumental moment, once and for all, instead, it is made of up of our seemingly mundane daily choices to live our best life.
Our choices compound over time. Think of it this way: When a plane takes off from California, the pilots make a series of small, incremental adjustments that determine if the plane will land in Hawaii or Alaska.
Practicing resilience is the very same way, resilience is not a once and for all achievement, it’s a series of incremental iterations. In the life-long pursuit of resilience, we never declare victory, but we can declare trajectory. There is no moment when we declare success. Practicing resilience is about engaging in behaviors, each day, that provide an opportunity to further develop our capacity for challenge, change, and complexity.
Resilience in a Bottle
Even though resilience has been poorly defined and understood, it is profoundly important and highly sought after. Resilience is a top business competency with corporations seeking resilient high potential new hires who will bolster the company’s ability to achieve results while navigating ambiguity an ever- challenging, changing, and complex environment. Similarly, in reviewing applications for Oprah Winfrey’s girls’ school in South Africa, in which 6,000 young women apply annually, and only one percent of applicants are admitted, Winfrey reports that her ideal candidate has an “indefinable quality of resilience, tenacity, charisma, and smarts.”
Resilience is such a profoundly important quality that, if we could, we’d bottle resilience.
Why is resilience game changing?
At the close of 2018, Gary C. Kelly, Southwest Airline’s Chairman and CEO entitled his end-of-ear address in the Southwest magazine “Resiliency and Gratitude.” Kelly went on to say that, in 2018, Southwest faced some of the most formidable challenges the airline had ever encountered in the company’s nearly 50-year history. As Kelly reflected on the prior year, what was the word that most resonated with him, that carried his company and his people through? Resiliency. Gary Kelly and Southwest Airlines’ experience of significant challenge, change, and complexity of greater magnitude than they had contended with in five decades did not happen in isolation. We are all living in a world that is ever increasing in its’ challenge, complexity, and speed of change. The late futurist, Alvin Toffler, accurately predicted that technology would drive large-scale change and he worried that the
accelerated pace could overwhelm us.
Today is the slowest pace of change you will experience in your lifetime.
Yet, change is just one element of a host of factors that has the potential to overpower our ability to stay in stride with our surroundings. To characterize the feeling of what it means to live today, in our collective global environment, our human experience has been described using the acronym VUCA, representing the compilation of the words Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This acronym has been adopted by many business leaders and individuals, alike, to characterize the chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing global environment that has become our “the new normal”.
Why We Need Resilience
Compared to our human ancestors, we live in a time when we are engaged in the most complex environment we’ve experienced in human history. We receive highly nuanced communication from multiple email accounts, messaging systems, and social media channels, not to mention, given the advent of digital technology, we are “on” 24/7.
Now, overlay our human experience of challenge on top of the complexity of our global ecosystem. While each of our experiences with challenge along our life paths is diverse, our experiences are more universal than they are unique. While you may not have experienced a life-altering health diagnosis, a traumatic loss, or the brutality of domestic violence, you have and will continue to face your own challenges. Meg Jay, psychologist and TED speaker, estimates that 75% of people experience some form
of challenge by the time they are 20 years of age. Within our first two decades of life, with three quarters of people experiencing challenge, the experience of challenge is as “normal”, experienced by most people. Precious few of us are making it through the first two decades of our lives without facing at least one challenge, let alone an entire lifetime. Which means that it’s not if challenge shows up in our lives, it’s when.
In our highly challenging, changing, and complex world, people are, now, more than ever, susceptible to stress, exhaustion, and overwhelm. Yet, the essential condition required to live a flourishing life is not found in the absence of complexity, change, or challenge, but rather in our response to the experiences that are placed in our path. Our willingness to choose to engage in experiences and behaviors that enhance our resilience is now more important than ever.