“You are so resilient.” I have heard that a lot throughout my life. Every time I hear it, I wonder if the person making the statement knew this one little secret about me, they still believe I am resilient. That secret? I am afraid to die.
In fact, I have always been scared to die. Ever since I was a little kid, I would shy away from risks that I thought could lead to death. It sounds so obvious, I know. Who isn’t afraid to die? It turns out plenty of people are not afraid to die. I read that once and immediately threw the BS flag. But as I thought about that, I began to ask myself “why am I afraid to die?”
As I reflected on the question, it became clearer. There are so many unknowns about death. Would my family be OK? How would my kids handle it? Would it be painful? Would I know I am slipping away? Could I say goodbye? It was actually the fear of those unknowns that truly scared me, more than death itself. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die, but I have a better appreciation for what is truly underneath that fear. It turns out I’m not alone — it’s the unknowns that scare many of us. Interestingly, how often we are confronted by the unknown can directly influence our ability to be resilient.
Let me share my story
As a child, I was exposed to death early. My mother died when I was 11, and my father when I was 22. When my mother died, my initial reaction was fear. Was I also going to die? My father helped me through this time. He taught me how to appreciate loss, explaining that I could not control it, but that I could control how I responded to it. He taught me to understand it’s OK to cry. In fact, it’s healthy. Loss hurts, but we can embrace it, rather than run away from it. But, he also taught me not to dwell on it. There was nothing you could have done to change it. I never got to thank my dad for that lesson and so many others. It was invaluable, and I’m realizing now just how true that is. I know he was never looking for thanks; he was actively looking to help me cope and help build my resilience.
By the time my father died, he had succeeded and I was better able to cope. Sure, I cried like a baby for days. But by then I understood loss, and during his last days I spent time with him talking, laughing and crying. I was so sad knowing he was dying, that he was going to leave me. I was going to miss his laugh, his energy and his support. I was truly going to miss him. Since my mom died, he was not only a dad — he was a mom, a dad and a best friend rolled into one. When he died I felt good about our time together, but I was nervous. I wondered if I could make it on my own. I was graduating college that spring and launching my career. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, I pulled on lessons he had ingrained in me: Give it 110%. Stay positive and treat people fairly, but don’t let people mistreat you. Stand up for yourself. Thinking about it now, I have to smile — even though he was gone, he was still helping me become more resilient.
History and experience help you build resilience
I learned at an early age, you cannot control everything. Bad things happen, and it is how you respond to them that makes a difference. I have spent a good portion of my adulthood trying to pass these lessons on to my kids. I tell them to prepare, plan and practice, but when things don’t go your way, learn and adjust. I am honest, sometimes brutally so. When they have a setback I ask them what they learned, what can we do, what is in our control and what is not? How do we move forward? In those moments, my wife looks at me with daggers in her eyes. She believes it’s OK to cry, to be sad, to feel a sense of loss, a damage to the ego. She says to me “let them have that moment. Give them space to understand, then lean in to help them move forward.” As usual, she’s right (shhh). My dad never rushed me. He expected me to push forward, but he did not push me forward. He was careful to not let me slip backward, but he gave me time to understand and move forward on my own and build that muscle of resilience. As a parent it is hard to see your kids suffer. You feel it is your job to protect them. But the harsh reality is you can’t protect; you can only prepare them.
In times like the ones we are living in today, we have to accept that crazy, even horrible things happen - recessions, war, global pandemics, and unimaginable loss. No one wants these things to happen but they do. Initially people try to predict what will happen, but they can’t predict because they do not know and that is frightening.
Confronting the unknown strengthens our resiliency
Resilience (along with “unprecedented”) may very well be THE word of 2020. Resilience by definition is the “ability to recover from difficult experiences and setbacks, and adapt and move forward.” Resilience is not about “what if,” it is about how you handle “what is.”
It is also not genetic; it is a learned behavior or ability. A key component to that learning is the ability to confront reality and make the unknown known. A lot is written about resiliency right now, but two recent articles in particular caught my attention: What Really Makes Us Resilient?, written by Marcus Buckingham for Harvard Business Review and What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others in the New York Times. The articles both hit on a similar point: when people are faced with really tough challenges and the unknown, they are more likely to become significantly more resilient. If we have learned anything in 2020, it’s that life can be hard, unpredictable and unfair, but learning to deal with those realities has a silver lining. For those that face them head on, we are strengthening and enabling our ability to not only survive, but find greater purpose and beauty in the life we have.
Building resiliency in our organizations
As people and parents, there are great lessons to be learned right now. But the same logic applies to leaders and organizations. Just as parents teach their children to confront reality, rather than run from it, it is up to leaders to build that same kind of resiliency within our organizations. We need to focus on building a better tomorrow, not trying to get back to where we were yesterday. We should not fight change, we should embrace it. If you don’t work to build resiliency within your employee base today, then you are actively creating fragility within your organization tomorrow. I for one am choosing to take a cue from my dad. How about you? Let’s hold each other accountable to building resiliency at home, at work and in society.