Some time ago, I drafted a blog piece on the theme of resilience. That draft felt fine. It had lots of examples and some cultural references. It quoted Nietzsche with the famous “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Kelly Clarkson. A combination which may be a first in the history of entrepreneurial blogging!
Sadly, while the draft remained in my ‘pending’ folder, my family was hit by some shocking news. The news was as unexpected as it was paralyzing. It shook us to the very core. It dominated all aspects of my life, and held sway over everything I thought or did (which is why I have not posted for a while).
The months that followed proved that I am not as resilient as I thought. I needed all my energy and willpower simply to function as a human being. I felt lost. I felt stupid. And I realized I was all wrong. I had always preached the importance of resilience being about having a positive attitude and controlling your mindset. Yet here was something entirely out of my control. Ironically, my business had never been more successful. Ideas were flowing. New ventures were founded. Deals were being closed. Life was looking good. Only that it wasn’t.
Slowly, life is returning to being good. There are reasons to be cheerful. I’ve (re)discovered resilience. But I’ve undergone an experience that has changed my outlook. So, I’ve pulled that resilience article out once again, but made some significant edits! The truth is, the past year was challenging for all of us in some unprecedented ways and we all needed to be resilient. More so than ever. People say things like “only the most resilient will master the crisis” or “this is a time to foster resilience throughout society”. The idea is that we are going to suffer great hardship, but we must simply bounce back stronger than ever. Sounds good. But how realistic is it? Are we resilient? Or do we just wish we were?
I have read and heard a lot of inspiring and even fun definitions of resilience lately. There’s the famous quote from Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again”. I asked friends, students, and business partners for their definition of resilience and got all kinds of answers, from the philosophical: “Resilience means reacting to the unforeseeable by triumphantly rising to the occasion!”, to the entertaining: “When the world cuts your hands off, you hold on with your teeth!”
That sounds impressive, but there’s a danger we end up like the comically ‘re-silly-ent’ Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, who keeps on fighting defiantly even after having both arms and both legs hacked off. He may be brave, but he certainly is not stronger for the experience! If resilience is just empty rhetoric, or positive thinking without much substance behind it, then what does not kill us could … well, makes us much weaker.
Interestingly, most of the quotes and explanations I’ve come across seem to define resilience as a personal quality, and one closely associated with willpower. It seems you simply need to be strong, motivated, focused, and positive. And if you don’t feel that way, well… pull yourself together! Try harder! Do better! Man (or Woman) up! But things are not always that simple, especially when you are under stress, which is when you need your resilience the most. So if neither willpower and mindset nor success make you automatically resilient, what does the trick? It took me nearly 6 months to find my personal answer to this question. And to rebuild my resilience in the process.
Building walls isn’t helpful
After receiving our dreadful news, I started to cocoon. Not let anyone close. I tried to deal with it by myself. I didn’t want to lie about the obligatory question “how are you?” but I also didn’t want to repeat the same hurtful story over and over again. So I made the choice to avoid contact with friends and people close to me. Only my family and a handful of friends really knew what was going on and how much I struggled. I tried to keep everything to business as usual and let nothing (and no-one) get too close.
I built the proverbial wall around me. I convinced myself that in my professional, business environment I’m safe and in control. There would be no risk of having to confront the situation, let alone talk about it, as no one really knew what was going on. It is also a great distraction and it helps keep the clock ticking forward.
But then, it doesn’t solve the problem. On the contrary, the distracting days got longer, and my nights got shorter as the worries came back and brought with them the creeping terror of insomnia. I ate at night, gained weight, became weaker. And less resilient.
It was really like living two lives … one where (apparently) nothing had changed, and I kept the appearances up with no one noticing a thing (my day life) and the other, where the worries and nightmares were in control (my night life). Each 24 hour cycle, these lives pulled me in opposite directions until I began to break. Unless you’re a medieval fortress, building walls is not helpful at all.
The turning point was a dear friend asking me: “WHO is helping you?”. She continued to say: “you know, you don’t have to be strong!” That was eye opening as I suddenly understood that it was ok for me not to be strong – to let others help me, to even ask for help in my personal life. For years I have lived and taught by the principle that no one has all the answers and that the best leaders are not glorified super humans. I realized that this is not only true for leaders and in a professional context, but in the same way this applies to every part of your life.
It took me many months and the unconditional and unwavering support of my family and friends to understand that you simply cannot be resilient on your own. Resilience is, like leadership, a team sport.
I decided to write this blog because I’m incredibly grateful for the support of my family and friends. But I’m also hoping it can help others with their difficult situations. I’m hoping it can serve as encouragement to identify your support system and reach out for help, as well as build and strengthen resilience. I decided to be vulnerable because – as contradictory as it may sound – I realized that by being vulnerable I became more resilient.
Let’s become more resilient… together!
All this is to say that resilience really is important, but it’s not something anyone is born with. We can indeed make ourselves, our organizations and our nations more resilient. But we can only do it together. With a strong support system. That way, maybe what does not kill us will indeed make us stronger!