We rarely see it as a criteria or a requirement on job postings. Yet those who manage to survive the pace of change in today’s workplace with its ever-evolving technology stacks, reorganizations, mergers/acquisitions, “synergies” (a more ‘strategic’ term for layoffs in some companies) and whatnot exhibit resilience whether or not we’re conscious of it. Resilience remains, in my view, one of the most critical traits we can have in our jobs and careers. It’s how we adapt. It’s how we stay relevant. It forces us to learn new skills, apply them, and accomplish things we never thought we could.
Acquiring true resilience, however, is often the result of living and growing through occurrences outside the work environment. We’ve all heard stories about people who have gone through unfathomable tragedy and, despite all odds, overcome them to live extraordinary lives. We hear their stories online all the time. Some go viral. Some even wind up on the news. Or on Ellen even. Hell, most of our own cultural icons have overcome one form of adversity or another.
My story pales in comparison to those, but I’m going to share it anyway.
Let’s flash back to 2008, right around the time that the entire economy was beginning to crumble down around us. I was working as Strategic Marketing Director at the Dutcher Group in Tampa, and things were already looking bleak business-wise. Our largest clients were building product manufacturers and home builders. And we all know what was going on in that industry then–due to the economy, they slashed budgets. They brought things in-house. They went out of business. We were hurting for new clients, and our prospects were pretty few and far between.
Just When I Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse… They Did.
I awoke on Thursday, June 26, 2008 and for whatever reason, I thought “I’m going to lose my job today.” I shrugged it off, determined not to let it preoccupy me or ruin my day. However, despite a relatively promising meeting with a new client that afternoon, when the president and the creative director called me into the corner office at 4pm, I knew it wasn’t good. As I entered the CEO’s office, I noticed a large bottle of vodka and a line of shot glasses on the coffee table.
Yeah, this wouldn’t be good.
So I woke up on June 27th and found myself unemployed. Fortunately, I’d secured a couple of “just in case” interviews for the following week and thought everything was okay—just a temporary setback.
Then on Sunday, June 29, I got a frantic phone call from my 29-year old niece at 6am telling me her mom—my beloved sister—had died suddenly overnight with no discernible cause. Just days earlier, my sister had told the family that her husband’s cancer had returned for a third time, this time with a vengeance. But my sister? 55 years old, and one of the most singularly remarkable human beings on the planet. Dead. And I had to break the news to the rest of my family, including my mother. If any of you has ever had to tell a parent that his or her only daughter has passed away, I empathize. My mom screamed. We both cried. Our hearts shattered. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, and the most hurtful news she’d ever heard (up to then).
In spite of it all, my sister’s daughter got married later that summer—a brief glimmer of happiness in an otherwise mirthless period—but within weeks, my brother-in-law succumbed to cancer after beating it back twice. My newlywed niece, practically my kid sister, had become an orphan over a period of just weeks.
2009 started off on a brighter note. I’d been doing contract work for a small ad agency in Clearwater, so I finally had work on which to focus. And a stream of income. Until yet another 6am call from my niece (yes, the same one) to tell me that my mother’s house—my childhood home—had burned to the ground overnight. Thank God, Mom was safe—terrified and heartbroken, but unhurt. My niece and her new husband had taken Mom in, so at least she was being cared for. But my mom’s house? Jesus, what else could possibly happen.
And then the wheels fell off completely—we learned a couple weeks later that Mom’s insurance policy had lapsed (for reasons I won’t get into here). And then my niece’s husband overdosed on a deadly cocktail of my mother’s pain meds. We were all at the end of our ropes emotionally, financially, spiritually.
There’s far more to the story, including a 13-month fight with the Veterans Administration to get my mom her Aid & Attendance benefits. The unexpected death of my oldest brother. Foreclosure threats from my mortgage company due to limited income, and supplementing my mom’s finances so she could afford her new assisted living facility. My niece’s (yes, same one) near-fatal car accident and what happened to her daughter. Ugh… It was like a month of Lifetime movies blended into a two-year kick in the gut.
Instinct Kicks In
Here’s the thing: as overwhelming and as traumatic as all of this was, it didn’t break me. It could have. I’d be lying if I said that there were numerous times where I just felt like crumpling myself up into a ball on a closet floor somewhere. But I didn’t.
As humans we don’t think a lot about instinctive responses, especially those on which our species—in fact all animal species—rely for survival. It’s the whole “fight or flight” thing. A bird cornered by a cat or another predator, for instance, will instinctively choose to fight back at the cat, or skedaddle. That’s not to say that modern humans don’t have the same mechanism. It’s a natural response of our minds and bodies when we sense that we’re in grave danger. We either choose to extricate ourselves from the situation and head for the hills, or fight the hell back.
I chose the latter—although it didn’t really feel like I was fighting or even really choosing. But I had to to survive. I had to protect my mom. I had to be sure what was left of my family tree didn’t die from some metaphorical Dutch Elm disease.
I also realized that I had taken so many things for granted. My family, for one. While we’d lost my dad in 2006, which devastated me, there was no reason whatsoever to think that my own siblings would die shortly thereafter. The home where I grew up—I knew that my mom would likely not be able to maintain it as she continued to age, but never pictured it burned to the ground–with no insurance. My career. My livelihood. Everything I’d ever counted on was gone. And stupid me with my rose-colored glasses had never pictured any of it, or allowed myself to think “what if…”
The Subtle, Barely Detectable but Life-Changing “Eureka!”
I can’t remember when specifically I realized it, but the life lesson I figured out became and still is my mantra even today. I realized that everything in life is about choice. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can certainly choose the way in which we respond. This is the phrase I coined that saved me:
“I can choose to focus on the negative and let it consume me. Or I can focus on the positive, and let it feed me.”
Change is More Than Constant. Get Used to It.
There are probably hundreds of books and articles and resources out there about how to build resilience. I’ve never read a single one of them. I’m not suggesting that no one else read them either, but my point is that I don’t think anyone can truly understand resilience or how you develop it until you have to.
In the time that’s transpired during and since that tumultuous period, I’ve achieved things in my career I never dreamed possible. All of the trauma had inspired me to reach for more, to do more, and to be more. And not only did I ultimately find a job, it was my dream job with my dream company. I went from a nobody outsider at Verizon, a Fortune 15 company, and grew a previously untapped source of revenue into a multi-million dollar revenue stream. All because I never wanted to take anything, anyone, or any opportunity for granted. Ever.
Resilience is one of those intangible things that makes any professional more valuable. The pace at which our work and personal lives changes is so breakneck. Change isn’t constant. It’s RAMPANT*. Being adaptable to change, being adept at assimilating new paradigms, even staring down adversity is one of the greatest skills anyone have.
Because ultimately, it is through adversity that we learn we are capable of far more than we ever dreamed. Some people find no greater challenge than their own sense of discomfort. Change is empowering.
I hope no one ever has to go through what my family and I went through in such a short period. But I do hope that anyone who reads this understands three things:
- Don’t ever take anyone or anything for granted. Everything in life is a gift. Treat it as such.
- You can’t plan for the worst, because whatever the ‘worst’ is that you plan for will ultimately be much different.
- It’s easier said than done, but just because things are bleak, you have to realize they’re not hopeless. In fact how you respond may take you somewhere far better than you ever imagined.
Very few job postings ever mention resilience as a job skill or requirement, but it’s certainly one quality that every leader needs to have. And while we’re often told not to bring up personal matters in job interviews, sometimes it’s necessary to demonstrate (succinctly) what character, determination and mettle differentiates us from others.
So how would you discuss your own personal experiences and how they made you more resilient, or more valuable as a current or future employee or manager? How would you ask a prospective employee about his or her own resilience?
I welcome you to contribute to and participate in conversation.
*In fairness, the phrase “Change is rampant” is not originally. I originally heard the figure of speech from John Racanelli who was, at the time, the president of the Florida Aquarium. Today, John leads the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and I consider him to be one of the most genuine, personable, and effective leaders with whom I’ve ever worked. I’ll tell you more about him and many others in a future posting about the people with whom I have worked continue to inspire and impress me in future posts.