What if Instead of Sinking, You Got Stronger?
A Buddhist fable tells of a day when an old mule fell into an empty well on her owner’s farm. The farmer heard her whining and ran to help her, but quickly realized that he was not going to be able to pull her out, and the most compassionate thing to do would be to bury her in the well so that she would not continue to suffer. He asked his neighbors to help, and together they began to shovel dirt into the well.
The mule began to panic. The dirt and the stones hurt as they fell on her back. But just as she thought she had no choice but to die, she had an idea: every time that a shovel full of dirt fell on her back, she would shake it off and climb onto the dirt. Shovel after shovel full of dirt, the mule said to herself, Shake yourself off and climb! Shake yourself off and climb! Shake yourself off and climb! With each shovel of dirt, the mule concentrated on shaking herself off and climbing onto the dirt as it gathered. The farmers picked up on the mule’s strategy, and they began to encourage her and shoveled in more dirt to help her. Finally, the mule climbed out of the well, exhausted but safe. By controlling her panic and not giving up to die in those circumstances, the mule turned the dirt that was meant to bury her into a blessing, into an opportunity to climb out of the hole she was in (literally!).
Life can give us difficult circumstances all the time. When we think nothing can get worse: we lose those we love, the economy goes into crisis, violence escalates, our life changes radically, we become gravely ill, we lose our jobs or our assets… the list is endless.
Change is constant. This is the law of life.
We can suffer changes all the time until they exhaust us, or accept that change is inevitable, develop resilienceand take advantage of the opportunities presented to us to grow, reinvent ourselves, and do better.
We do not all have that resilience, but anyone can develop it.
A resilient person is someone who:
- Has vision and maintains a clear perspective of reality
- Is flexible, creative and open to change
- Is confident in themselves and their capacity to overcome obstacles
- Knows how to ask for help and create synergy to find more effective solutions.
Has Vision and Maintains Perspective
In the movie Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney), there is a scene in which Alice is lost in the woods and she encounters the Cheshire cat, and she asks him to tell her which path she should take to get out of the woods. The cat then answers, “where do you want to go?” Alice responds, “it does not matter, I just want to get out of here,” to which the cat says, “if you do not know where you want to go, any path will take you.” That is true. If you follow the course of life, you will end up somewhere, but it probably will not be the place that you wanted to arrive. Having a clear vision of who you want to be and what you want to achieve in life helps you to plan and make correct decisions when opportunities present themselves.
Be Flexible, Creative and Open to Change
Having a clear vision will also help you to be more flexible with your plans when changes arise in your surroundings.
Unfortunately, many of us have an idea of what we want to do and we cling to specific expectations of how the process will be, instead of focusing on the result that we hope to achieve (the “Why?” we want to do it) and experimenting with the best way to achieve it.
We lose sight of the goal (the destination) and we become obsessed with the plan (the map). But the map is not the territory (Alfred Korzybski), the map is only a possible representation of the territory, of a territory that, furthermore, can change in any moment.
If you cling to your expectations and plans, and on your way a river appears that was not on the map, you will feel frustrated, lost, defeated and you will give up or return to your starting point to “plan better.” But if instead you have a clear destination, when you arrive at a river that was not foreseen, you will simply re-orient yourself in relation to your destination, you will recognize that you should adjust the map/plan and find an alternative route.
Know that the “What” is much more important for success than planning every detail of the “How,” because it is very likely that adjustments to the “how” will be needed in the process. Furthermore, depending on how complicated and long-term your goal may be, there are more possibilities that you have to adjust your plans along the way.
Have Confidence in Yourself and the Capacity to Overcome Obstacles
Confidence and self-confidence are not the same thing. We feel confident when we have done something many times over and have been successful. I am absolutely confident that I know how to pour a glass of water and that I will always do it well. I have done it many times. I can do it without a second thought. If I ever spill a glass or it overflows a bit, that will not diminish the confidence I have in my experience. I’ll say, “oh, oh…,” I’ll laugh, clean the table and do it again. At no point will I doubt my capacity to pour a glass of water just because I had an accidental spill.
But when it comes to something I have never done before, I do not have the successful experience of the past to support me in feeling confident. My only option is to believe in myself, in my capacity to do something even though I have never done it before, or to learn how to do it even if I do not know how. This confidence in ourselves and our abilities is most important to develop if we ever want to achieve what we have not achieved before.
When we are children it does not occur to us to question our ability to do something and our tenacity to achieve it. If we thought that we could not do something because we did not know how to do it or we had not done it before, and for that reason we do not even try or we give up at the first failure, none of us would know how to walk.
Confidence in yourself is something that is developed and is essential for resilience. It requires managing our mind and our emotions in such a way that they do not paralyze nor boycott us. It means telling our minds that if we have not achieved something it is because there is something we have yet to do, not because we are incapable of doing it. Sometimes it is not enough to do things well, sometimes, like learning to walk, it is about doing things well hundreds of times to strengthen our legs to be able to run.
Failure does not occur when things turn out badly. Failure occurs when you stop trying.
We stop trying to do something for three reasons:
- We believe that it cannot be done because no one has achieved it yet. But everything seems impossible until someone does it for the first time.
- We believe that it is possible, just that it is not possible for us. We grew up believing a ton of ideas and preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman and what women can and cannot do. This is the easiest way to impede our doing extraordinary things. It does not require force, it just requires convincing us that that is how it is. The good news is that no one can force us to believe or stop believe something. We can decide we want to believe or not. Believing that we can do something successfully is totally optional.
- We believe we have exhausted all of our options and nothing works. When the responses that we receive to our questions are not sufficient, instead of changing the answers, we change the questions and the perspective with which we are approaching the problem. There are three things we can do in these cases:
- The first is identifying opportunities in adverse situations. When the laboratory of Thomas Edison (the inventory of electricity) burned, and with it his work of many years. One could think that this was a catastrophe and there was nothing to be done, but instead of giving up Edison said, “Thank God all of our errors were burned, now we can start fresh all over again.” Years later he invented electricity. This would not have been possible if he had continued working to “improve candles.”
- The second is focusing on what we can control. We cannot change things that happen to us nor can we change the people we interact with. Trying to do so only guarantees us frustration and impotence. But we can control what we think, feel, say and do in reaction to what happens to us, and ultimately, that is what will determine our results.
- The third is trading closed questions for powerful questions to find better results. Our brain is pessimistic, negative and paranoid by nature. Questions like, “why can’t I do this (for example, lose weight)?” already have a rehearsed response (or thousands) that will only keep us in the same place and will convince us that we simply do not have what is needed to achieve what we want (it’s genetic, you have never lost that much, it’s your metabolism, you’re old already, it’s very expensive, etc.). If we trade that kind of question for questions like, “How can I lose weight without increasing my family’s expenses?”, the brain will immediately work to find answers to that question and the responses that it will produce will be positive because the question takes success for given. I explore these issues and strategies more deeply in my blog, “How to Change the World Without Dying Along the Way”
Know How to Ask for Help and Create Synergy to Find More Effective Solutions
Lastly, a resilient person is someone that knows that there is strength in unity. There is a saying that says “it is better to have friends than rivals” and there is a lot of truth in that.
Having the capacity to build strong alliances and relationships, being an active part of a community, listening and communicating clearly, being of service to others and always looking for ways to maximize (generally scarce) resources available, substantially increases our chance of changing perspective about the situations we face, seeing opportunities where we only see problems, finding creative solutions, joining forces and resources to come out strengthened from the most adverse situations.
Sometimes we think that when we face difficulties is when we have the least capacity to give or invest in ourselves and others, but the truth is that when we are facing difficulties is when we cannot give ourselves the luxury of not doing it!
What could you do or stop doing NOW that would help you to improve your current condition?
What obstacles could impede or boycott your efforts?
What strategy or strategies can you define to avoid or overcome each of these obstacles?
Who could you join forces with to create synergy and maximize existing resources and capacities?
How can you make this alliance a win-win situation while strengthening the relationship?
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Your ally always,
Virginia Lacayo, Ph.D.
Innovation, resilience and leadership coach.