Harry Nelson

Towards Resilience in our Kids, Ourselves, and Our President

As my children have grown up (we now have two teenagers and two pre-teens), I’ve come to see resilience – the ability to respond adaptively to whatever comes — as perhaps the most essential skill or trait that I hope they will develop.  I also see it as a key part of ongoing development for myself and the people I work with.  And, lately, the lack of Presidential resilience has been unnerving.

Life is full of surprises, many of them disappointing.  You try to do something, and you fail.  Or you reach out to another person, and they let you down.  My life experience has been that the key thing is to try, and, most but not all of the time, that’s all it takes. It may take a pivot or two or a second or third try, and it may not look exactly like I envisioned at the outset, but eventually, the project will succeed. One or two people may turn you down, but eventually the right person will say yes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t occasions where it is necessary to acknowledge that the best course of action is to put an idea or a relationship that is broken to rest and to move in a different direction; sometimes making that move is what defines resilience.

I feel blessed in that I had positive experiences in school and in my working life that taught me how to deal with challenges, and gave me the confidence to pursue what I believed in and to believe in myself.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty of moments of self-doubt and insecurity.  I do, all the time.  But I am able to check myself, take a breath, and get back on track.  Resilience is not a fixed state, but a constant process.

I feel bad for people who haven’t learned that lesson. I see so many people who live with a fear of putting themselves out there or who are unable to deal with rejection or a challenge. Of late, it has been bizarre to see the President of the United States play out his lack of resilience so publicly. For all of the business challenges he has overcome and all the critics he has proved wrong by winning the election, you might think President Trump would have learned to believe in himself enough to be more resilient.  It is downright painful to see a person who is so easily bruised and so vulnerable forced to play out this drama in public. (I will leave for others the distinct issue of the implications of someone with such a fragile ego to be in such a position of responsibility.)

Two Facets of Resilence:  Taking Chances and Dealing with Falling Short

The President’s struggle has made me think about how we teach resilience. There is a link between two different facets of resilience:  at the outset, not being afraid to put yourself out there and take a chance on something you want, and  being able to acknowledge the possibility of risk and still move forward. The first piece of resilience comes up when you ask another person for a date, when you apply for a job or seek a promotion.  You try out for a team or share something you wrote in public.  You launch a new venture. You make yourself vulnerable anytime that you share your interest in something beyond yourself and take a chance.  In each of these cases, the instinct of self-preservation is inside our heads, telling us “Play it safe. Don’t take a chance,” leading us to safer choices.  The key is learning to ignore that voice and take risks, because otherwise we self-limit. One of my favorite quotes is from Robyn Davidson, who trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian outback by herself in 1977: “We are as strong and as powerful as we allow ourselves to be.”

The second component of resilience  is about dealing with rejection, failure, or criticism, which are the unavoidable risks when you leave your comfort zone. We need to learn to say to ourselves that it’s OK.  Sometimes, we just try again or move on. We learn to accept that not everyone will love us and not everyone will love our work.  Above all, we adapt: we take the lessons of failure and apply them forward. I’ve been listening to the podcasts, StartUp  and How I Built This and love the ways that so many stories of successful entrepreneurship are about discoveries learned in failure. Listening to the stories of successful people helps you realize that the path to one big success comes through struggling with a thousand preliminary failures.

A Personal Story About the Upside of Resilience

In the hope that it will be helpful to people struggling with this issue, I want to share what was for me a powerful, personal moment of failure, and the way that it ended up being a springboard to success. In 2001, my wife and I decided we were going to leave Chicago and move to L.A.  I took the California bar so that I could get a job at a law firm.  I was a little overconfident, having passed Michigan, Illinois, and Hawaii without any trouble and relatively little effort. Never mind that those three had been eight years earlier, when I was fresh out of law school and the material was fresh. I did relatively little preparation.  When the days of the exam came, I wrote the essays quickly and popped up to take a break while other people continued to write furiously. I didn’t give much thought to the ways in which this exam was different from the others I had taken.

Four months later, I arrived in California just in time to check online and find out I had failed. This was by far the most embarrassing setback I had ever had.  I had been a good student, a strong writer; how did I let this happen? Surely, there had been a mistake.  But it was no mistake. I had to call the executive recruiter who had helped get me several job offers and the law firms that had extended the offers, and tell them the bad news. Unsurprisingly, their response was, “Sorry to hear. We can’t really use you without a license to practice, so why don’t you call us after you retake and pass the bar.” I could hear in their voices (or at least in my head) the doubt of whether this failure was the indication of something more to worry about.

It was a deeply humiliating moment. Until then, I had largely glided through school and work, doing well and having choices. (I could easily take a closer view and find examples of adaptation along the way, but the wide angle view was one of more success than struggle.) For the first time, I had to explain to my wife that the job offers I had before we moved cross-country had evaporated. I avoided talking to friends about my situation because I didn’t want to explain this disaster. I endured several months of self-doubt while I studied for the next bar and awaited results. Although in retrospect I can see failing the bar as the result of being overconfident, at the time, I began to question whether I had lost a step and needed to reevaluate my own abilities.

Instead of joining a prestigious firm, I gratefully accepted the only offer I had — to do contract work for a solo practitioner who was my wife’s uncle. It was a humbling experience.  Instead of my own office, I shared a workspace or used the conference room when I needed to meet one-on-one with someone. In Chicago, I had worked in fancy offices for prestigious academic medical centers.  Now I was working in a ramshackle office for clients who were accused of serious wrongdoing. I remember sitting stoically on a telephone call while one haughty big firm lawyer told me how sorry he felt for me that I had to work for one client.

It is easy to look back on this story and laugh now, fifteen years later, after having built from this lowly start to a 25-lawyer firm that has been blessed with a degree of success and recognition that makes my humble start unrecognizable.

In retrospect, but for the failure on the bar exam, there is little chance that I would have been motivated to build Nelson Hardiman and the other ventures that have grown out of the firm. It is far likelier that I would have kept my head down and worked in relative quiet at a bigger firm.  Instead, the failure motivated me. I realized I couldn’t just take a backseat in a two-person firm. I needed to provide for a growing family, and that became a driver that pushed me to decide what I wanted to do. I realized that, as much as I liked working with my former partner’s solo physician clients, I would need to build a team that could handle larger, more complex matters for larger clients. In the process, I ended up growing in ways I would never have imagined.

While this was a self-defining moment of resilience for me, there have been plenty of others.  The 2013-2014 conflict with my former partner that ultimately led to our break-up and buy-out was another transformative moment where a failed relationship led me to reevaluate and assess where I had gone astray. Even this past few months, a major internal conflict within a separate business that I launched presented a critical test—a potential fracture. We were able to work through it, which I take as a testament to not only my personal resilience in being able to admit mistakes and take accountability, but also to my partners in being able to forgive a legitimate grievance. I have become a big believer in Nietzsche’s line that “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  These experiences have made me more open and honest – and more resilient.

The key, I think, is constant learning and finding positive outcomes and lessons to build on out of struggle.  What I wouldn’t give to see President Trump take the criticism that wounds him so deeply as a challenge, to show that he could get past the brittle, easily bruised persona he has revealed and grow into a learning leader.  I’m not expecting a miracle, but I hope for the sake of our country that someone close to him will get through to him in a way that produces a moment of humility and self-examination.

Four Ways to Help Build Resilience

I’m not sure how much I can do to help President Trump, so I’ll worry about the people closer to me: my kids, co-workers, and other readers. It seems to me that resilience is a learned skill, and the product of cumulative experience.  So what can we do to help people around us (and ourselves) develop resilience?

  1. Supportive, Stable Relationships: We develop resilience because people believe in us. Even though I grew up with often critical parents, I knew on a deep level that they loved me, believed in me and were proud of my accomplishments. I find myself all too often being far more critical of my kids and co-workers than I want to be, so I try to do everything I can to let them know that I believe in them, that I am proud of them, that I am invested in our relationship and not going anywhere.
  1. Celebrating Positive Experiences: Personally, my internal critical voice often leads me to downplay successes and obsess about failures. It is easy to construct an internal narrative that emphasizes the negative, which makes it critical to offer up an external view that doesn’t let positive experiences go unnoticed. Another key is celebrating successes, both when they come outright and when they emerge as a silver lining out of an initial failure.  It can often be easier for other people to see the impact and call attention to successes, and I think it is critical to underline these — not just the successes themselves, but the very fact of taking a chance. Recently, I’ve heard several frustrated up-and-coming professionals talk about the lack of appreciation of their efforts they receive from senior leadership in their organizations.  Celebrating the positive is essential.
  1. Sharing Our Own Lessons: One of the big reasons I wrote this post was the belief that being open about my own self-doubt and my own setbacks will help other people. The power of storytelling is not just about making sure our kids, our co-workers and those around us feel appreciated and good about what goes right, but also sharing stories of getting through rough patches and being open and honest about the places we struggled.  I smile when I hear my own kids repeating the stories my wife and I have shared – and see them learning to be able to laugh at us and our foibles and hopefully to do the same looking at themselves.  In those moments, I feel like we’ve done something right. Beyond the stories themselves, there is almost nothing as powerful as being able to laugh (lovingly) at your own shortcomings and be open about them.  And it takes some of the sting away from comments other people make, because I’ve already acknowledged the shortcoming.
  1. Skill-Building: In the moments of challenge and failure, there are great coachable moments, when you can see someone struggling with taking the risk or coping with the failure. I find these very tough because, as tempting as it is to weigh in, there is an element of judgment and a huge risk in calling attention in a way that is judgmental.  Most people don’t appreciate being nudged in moments of adversity. I have learned that I need to throttle way back the way I talk to people in these moments and be gentler. In some cases, it is better just to call attention to the opportunity for growth in a non-judgmental way. Recently, one of my kids did something that disappointed my wife and me.  We had hoped for a little greater willingness to take someone else’s feelings into account. Our first instinct was to insist and push for the “stretch” we wanted to see in the moment. After talking it through, we came to the conclusion that perhaps this was a better moment to explain in a non-judgmental way what our values are, and not to worry about this particular moment.  Instead, we used it as an opportunity to share our hope that, in the future, the same values would lead to an alternative way to handle the situation.  The tradeoff of pushing too hard is not allowing the other person to be autonomous.  The core of resilience is self-control and self-regulation, of not being so brittle, so it is always a tradeoff between when to push gently for someone to do something different in the short-term, as opposed to just being cognizant for the next opportunity.

As we head into the national holiday, I am grateful to live in a country that has given my family and so many people chances that the places we came from did not:  an opportunity to imagine and dream what could be.  I am thankful to be part of a community that has supported me personally in doing so, and pray that I can support the people I care about in the same way.  And I hope that we can all support our President on the long journey ahead of him to develop a bit of resilience.

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