Bethany Meilani Hamilton went surfing near her home on Kauai on October 31, 2003, just like she did almost every day. She was only 13 but had already won a couple of 1st place trophies and looked to be a sure-thing as a professional surfer. But that day changed everything. A huge tiger-shark attacked her on her surfboard and a near fatal bite ripped off her right arm.
You may have noticed there are no one-armed surfers winning competitions. Arms are critical for creating the balance necessary to control the surfboard in the wildly changing positions you have to take instantly to make the board go where you want it to go in the ever-changing, fast-moving surf. Most of us struggle to get to our feet by pushing off the board with two arms. One arm? Not to be considered.
There was no repairing her arm. It was lost. And who would go back in the water with the sharks to risk surfing again? You know the story – Bethany went right back. As soon as medically possible, maybe sooner. In under a month she was back in the water figuring out how to surf. In less than three months, she won a competition.
What are the characteristics of a person who can recover from such an incredible ordeal? Do those characteristics apply to the rest of us?
Challenging life events demand a response. We’re human, we’re going to respond but some responses are health giving; others are not. Our natural responses may be all over the range of possibilities from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and maybe, sometimes, acceptance (Kubler-Ross). But processing all those emotions can wear us out and leave us exhausted and on the edge of hopelessness.
There is another way. Another set of choices we can make, if we understand them and can discipline ourselves mentally and physically to take the action necessary to respond. Those are the choices of resilience.
People who recover from awful life experiences have some things in common. Viktor Frankl survived three years in Nazi death camps. In his amazing book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he found this truth:
In the concentration camp every circumstance conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold. All the familiar goals in life are snatched away. What alone remains is "the last of human freedoms"—the ability to "choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances."
Bethany chose her attitude just as did Frankl. The low percentage chance of success did not deter either of them.
In previous articles, we described the Law of Belief and how incredibly important it is to achieving your goals. The Law states that whatever you believe with strong feeling becomes your reality. We always live in accord with our reality. Bethany and Frankl exercised these five choices in common.
Choose a Positive Approach – Think of your situation as one that will somehow provide an opportunity to achieve something you want. Somewhere within you, deciding to believe in yourself and your ability to overcome the odds activates energy and hope that you will turn into action. And even when you run into another challenge, a pandemic of challenges, your mind will find a way to direct that energy into activities that move you closer to your goals.
Be Focused – Decide to keep your mind focused on things you can control. You create tremendous energy and belief in your eventual success by taking action on things you can control AND not spending energy and time trying to tackle all sorts of things you know deep inside that you cannot control. You can’t control the COVID-19 virus or government’s responses to it, but you can control your own health, boost your immune system to optimal levels, and take common-sense precautions.
Create Flexibility – When facing an unmovable obstacle, pushing on it harder does little except exhaust you – physically and mentally. Framing complex problems from multiple directions (as we describe in an earlier blog) can reveal new ways to proceed. Adopting the scientific approach, designing experiments to provide possible solutions, quickly trying the experiment, and learning from the many failures is something resilient people do. It is difficult but it provides knowledge and, eventually, direction.
Get and Stay Organized – Organization removes a lot of wasted time and frustration. It enables you to keep focused on being efficient and not doing things two or more times when they don’t work. Keep track of your progress, your experiments, your failures. Understand what is working and what is not.
Be Proactive – Engage Change. Believing in your cause, your vision of success and a brighter future can energize your efforts even when things are not going well. Bethany and Frankl had a lot of very difficult days. Frankl speaks to the very common response of prisoners to their hopeless future: many committed suicide. But every one who survived believed they had something worthwhile to achieve and they were willing to do whatever it took to deal with each terrifying change that was thrown at them. Bethany spent her time unlearning her previous ways of surfing and learning new ways. She engaged the changes she had to make to succeed in her new world.
The characteristics of people who are resilient include inner strength, optimism, seeking social support, and actively coping but not trying to over-control. They don’t give in to the seduction of passive coping (not taking action but hoping something good will happen). They figure out how to absorb the blows they cannot avoid. As the philosopher Rocky Balboa once said,
"The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward." (Rocky Balboa film)
Assess your resilience characteristics on a scale of 1 (needs work) to 5 (I’m the poster child for this characteristic). Which characteristics might you need to strengthen? Make a plan that identifies what you will do daily to strengthen this characteristic. Share your plan with a colleague and discuss your progress after two weeks. As you increase your resilience, anxiety and fear will diminish. You are taking control of your world to enhance productivity and happiness.
More tools for virtual success: