By Dr. Taryn Stejskal, Ph.D.
I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Taryn Stejskal for 2 previous articles. The response was extensive, so I have asked her to share her ‘tips’ and insights with my readers each month.
Taryn Stejskal, Ph.D., is the head of executive development at Nike and founder of Resilience Leadership, a forum for leaders* to enhance resilience, recognize their potential, and live into their life’s purpose. She is the author of the copyrighted and empirically-based “The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People”, which is expected to be published in 2020. Dr. Taryn is also an avid global traveler and the mother to two sons.
Dr. Taryn’s Insight for September
Why Do We Face Challenge?
Let me begin by telling you a story about Nelson.
Nelson’s story doesn’t begin in a manner that differentiates him from other children who grow up with the challenge, change, and complexity. In fact, if you saw him on the street as a little boy, you would have likely kept walking, unfazed by his presence, unaware of who he would become. Nelson was raised in the equivalent of a small town by parents who were illiterate. He was the first member of his family to attend school, and during his early years, because of his antics, he was dubbed a “troublemaker”. This moniker became his nickname.
His family practiced polygamy. His father had four wives who bore him four sons, and nine daughters, with the family units living in separate villages. At the age of nine, his father died. Later, Nelson said that the loss of his father left him with a sense of being both listlessness and adrift. Without a father, his mother took him to live with another family member, who became his legal guardian, and after his mother departed that day, while he did not know it at the time, he would not see her again for many years to come.
He began studies at a university, the first of his family members to attend college, but by the end of his freshman year, he’d become associated with other students and activities that were not looked upon kindly, ultimately leading to his suspension from the university. As a result, he would not return to formal education.
Following his suspension, Nelson learned that his guardian had arranged for him to be married to ground him. In response to receiving this news, he fled to another town. He found work as a night watchman but was fired when he was discovered to be a runaway. He rented a small room in an area rife with poverty, crime, and pollution and signed up for correspondence courses to complete his degree while working to support himself.
Let me stop here for a moment and check-in with you.
At this point, as you can see, Nelson’s life is not looking bright and promising. Given that I’ve told you about Nelson, I’d like you to answer the following question:
What do you think becomes of Nelson for the balance of his life?
Take note of your answer.
Now, I’ll ask you a few follow-up questions:
Does Nelson work a menial job and struggle to emerge from poverty?
Does he father multiple children and work doggedly to provide for them?
Does he face mental health concerns, like depression or anxiety or grapple with addiction with little access to the healthcare he requires?
Does he end up living on the streets, begging for his daily bread and die a young man?
The Gifts of Adversity
In this case, despite what you might imagine, exactly none of these experiences manifest within Nelson’s life story. In fact, this is the story of Nelson Mandela, now thought to be a bastion of bravery, a profile in courage, and an incarnation of resilience.
So, how did the man we credit as a global hero and an anti-apartheid revolutionary transition from his humble beginnings to change the world? How did he avoid the life-long pitfalls of poverty and the paucity of resources with which he began his early years as a young man?
These are great questions. I’m glad you asked. The answer is that: Nelson’s story, represents the power of resilience, available to all of us, to shape and change our lives. Nelson’s story demonstrates that our beginnings do not have to define our endings, showing us that, through a series of behaviors and choices, despite facing challenges, all of us can become much more than we are today.
Mandela’s story embodies the concept of resilience and the C.S. Lewis quote: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
Resilience is not about where you start — it is about engaging in a series of behaviors that allow us to chart a different, more resilient path, and change our lives, as well as the world around us through our heroic acts of self-improvement.
In the spirit of Nancy Willard, also a University of Michigan alumnus, who graduated a few years before I did, who said, “Some questions are more important than answers”, here’s a question that is foundational to resilience:
Did Nelson become the man we revere and honor despite the challenges he faced as a young man and continued to encounter over the course of his lifetime?
Nelson’s greatness emerged, not despite his challenges, but as a direct result of the gifts that are inherent in adversity.
As Richard Paul Evans’ quote states, some of our greatest gifts, our most important opportunities for growth, development, and personal formation do not come when it is easy when we’ve had success, but rather, are wrapped with the trappings of adversity. Later in life, Mandela would attribute his capacity for challenge, change, and complexity to the adversity and loss he experienced in his early, formative years.
Why are obstacles placed in our path?
Like Mandela, obstacles are placed in our path to form us. Challenge, change, and complexity, while trying, disorienting, and exhausting, also, if we allow them to overtime, have the capacity to make us better. As Maya Angelou said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” There is a belief that, if we live our lives correctly, with careful planning, if we do everything right, perfectly even, our pathway will be clear, and we should be able to avoid those pesky obstacles in our path. This is simply not true. A life without obstacles is like a potter without clay. We do not have material to work with, to knead, and to make beautiful.
The obstacles do not detract from our formation as people, they are essential elements in our learning and growth. The obstacles placed in our path serve important purposes. A common misnomer about challenge, change, and complexity is that these experiences only show up when we are on the wrong path. If we’re on the right path, doing what we’re meant to do, doing everything right, we often reason that our path should be seamless, without bumps in the road or obstacles blocking our way. But, in fact, no, this is not the case.
Challenge shows up when we’re on the right path. Even when we’re exactly where we’re meant to be, doing exactly what we’re meant to do –sometimes especially when we’re on the right path and being exactly who we’re meant to be.
Why? Because the universe intentionally tests us. Let me take a sidebar here. I am intentionally using the words “the universe” because the belief in an expanse of energy, a higher power than myself that is guiding and forming me speaks directly to my spiritual beliefs. I want you to know: I accept you and your faith. Your beliefs are welcome here. I would invite you to insert the spiritual presence that resonates with you in my place of my use of “God” or “the universe” when I use this language. Okay, back to discussing the importance of obstacles.
Challenge has a purpose. Challenge keeps us from fast-forwarding through all the uncomfortable, messy, unsavory parts. Challenge keeps us from skipping the pain in favor of the pleasure. Challenge prevents us from accelerating, full speed ahead, into a situation we’ve not yet been prepared adequately for. Challenge is the comma in the sentence, not the period. It is not the end, it merely punctuates our experience, and asks us if we have the courage to go on.
That challenge in your path, it’s meant to teach you. Challenge doesn’t mean you can’t have your goal, your desire, the outcome you intend. Challenge is asking you how much you want it. Our circumstances allow us the opportunity to demonstrate how much we want something, so that when we face a challenge, change, or complexity in our path, and when we don’t give up, when we stay the course, when we are unwavering in the face of these obstacles, we are given the opportunity to prove just how much we want something. In doing so, we earn the right for the universe to cede us the resources, experience, and accomplishments we are pursuing. We prove just how much we want our dream to come true by demonstrating we will not give us on ourselves. Instead of the belief that obstacles only emerge when we are on the wrong path, instead, it is more accurate to believe that, when we are on our path leading toward our full potential and contribution, we should expect there will be obstacles for us to prove our mettle. The more challenge we face, the more important the work. And the more important the work, the more challenge we are likely to face. It is so very rare that the path is made clear. Typically, doors shut. Challenge emerges. Tragedy strikes. All to ask us a fundamental question, “How much do you want it?”
Challenge or opportunity. Grievance of growth. These are opposite sides of the same coin. Will you see the challenge as an exhausting test or will the experience become a testimonial to your dedication? You decide based on how you choose to look at the situation. As Eckhart Tolle says, “it’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to what’s happened.” According to Tolle, challenges and obstacles will, inevitably, continually arise. The world isn’t here to make you happy. Instead, Tolle tells us that these experiences, are here to break down our ego so something else, more core and fundamental to our humanity, can breakthrough. Our exaltation will not be in living a life free of obstacles, it will be in our determination to face them and allow these experiences to form us, like the clay. To make us better.
You can learn more about Dr. Taryn Stejskal, Ph.D. at: www.resilience-leadership.com