First published in The Huffington Post on 11 February 2016
It was New Year’s Eve, 1985. I was 17 years old and on my own in the Lake District High Fells. The weather had closed in and the snow was falling heavily. It was a white out. A bitterly cold icy wind was blowing and moisture was freezing on the outside of my jacket. It was well below zero. I’d had to put on some walking crampons. I stood, staring at the map and compass in disbelief. Every bone in my body told me to go right, but the map and compass clearly indicated I should go left. I was scared.
I’d spent the last few hours taking a bearing and walking tens of metres at a time, stopping, setting a new course and continuing. No-one really knew where I was. I knew enough about mountaineering to know I was way outside my comfort zone. Tears of frustration and fear welled up inside me as I weighed up the decision. Go right and follow my instinct, or left and follow the map. In that moment I vowed I would never get myself into such a situation again. I cursed my stupid self for having got into this mess. In that moment, I learned some hard lessons about my ability to cope under stress.
You can prepare all you want, but sometimes things happen that test our resilience. A few days ago, I was working with a team in a company being taken over. The team’s job is to help manage the transition, but at the same time they are affected by the very changes they are expected to help others through. That’s stressful. There is no certainty for many people in the business as to what the future holds. None of the employees in the company chose to be in this position. Some people will lose their job after a lifetime of service. That’s a hard thing to deal with.
Being resilient in this situation is a useful quality to develop. The literature is not terribly helpful. The notion of mental toughness is a catch-all phrase for a number of different traits and there is much disagreement as to what being mentally tough actually means. That said, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself. It’s not rocket science. It begins by looking after yourself.
1. Eat properly. As Michael Pollen, the food writer so beautifully summed it up, ‘eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much’. Whilst there are many, many diets out there, the evidence remains that Pollen’s eight words are sound advice. A healthy diet is so important to our physical and mental well-being.
2. Sleep well. Sleep deprivation is incredibly destructive in so many ways as I have written about previously. Get the sleep you need to be able to cope. There’s nothing heroic about being tired, and certainly nothing that will contribute to your resilience.
3. Exercise. The evidence is overwhelming; exercise is good for you, both physically and mentally. There’s also nothing like a good walk, run or bike ride to allow your mind to work through the challenges you face.
4. Control what you can control. It sounds obvious and yet people get stressed about the decisions a company may make about their future. You have very little control over those decisions, but you can control the preparation you do to mitigate the risk, such as preparing your CV and doing interview practice.
5. Tolerate uncertainty. Not being in control is one of the biggest causes of stress. It is simply not possible to know everything or predict the future. What will be, will be. Being able to cope with not knowing is easier for some than others and whatever your current tolerance, the chances are you can improve it. A useful strategy is to think through a couple of options of actions you could take depending what might happen. Don’t write the future – just because you are worried something might happen, doesn’t necessarily mean it will.
6. Use your friends. Sometimes we lose a sense of perspective about what’s happening. Being able to talk it through with others is a useful way of calibrating how significant the issue is and what we may do about it. A short conversation can take the heat out of a stressful situation, enabling you to cope better.
7. Work out what’s good. It’s amazing how if you break it down into the things that are good, you can begin to build a positive perspective. In extremis this may mean celebrating the simple fact you are alive, but for most of us it will be things like reminding yourself of the good things you have, like family, friends, support, a roof over your head and so on.
That day in the Lake District, I opted to trust the map and compass and so, as it turned out, saved myself from walking off a cliff edge. I had faced the brutal reality of my ability to cope and didn’t enjoy it that much at the time. Whilst in the moment it had been unpleasant, I also found the experience addictive. Suffice to say, I didn’t stop walking in the hills, nor did I avoid personal challenge. That moment on the hills started a lifelong addiction to pushing my ability to cope. Over the years, I have learned how to avoid the fear being quite so raw and the stress quite so palpable when confronted with a particularly demanding situation. It’s a journey of personal discovery, and I love it.
The experience that day in the hills gave me a greater respect for those able to cope better than I, and the empathy for others facing a deeply personal challenge. Above all, it gave me a profound sense of the importance of the quality of resilience.
Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted.
Read our experiences with one of our clients in Managing Partner Relationships.