Check your definition of resilience. People think of the movie “Rocky” and how Rocky keeps getting back up when he’s knocked down. But when people define resilience using the Rocky model, ultimately it’s likely that they will lose the fight because nobody, not even Rocky, can keep taking hits You cannot continue to take out more than you put in and not end up overdrawn and burned out as a result. If we define resilience as how we bounce back or just take a punch and get up and keep going, then we’re already starting from a place that’s less empowered because it’s an old paradigm to see resilience in that way.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Markel.
Bestselling author, keynote speaker, workplace expert, and resilience researcher Adam Markel inspires leaders to master the challenges of massive disruption in his new book, “Change Proof — Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience” (McGraw-Hill, Feb. 22, 2022). Adam is also author of the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, “Pivot: The Art & Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life.” Learn more at AdamMarkel.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I’m a resilient guy. I’ve spent most of my career focused on what it takes to be at your best, even in the most challenging conditions, including writing a bestselling book on resilience (“Pivot: The Art & Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life”). “Pivot” was about how to make big changes, and it focused on creating a deliberate “Plan B” for the seismic shifts in life — the things that we might experience only a handful of times. But I was beginning to discover another type of pivot: micro pivots. Micro pivots are made of things that were often unnoticeable. Tiny things. Minor slights, bits and pieces of negative news, unexpected expenses or obligations. Small things that send a day or a week in an unpredictable direction. They happen every day, often many times. They are frequent and chronic. These little pivots — the constant demands to make decisions and take action in the face of change — stack up big. They can compound into what feels like near constant, uncontrollable change, and that can erode your health, wealth, and happiness. These two types of pivots — the micro and the macro — require a shift in how we tackle changes, one that mirrors a shift in how change is happening in the real world. We’re now faced with not just pivoting by design, but also pivoting by default: learning to manage near-constant change in a sort of moment-to-moment ongoing pivot. That’s what my new book, “Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience,” is about. To make friends with change, we must learn how to identify and manage the small, often hard-to-see micro pivots that occur every day. When we are able to do that, we are by definition more resilient.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was 19 I worked as a lifeguard on an ocean beach, which is different from working at a pool. I started out on a pool and ended up on the ocean. It’s about half a square mile of beach on the south shore of Long Island called Jones Beach. And on busy summer weekends, there are more than a hundred thousand people on that beach. The ocean currents are very, very strong there, and peaceful, calm days are very rare. Often there’s a lot of shore break, big surf, and rip currents. So that first summer that I was on the beach, there was one day when we heard three whistles ring out, which is a sound we don’t hear very often on the beach. Very rarely, in fact, because three whistles mean someone is missing and it’s time to form a search and rescue team. So we met up with the captain of the beach field for our search and rescue instructions, and then we spent an hour in the Atlantic Ocean trying to find a missing swimmer. Over an hour later, we heard the whistles signal us to get out of the water. We hadn’t found the guy. We lost somebody that day.
We met with the captain of our field, with the beach now closed and the lifeguards off duty. And he told us that he understood how devastating this day was. We said a prayer for the family of the missing swimmer, and then the captain looked at us and said, “We’ve got to be able to get back up on the lifeguard stand again tomorrow, because if we don’t do that, then more people are likely to drown.” He was telling us that we had to get back on the stand and we had to be impeccable. We had to make sure that no one ever went down in our water again, so we had to learn something from this horrible experience. We had to learn that in order to be impeccable, we had to watch out for each other. We had to watch each other’s backs. We had to make sure that we are covering each other. And he told us something pretty intense as well, which is that if we wanted to work at Jones Beach, we had to ensure that we would never ever go in the water after somebody and not come out with them — we would make the save or we would die trying. This was his exact message, which was very intense to a 19-year-old lifeguard making eight bucks an hour. And I loved it. It was a call to action like I’d never heard before.
I could have easily said, “This is too intense. I don’t want to be responsible for so many people’s lives and I don’t want to die, so I’ll go work at the pool or at the beach down the road where they don’t have so many people.” But to me it was the opposite. I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna make sure this never happens again, ever.” And I worked as a beach lifeguard for seven more summers after that, even after I was going to law school and we were having kids; I did it until my life just didn’t allow me to be a lifeguard anymore. And seven summers later, we had never lost another swimmer.
These days, I tell that story often to organizations so that they can use it as a measuring stick for their culture. Each organization is either a “got your back” culture or a “watch your back” culture. And often, it’s a “watch your back” culture — it’s people stabbing each other in the back, looking out for themselves but not for their teammates — all the kind of stuff that could never have existed at the beach for us to be successful.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
How open we are to feedback. It’s important that organizations be open and transparent and able to incorporate feedback. In our company we use a format when delivering feedback and it goes like this: “What’s working for me is ____. What’s not working for me is ____.” And “What could be done differently is ____.” We use those three statements as way for us to continually improve. And that continuous improvement comes in large part because we’re open to looking at things without judgment, but just evaluating them in a neutral way and not making it mean something that it doesn’t have to mean. When you make a mistake or you fail at something, you can make it mean lots of things that wouldn’t encourage you to try again. Or you can let it inspire you to take an iterative approach to figuring out what does work.
As an example, there was, a period in my public speaking where I was trying to create a lot of timely conversation through my keynotes around what was fresh and relevant in the news. But at a certain point it was a bit disjointed and there wasn’t a central message. I got that feedback from my agent and ultimately from one of my business partners.
That’s something that we see with speakers: You have so much content and there’s so many things that are interesting that you want to share. Yet ultimately it doesn’t serve the audience if when the keynote is done they can’t point to the thing that they can take forward, the thing that they learn, the thing that they’re gonna share with their team or with others. The idea is to have less be more, to be more succinct and tie into one central idea.
Being able to receive that feedback wasn’t necessarily easy for me. Initially I was sort of resistant to it. But I said, “I’m going to look at it constructively and practice what I preach.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife, for sure. Years ago I made some poor decisions in regard to my business and found that I was on the verge of a financial meltdown. Not that I was seriously thinking we were going to end up in bankruptcy, but when I went to her and told her about my concerns, her response was “I’d be happy to go bankrupt with you.” It was just one of these really powerful moments in our marriage. Today she is my business partner, although she wasn’t at the time. I knew everything I needed to know about her in that moment, which was she’s right there with me. She’s not throwing me under the bus reminding me of what I already knew in that moment, which was that I had screwed up. What that’s allowed me to do is really learn from my errors without the added pressure of “You can never screw up again, you can never make a mistake again, you’re out of mulligans.”
I was in a keynote talk this morning for an organization and I said, “It’s so important that we fail enough to find out what doesn’t work, so we can find out what does work.” Often we know what does work, and I think that’s true wisdom. But if you don’t learn enough of what doesn’t work, by the same logic, you don’t necessarily find out what does work,
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as the way we bounce forward, not bounce back. We bounce forward when we learn that resilience isn’t about endurance, it is about recovery. It is about how we routinely and ritually restore, renew, and recharge ourselves as opposed to how we just can weather the storm or get through the challenge or adversity.
Researchers have identified 14 markers of resilience which I outline in the book. In addition to those, I have identified additional characteristics of resilience. Resilient individuals:
- Routinely and ritually take time to recharge and recover.
- Are willing to learn from feedback. And they invite feedback. They know they can learn and grow from it because they get access to visibility on their blind spots. They learn what they can’t see and what they don’t know.
- Are more flexible and agile. Resilient people are improvisational. Their ability to know when and how to change direction makes them serial pivoters.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
It takes courage to embrace the unknown. In fact, I dedicate the book “Change Proof” to all courageous enough to embrace the unknown. Uncertainty is the new certainty today. So what we can expect going forward is more of that uncertainty, more of the unknowns, living in a space of unknowns and uncertainty. And the one thing that we can do to create certainty out of that uncertainty is to prepare for the unknowns. But the way that we prepare for the unknowns is not trying to avoid them. It’s to prepare your resilience and practice your resilience before you’ll need it next. And if you do that — if we are practicing resilience and creating resilience before we need it next — then we are actually preparing for the unknown. And that is how we create certainty out of uncertainty.
I am a bit of a recovering control freak myself. How I prepare myself to be resilient is the one area I get to control regardless of the situation. For instance, I broke my leg three months ago when I was in the surf and a wave knocked me down. My world changed in that moment. I speak for a living, I travel — and all these things were changed because of that broken leg and being in a cast for two months. But I had been preparing to be resilient before I unexpectedly got hit by that wave. By building up my resilience bank account, making deposits to my resilience bank account, I have a surplus. And because I have a surplus, I have resilience to deal with whatever the contingency is.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I learned resilience from my dad, Kenneth Markel. He had some serious health issues in his early 20s that changed the trajectory of his life. And that could have been the story that defined the bulk of his life, this illness that came on unexpectedly that changed the trajectory of his career and his personal life. And it’s not that that event didn’t cause him a lot of disruption and a lot of pain; it’s that it never defined him. It was a part of his life, for sure. But ultimately what he was able to do was learn how to take care of himself and become resilient by how he treated himself in those key resilience areas: mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
And because he learned how to ritualize his recovery and his renewal, he was stronger than he might otherwise have been. And he was able to take on the things in his life that he needed to be persistent with and persevere in the face of. He is a writer, and even at 86, he’s still writing novels. It takes a tremendous amount of perseverance to deal with the negative responses, the rejections. I learned resilience through him when he had the energy to be writing at night. He had to have a day job, and he did his day job with a lot of passion and a lot of love. But this thing that he was kind of meant to do, his calling on earth, was to be a creative fiction writer. And he would do those things at night, when we were sleeping. The only way he had the energy, the persistence, the perseverance, and the ability to make those small pivots — to take the feedback and rejections, to be able to continue to work on his craft and still get joy out of it — was because he was banking his resilience, creating his resilience, making those deposits to his resilience bank account so that he had enough of a surplus to be able to do the things he was doing in his spare time that he most wanted to be doing.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I don’t know that I ever heard the words “that’s impossible,” but like a lot of people, there have been times in my life when I’ve been underestimated. That started early my life when I was in my pre-teen years. I was bullied as a kid who was kind of smaller than average. And so I lived in a space of sometimes being underestimated. That built in me a desire to prove myself. Proving can be difficult because the reason why you do something, I really believe, has to come from within yourself. And when you prove it to show other people that you’re good enough, or that you’re worthy, or to prove them wrong, that can be challenging. But when it was testing my mettle early in my life, it built in me an ability deal with other people’s judgment, and I learned early how important it was to not let other people’s judgments stop me from doing what I wanted to do. And often I would disprove the assessments of others when they underestimated me. When I was a lawyer, I would come up against cases where maybe the other side thought they had a better case, or they were a bigger law firm, or they had more resources. And when I was CEO, we were told that maybe we weren’t equipped to succeed in a certain space that we were operating in But we were able to succeed in that space and I was able to win those cases. It became a thing that I could count on, that I could trust my own gut instincts about whether I want to pursue this thing.
When somebody would meet me with “Nah, that doesn’t make sense,” or “You probably can’t do that,” it certainly wouldn’t stop me. I would take that information and, just like in the book, pause, ask questions, and choose. I would evaluate and check on whether I had that confidence in my in my gut about what I was going to choose to do. Then I would have much more energy to pursue that thing.
Making good decisions in life often is about checking in with ourselves and getting past our own ego and being able to listen other people. And when other people are underestimating us or naysaying us or saying something’s impossible, that doesn’t have to define how we see it. It’s information and you can do with the information what you choose, as long as you pause and ask questions, and those questions are often internalized inquiries. With that comes an even greater capacity to be confident in the decisions that you make.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Originally, I went to school to become a lawyer. I practiced for 18 years but found myself, midway through my professional career, feeling like something was off. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something wasn’t right. Over time, that feeling grew and developed other symptoms. I had trouble falling asleep at night, or I’d have trouble getting back to sleep if I got up in the middle of the night; I would frequently get up, thinking about work and my responsibilities. Then, at the start of the day, I would feel this sense of anxiety, angst, or even dread sometimes. The moment I put my feet on the floor would just be like, “Yes, something’s definitely not right here.”
I continued to work and work and work thinking I’d make it right, make it change — that as long as I could just earn more money, I could find a way out somehow. But I was confronted with the reality that might not happen, given the fact that I was looking at a lot of other older attorneys in their sixties and seventies, many of whom were quite unhappy, it seemed. And so I had two experiences that were catalysts for my pivot.
I ended up in the emergency room with what seemed like a heart attack at the time but was actually an anxiety attack. And then after I got out of the hospital, I made the usual sort of vows to change things and figure out what to do next. But I couldn’t figure that out and didn’t change what I was doing.
Several months later I came home late from work on a typical weekday, walked in the door, and knew immediately that I had not just missed my four kids’ dinner, but I’d also missed their bedtime. So I didn’t get to read them a bedtime story or kiss them goodnight. Around this time, our oldest girls were in their early teens and our youngest kids were between five and seven. Everybody was tucked in and sleeping at that point. I walked up to my wife Randi and said these fateful words: “If I keep doing what I’m doing, you’re going to be a widow.” At that moment, I knew something had to change. And my wife didn’t remind me about all my responsibilities, all the things that I had to do, or all the money that I was responsible for making. She looked at me, we both took a deep breath, and she said, “We’ll figure it out.” Those words were like a relief valve for me at that moment. I was moving quickly toward a midlife crisis, but instead, we began creating a midlife calling.
Ultimately, I made some small changes, and when those started working, I could see some light at the end of the tunnel. That only helped me to take more steps to increase my commitment to those small changes. I began to develop some momentum. I found that I could take slightly bigger and bolder steps in the direction of that midlife calling. So that’s exactly what we did. Over the course of two and a half years, I went from a full-time practicing lawyer to the CEO of a company that ran personal growth and business development training programs all over the globe. I was traveling worldwide and running this company that sprawled across three continents and four countries.
The book “Pivot” was written shortly thereafter to look back and chronicle that time when the small steps led to bigger steps and the momentum that we created in the process. It’s very much a foundational book about the process of change. And it’s about the things that are fundamental when you’re going to make a conscious, proactive change — as opposed to how we often deal with change, which is completely reactive.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
As lifeguards at Jones Beach, we dealt with all kinds of crazy stuff. Lost children. Drug overdoses. Fights. Drunks who overestimated their ability to swim. We had to be ready for anything. On a weekend we would have a hundred thousand people on the beach and thousands of people in the water at any given time. When the waves were strong, when the rip currents were springing up like weeds, we would have to make rescues every hour.
On a rescue, we would swim sideways, parallel to the shore to get people out of those rip currents. You didn’t try to fight the current because it would exhaust your limited resources. That’s the metaphor in the book: Resisting change is like fighting against a rip current. If you choose mental nonresistance and even physical nonresistance and go with the current and allow the current to release you, as it does and it will, you in are a state where you have managed your energy so you can swim back safely. When we fight change, we get depleted, and when we are depleted none of the things we want in life go smoothly. We make mistakes and we can even end up in trouble. But when we offer nonresistance we can manage our energy much more effectively.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Check your definition of resilience. People think of the movie “Rocky” and how Rocky keeps getting back up when he’s knocked down. But when people define resilience using the Rocky model, ultimately it’s likely that they will lose the fight because nobody, not even Rocky, can keep taking hits You cannot continue to take out more than you put in and not end up overdrawn and burned out as a result. If we define resilience as how we bounce back or just take a punch and get up and keep going, then we’re already starting from a place that’s less empowered because it’s an old paradigm to see resilience in that way.
- Redefine resilience. Our suggestion would be that we redefine it as how we bounce forward. Instead of endurance, it’s about recovery. It’s about how we recharge, not how we simply survive or get back up when we’re knocked down.
- Ritualize your recovery. What can you do right now to recover and build your resilience — mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually? Building small, daily resilience rituals is an easy way to make deposits into your resilience bank account before you need it. It might mean scheduling time to take a breather between meetings, taking a walk outside, or simply weaving thoughts of gratitude throughout your day. Switching back and forth between intense activity, focused performance, and periods of rest and recovery is how we develop resilience.
- Practice performing your resilience before you need it. Cultivating resilience requires daily practice. Just like with any training we might undertake, we must ritualize these activities so they become our new default. This takes practice and commitment at the beginning, but will pay off when we instinctively turn to these rituals rather than the fight-or-flight stress response that tends to be our default when facing unexpected change.
- Model resilience. Change-proof resilience is about developing your own resilience and then modeling it for your team or others around you. In practicing and modeling resilience, we give other people permission to take care of themselves without the stigma that taking care of yourself is selfish.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s a movement for more people to become change proof — to not just accept change or resist change as is so oftten the case, but rather to embrace change, because that develops courage. In the future there will be more change, more uncertainty. If uncertainty puts your stomach in knots, or if it creates anxiety in your mind, body, or spirit, then you are going to be ill-equpped for a world that is only going to change more rapidly. Developing this capacity to embrace change, and to see change as net positive, to see changes as a catalyst for your growth, puts you in a position to leverage the future differently.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to meet and have lunch with Warren Buffett. Not just because he’s one of the world’s most successful and famous investors, but the fact that he’s lived his life in such a humble way at the same time that he is a bona fide celebrity and one of the richest people that’s ever walked the earth. He’s in his nineties and still living in the house that he bought with his wife in the 1950s. He’s a model of resilience. He’s also been a model in his investing and financial resilience. I’d like to interview him about resilience. I’d like to understand his longevity. He doesn’t have to do anything that he doesn’t want to do, and yet he’s in the public eye and doing these three-hour long company shareholder meetings where he is answering some pretty tough questions that his team curates from the many questions that people want to ask him. He’s somebody that has what feels like an almost limitless supply of energy. And so I’d like to know what his rituals are, both personal rituals and investing rituals. He has shared some of those, like he looks for opportunities to buy quality companies that are sale priced. And sometimes they are assessed below their true value according to him. I’d love to know if there is an element of resilience in those organizations. I’d love to know how he feels about resilience as an organizational trait or value, how important he feels that is. Those are are some things that I’d be fascinated to have a conversation with him about.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!