Honor the Struggle: Practice “struggling well” through turbulence by choosing what you spend your time thinking about, how much weight you place on it, and how you want your life to be.
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 Anna-Lisa Mackey, M.Ed.
Anna-Lisa Mackey, M.Ed., is an SEL expert with more than 20 years of experience in social emotional learning training and professional development, student behavior, academic performance, and personal skills. She has worked with Head Start Cares and the Canadian Mental Health Association on two large-scale implementations, and trained school staff and mental health professionals in Canada and the United States. Ms. Mackey has also presented on social and emotional learning at numerous conferences. She is also the co-author of The Social Emotional Classroom: A New Way to Nurture Students and Understand the Brain (Wiley, 2022) and the Social Emotional Us podcast host.
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?
My focus is on helping young people know who they are, make good choices, and be all they can be no matter where life takes them. And sometimes life doesn’t go down a straight and narrow path — mine sure didn’t! In my 20s, I completed an English degree and thought I’d work in publishing. Still, I completed a teaching credential and took a position teaching the elementary program in a remote First Nations village in British Columbia, Canada. I worked in a prevention program with children at risk of developing serious behavior challenges. During this experience, I came across social and emotional learning. I spent the next 20-plus years training and assisting with SEL implementations across North America. I also moved to the United States with my family during this period. Today, I’m the CEO of a K-12 social emotional learning program provider company.
When I think about my journey, it’s interesting that what I wanted to do when I was so young and what I am doing now is very close. But it’s taken me on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from teaching in a remote Canadian village with 15 students to being a CEO and business owner.
My first teaching experience led me on my path to a master’s degree, which led me to the direction of starting a training company, which then led me to own an SEL company. In our programs, we teach the concept of a growth mindset, and part of that is that you have to be ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities come in life and trust that you’ll find your way.
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?
One of the most unique experiences that I’ve had was my first teaching job. I was a city girl, born and raised. At that time, I was young and looking for an opportunity to learn about another culture and way of life. I was fortunate enough to be hired to teach the entire elementary program for a Native band in a remote part of British Columbia. It was a challenge both personally and professionally that changed my life.
What I’ve learned is that while setting goals is essential, sometimes you have to go with the flow and keep your eyes open to the opportunities that present themselves — and be ready to take them when they come.
There’s a lot of pressure for high school students to know what they will be and what they will be when they grow up. The lessons I’ve learned are to play to your strengths and spend your time doing things you love. When you do that, it won’t feel like the “daily grind.”
Another takeaway I’ve learned is having the confidence or believing that you can learn something new. Many times in my career, I didn’t feel like I was ready for that big step or the current opportunity. We constantly edit ourselves. We think we can’t do something because we don’t have the experience, the right connections, the education, etc. I’ve learned that as long as you’re willing to learn, you can grow into the role. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes because mistakes are a part of learning and improving. We have to stop looking at mistakes as only a negative thing. Mistakes are part of growing. Any amount of growth involves making mistakes, and as a teacher, I’m all about supporting learning and development.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company stands out because we try to embody what our products teach — social emotional learning curriculum for the K-12 market. I encourage and model the concepts of SEL with our staff. I’m always saying that we need to “walk the walk and talk the talk.”
An example of this would be during the pandemic, there were a lot of unknowns, people were feeling isolated, and tensions were high for everyone, not just in our company. We’ve always been a remote company, but during the height of the pandemic, we had to pivot and adapt quickly, which put a lot of pressure on us, and I could see that in our staff. So I brought someone in that people could talk to about the issues they were facing. I hired a coach to work with everyone one-on-one. Through this coaching, they could process what they were feeling, learn new skills, and show up in their role as their best selves.
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?
As a female business leader and in my time teaching and training, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many strong women who have encouraged me to believe in myself, my abilities, and my accomplishments. The women in my life have taught me that we need to believe in ourselves because if we don’t, then no one else will. If we’re waiting around for external validation, we might be waiting a long time!
There was a woman I worked with at a school district in the Atlantic region of Canada. I would fly in to conduct training, and she would pick me up from the airport. Because it was remote, we’d drive for several hours to get to the community. Along the way, we would talk about the things we thought were important about teaching and learning. It was during those conversations that she would say, “that’s an excellent idea. You should talk to the teachers when you get to the school,” or “you should do that [whatever that was].” She was very knowledgeable, and her opinion and encouragement meant a lot to me. She gave me opportunities to show others what I knew and opened new doors. It was up to me to walk through them.
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?
When I think of resiliency, I think about the ability to bounce back from adversity. However, it’s not just about bouncing back to who you were before but with the knowledge learned from the experience. Resilience is built when we have setbacks, learn from them, and don’t let the negative things define who we are.
Resilient people aren’t afraid of failure or don’t let fear of failure stop them from trying. Common characteristics of resilient people are that they learn from failure and grow, value who they are, and see the difference between who they are as a person and the criticism of the work.
The interesting thing about resiliency is that some think that being resilient is instantaneous — and that’s not true; sometimes, you need time to lick your wounds and process what happened. A resilient person gets back up on the horse in their own time. And, the time between the setback or difficulty and starting again gives you time to think about what you would do differently. Challenges stop or prevent non-resilient people from going forward.
Another characteristic of resiliency is having a growth mindset and a concept of “yet.” For example, maybe I can’t do it right now, but I always believe in the possibility of “yet.” It might not be how I thought it would be this time, but it is yet to happen. It’s also about the flexibility of thinking. Sometimes people are rigid in their thinking; they struggle if the thing they want or the goal set doesn’t happen the way they envisioned. They can’t see past it.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
The difference between resilience and courage is about the learning that occurs. You can be courageous but not resilient — we see it with the chronic hero in novels and movies, always trying to save the day but never learning from their mistakes. Usually, this involves a pep talk (external validation) from another character to give it one more try. If you don’t incorporate learning into your next attempt, you’ll make the same mistake again. Now we’re talking about the definition of insanity. We can’t be resilient without the courage to look past the fear of failing again and giving it another try. I think that courage is an aspect of resilience, but it’s not a synonym for resilience.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When I think about resilience, I think of my youngest daughter, who has had a lot of challenges as a young person. She was diagnosed with ADHD when she was five, and she struggled with school her whole academic career. As she’s grown, she learned how to bounce back when she didn’t get good marks even though she studied hard. She learned how not to take the feedback as a reflection of who she is as a person. She’s learned how to learn better and what she needs to do to improve. She now advocates for herself. Her ability to have such a “bounciness” is inspirational for me as her mom.
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?
When I was in my early 20s, I was offered a job teaching on a very isolated native reserve in British Columbia, Canada. Now I was a city girl and never had gone camping. When I told my parents that I took this job, they said that I would hate it and I wouldn’t stay — that it was a bad idea. My friends were taking bets that I wouldn’t last until Christmas.
The village was 12 log cabins in the middle of the bush. I taught the entire elementary school program, and at one point, I had 15 students from grade 1 to grade 5. In the morning, I taught the entire school karated during the day’s first period. I also took Carrier language lessons and learned to tan a moose hide the traditional way by the elders. We got to the school via an old wagon trail on horseback, by a 4×4 truck, or flew in by floatplane or helicopter. There was no highway the entire time I lived there, and we only got running water after the first year and a half.
I stayed for three years.
The elders were always welcome in the classroom. Depending on what we were learning about, I would ask them to share how they would explain the concept in their culture so that the students could hear the subject from both their own culture and the cultural reference from which I was teaching.
I don’t know if I had gone the traditional route of getting a teaching degree and then going to a conventional school if I would be where I am today. There was so much freedom to teach, and I learned so many skills that I still use today, such as skills around adaptability, growth mindset, and respect for all cultures. For example, when we talked about building structures and had 5 feet of snow, and the students were getting cabin fever, we would go outside and build an igloo. The students used math to figure out the measurements and had to problem-solve in real-time on an actual structure.
I loved it! It was transformational.
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?
My husband and I came to the US for his job opportunity, so he had a work visa, but I didn’t. I couldn’t work and had to leave the job I had in Canada, which I loved. I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, so I worked on a master’s degree remotely and used the time to finish it. When we received our permanent resident cards, I caught the entrepreneurship bug of US culture and started a training business. Years later, that led to the opportunity to own this company.
A more recent example is that our company has a hard copy curriculum program designed to be taught face to face by educators. In a pandemic. With schools teaching remote. We navigated through this by having flexibility in thinking and adapting, and being open to other solutions. Our team showed resilience in the face of a challenge. We had to be flexible with our product, marketing, sales, how we reach and support our customers, and all aspects of our business. If there was a silver lining, it was that as a team, we showed a substantial amount of resilience.
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?
Education has always been a strong focus in our family, and my dad was a great role model for resilience. He was the first person in his family to graduate with a degree. He completed it when he was married, raising two children, and working full time. It took him ten years to finish his degree, but he never gave up. I remember my dad studying in his office night after night. When he finished, the whole family went to see him walk across the stage, and I was so proud of him. I felt that my dad was so resilient. It was a quality that I admired and wanted to emulate.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are five steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Like any other skill set, resilience is not something that comes naturally to most people. To build your resiliency muscles, I can offer this bit of advice:
- Honor the Struggle: Practice “struggling well” through turbulence by choosing what you spend your time thinking about, how much weight you place on it, and how you want your life to be.
- Visualize Better: Visualize yourself doing what you want to do in a very detailed way. What does it feel like to do and be at your goal? Plan it out as if it was going to happen. This exercise creates a positive emotion for the brain to predict a positive outcome and helps keep you motivated.
- Reframe The Experience: Recognize that you will feel frustrated and challenged in challenging times. Instead of looking at it negatively, try thinking of it as a life experience. How you view the experience makes a difference to your mindset. If you’re thinking of what you’re giving up or missing out on, your brain may predict that you are under threat or in a place of scarcity. By thinking of “I get to choose what I…” instead, you cultivate your growth mindset. This creates a mindset of opportunity, a key part of resiliency.
- Do Less: Making too many decisions can deplete your energy and make you feel overwhelmed. To mitigate this, decrease the number of decisions you have to make in a day. You need to know yourself well enough to understand what energizes you and what part of the day you feel most energized — then plan your day to get the hard things done when you are at your strongest. Action creates momentum, which creates a positive feedback loop and builds self-confidence, which helps strengthen our resiliency muscle.
- But Do More for Others: We often do things for others that we wouldn’t do for ourselves when experiencing tough times. Doing random acts of kindness, showing gratitude, or doing something nice for someone else builds positive energy and self-esteem, which contributes to building resiliency.
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. 🙂
I think that is what I’ve tried to do my whole life, having the greatest influence. When I was teaching in a classroom, I recognized the impact I had on my students. I wanted to help them develop the skills that would make them successful in life. As I grew in my teaching career and later in my training company, I increased the amount of influence I had on people’s lives. Now I’m the CEO of a social emotional learning (SEL) provider with programs that can make a difference in people’s lives. Learning the SEL competencies of self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills can have a positive impact on all of us throughout our lives. It’s not a one-and-done thing. We learn and practice these skills every day. These skills are connected to what we are doing on this earth: becoming better people, managing our emotions, and improving our interactions with other people. Life is meaningful, and developing our SEL skills is how we can contribute to this meaning.
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 🙂
My first thought is Rachel Maddow, because I think she is a fascinating woman and seems to be who she is. I admire her ability to show who she is without apology, for her intelligence, and her courage to live her life truthfully. She seems to handle being in the public eye very graciously. There are a lot of other women that I respect that appear to handle the roles that they have with grace and intelligence. I think those are the qualities that I appreciate. She’s just one strong person who comes to mind, but there are many others.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please find us on our website at pathsprogram.com, or connect with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest. I look forward to connecting with your readers who may be interested in SEL or K-12 education.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
It is my pleasure, and thank you for taking the time to include me in this!