Audit your network: See my story above on the importance of who you let into your life. Are the people in your life contributing to, and encouraging your growth as a person, or are they holding you back? Are they draining your energy and personal resources? Cut away those that are holding you back and/or limit their influence if you can’t fully get away from them.
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 Daniel Ford.
Dan Ford is the founder and Principal Psychologist at The Better Sleep Clinic, a specialist insomnia and behavioral sleep disorders clinic. He’s a Licensed Psychologist, qualified in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), & specialist trained in CBT for insomnia (CBT-I). Dan’s had careers in the corporate sector & the military (as well as having his own family) so he has first-hand knowledge & experience of the pressures & challenges of modern life. In addition to working across the Army, Airforce & Navy, Dan’s been a performance psychologist with military special operations teams, Olympic, & professional sports teams.
When not out running with an audiobook playing, Dan can be found chilling out with his family, playing guitar, or pretending to be a handyman.
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 trained in psychology at the University of Auckland in the early 2000’s. I started my working life as a business consultant, but after around eight years I started to think of using my psychology qualifications. I saw an opportunity to become a psychologist in the military, so I attended and passed an officer selection board and spent 10 years working as an army officer and military psychologist. During that time, I was lucky enough to have postings in the Army, Air Force, Navy (where I served as acting head of Navy psychology) and special operations. In 2018 I transitioned to working as a sports performance psychologist, working with Olympic and professional sports teams. After realizing I have a huge interest in sleep, and that it dovetails well with performance work, I opened my own sleep clinic specializing in treating insomnia. My passion is in one-on-one work with sleep and mental health conditions and promoting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace so I these days I spend my time either in the clinic or delivering workshops to corporate groups.
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?
At one point in my career, I was working as a psychologist teaching “leadership” but I felt my bosses weren’t actually displaying the kind of leadership we were teaching to others that was backed by scientific research. I remember bringing this up, not in an attacking way, just in a curious manner, why as psychologists we weren’t modelling the leadership we were teaching. I was told that “I wouldn’t understand until I held a leadership position etc”. I resolved to do different and test out the kind of leadership we were teaching when I had the opportunity. Eventually, I became acting Head of Navy Psychology for the Royal NZ Navy with a small team of relatively inexperienced military psychologists. Morale was low. I decided to try out the lessons from the leadership research, and basically just doing the opposite of what my old bosses had modeled, and the team really responded. It was simple stuff. Just treating professional adults as adults and trusting them to use their professional judgement and skill. Taking an interest in them as people, looking out for their development and providing them with flexibility to get things done. Morale went up and my feedback and performance reports were positive.
I learned from that experience that leadership isn’t hard (certainly not when leading professionals). It’s mainly just about being human. If you want to be a good leader it’s all there in the research. You don’t need to overthink it. Poor leaders are often just that — poor leaders. They blame the situation and others around them, but ultimately, it’s just a lack of skill.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company stands out because we really care about giving our clients/patients the best possible care and service that we can. We recognise it’s not easy to reach out for support, so we really respect our clients and the resilience they have shown in reaching out to work with us. If someone has made the effort to work with us, then we believe it’s only right that we should do our utmost to serve them to the best of our ability.
By way of an example, was working with the young man was suffering from quite severe insomnia. He was reporting that it was taking him six hours to fall asleep multiple nights per week. He had stopped working because of the insomnia and I knew his family were helping to fund his treatment. It must’ve been financially tough. We reached a point where he felt he had the skills to manage his insomnia, but there was still residual anxiety around the bad nights that he had been through in the past. I didn’t want this to hold him back. I offered him some free eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing sessions to help settle his old memories. I just wanted him to do well. He had a good response to the sessions. He later mentioned to me that his sister is a clinical psychologist and she told him she had never heard of another psychologist giving clients free sessions. I’m sure others do. But the point is I just wanted to do everything I could for him, without increasing the stress on him of having to pay even more money.
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 mother. She is uncompromising and blunt, but once I get over myself and go with her advice, she’s usually right!
Story: When I was at university, I wanted to pick up my grades. My mom said she’d review my essays. So, I’d give them to her and she’d hand them back with blunt feedback like “it doesn’t make sense”, “you’re waffling” etc. I’d get really upset, I’d complain, I’d say she was wrong, but eventually I realised once an essay passed her muster okay, I’d wind up getting a good grade. So, I stopped whining and took on her points. When I finished my post-graduate university education on an A average, my lecturers wrote me a reference saying my writing was the best they’d had from a student in 20 years. I put that down to my mom’s blunt feedback. Ironically, English isn’t my mom’s first language!
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 would simply define resilience is the ability to find a way to make it through the difficulties and trials life throws you, respond adaptively, learn from your experiences, & come out the other side stronger for them. The definition of “difficulty” or “trial” in life is indexed to you and your personal circumstance. Let me explain — I worked with elite special operations teams. These are “mentally tough” warriors. But they are in the field they are oriented to, doing what they’ve trained for. We look at them and think they are resilient because they are doing things we can’t. But their personal challenges often lie in different areas — in their home life, being fathers, adapting to things outside their control — like kids & partners. So that’s where their resilience is challenged. And often those are areas that other people find easy. So, resilience to me is quite subjective. It’s about how you respond to your personal areas of challenge.
The traits I see in resilience people are:
- Adaptability: some of the special operators were mentally tough and could grit their teeth and push through but that was almost their only skill. Eventually they hit life problems where pushing through wasn’t working. They needed to adapt. When they didn’t, the wheels would fall off. Being adaptable means being resourceful and doing whatever it takes to get through.
- Open-Mindedness: closed and fixed minded people become brittle and easily knocked off balance, triggered by events around them. Open minded people can remain flexible and draw on resources to help themselves through tough situations.
- Learning oriented/growth minded: I see part of resilience as being able to see your life as a journey toward developing yourself, who you are as a human being, and gaining wisdom. This requires a learning orientation and a willingness to see how your unpleasant experiences will grow you as a person and how you’ll come out the other side stronger or better for them.
- Discipline & determination: I work with people in clinical mental health. Those that show the most discipline and determination to develop the skills we work on are the ones that get the results. The same with the special operators & elite athletes I’ve worked with — they have the discipline and determination to keep going back into the tough things to come out stronger and get to where they want to go. Most of the SAS operators I worked with had failed selection at least once. They reported they were physically fitter the first time when they failed. They were more mentally determined when they eventually succeeded.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
I see courage as more active than resilience. Resilience is a quality you can show when things happen to you, or the outcome of how you respond to things that happen to you, but you don’t necessarily invite those events into your life. They happen to you.
Courage is the quality of inviting difficulty, pushing yourself into the tough stuff willingly or of your own volition, despite fear, and the unknown.
The relationship between courage and resilience is that to actively build resilience you will need to call on courage to push yourself into areas that are uncomfortable. Working through that discomfort build resilience.
When I was working with the New Zealand Men’s Olympic Endurance Cycling Team, we had a team value “run towards the fight”. That value embodied the idea of courage and was a recognition by the team that if they wanted to be the best, they had to willingly search out difficulty and discomfort and move towards it. In doing so they would increase their comfort with the uncomfortable and build resilience. They broke the world record in Tokyo but were beaten by the Italian team (the Italian’s broke the world record in an even faster time).
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My father comes to mind as someone whose life reflects resilience. He’s had a very difficult upbringing, and a fair share of personal struggles, yet he’s simply made the most of the cards life has dealt him. In response to adversity and challenges, my father has learnt, grown, changed, and adapted himself over the years and become someone who is almost unrecognizable from his younger self.
My father grew up in an orphanage, never having the opportunity to meet his parents. While he doesn’t talk much about life in the orphanage, the boys in the orphanage endured physical abuse, and were singled out and bullied by teachers at the local school. My father didn’t get a great education and he has always been somewhat vulnerable to stress, which is understandable given his circumstances and never having had the love and nurturing, or even mere reassuring presence of having parents that most of us are blessed with. Yet he never resorted to the path of drugs, alcohol, or self-destruction as many with easier lives have chosen. Instead, my dad leant on what he had. He was fit, so he chose health and fitness as his lifestyle, becoming a physical trainer in the Army, a black belt in karate (that was quite something back in the early 1970s) and the regimental boxing champ. My dad struggled with depression as a young man, and I remember him struggling with anger when I was young. Yet he’s shown remarkable adaptability during his life, using his faith to shift & refashion himself to a father & grandfather who is gentle, and softhearted. People that have met him in recent years often tell me they can’t picture him as a soldier, a pugilist or someone with a temper. He’s always said he’s never felt any bitterness toward his parents for abandoning him. Several years back he achieved his dream of gaining a divinity degree. It was hard for him with his educational background, and the stress bought up issues from his past. Yet he didn’t overreact. I recall he just told me matter of fact that he was working with a counsellor, and it would sort itself out. There was no sense of reluctance or wanting things to be different. He achieved his dream. He graduated with a Bachelor of Biblical Studies and works in the area of his passion, missionary work.
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?
Maybe not impossible, but certainly not allowed. I was serving in the Army and there was an unwritten rule back then in the military that organizational/military psychologists in my country weren’t allowed to qualify in clinical therapies. I was posted to special operations and, as the only psychologist there, I believed clinical skills would be important to have. Over the years, my attitude toward obstacles is that they are really just challenges to your creativity. Instead of being stressed by them, I challenge myself to think harder and more laterally to get around them. The image I have is from Bruce Lee (& Taoism), that of that of being like a stream flowing around a rock. I simply got creative. I found an education fund that the Psychology Branch had no influence over, to fund part of my qualification, used my leave and evenings to study, and eventually convinced psychology branch to use money towards my professional supervision to instead pay for the remaining course fees (as supervision was included in the course). After I qualified, policy/minds changed, and all my old colleagues have been allowed to gain clinical qualifications (to the benefit of service personnel!).
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?
I had landed a “dream” job as sports psychologist with the Blues, a Super Rugby franchise in New Zealand. Super Rugby is arguably the best rugby competition in the world, and the Blues were a once great team, but had fallen into 10+ years of underachievement. We had done the hard work engineering the team culture during the pre-season and the team was performing well for the first time in years when COVID hit (the team eventually went on to be runners up in the modified competition and champions the season). The competition halted and me and a number of coaches had our contracts cut. It was an income hit and a setback to where I thought I wanted to go with a career as a performance psychologist. But I took the time to reflect, I felt the team had gotten what it needed from my services and saw there were other coaches in more vulnerable financial positions. I called the CEO and told him the team was better off not to re-contract me when the season re-started and spend the money on re-hiring the other coaches & employees. I then used the time unemployed to set up my own business treating sleep disorders (a special interest of mine) and in around a year I’d replaced the lost income and quadrupled my income.
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?
While we often think resilience is an individual thing, research has moved way past that. It’s well recognized that resilience cannot be separated from its context. We aren’t islands. We are resilient owing to our communities, networks, family, resources etc. In terms of this principle, I’ve cultivated resilience throughout my life by being selective in the people I’ve allowed into my life. By only having good people with good values in my life, it’s made my life simpler and more allowed me to focus energy on what matters, not extraneous dramas.
I learnt the resilience value of having good people around me growing up when I made the choice in high school between two groups of friends. One group was the “cool” group I wanted to be in. The other group of friends were not so cool, but they were welcoming to me and a bunch of good guys. I of course wanted to be accepted by the “cool group” until one day I heard my “best friend” in the group trying to convince a girl I liked not to ask me out but to go out with him instead! I realized that “friends” like these were going to hold me back, drag me down or work against me. So, I reoriented to the other group and never hung out with the other group again. The other group never asked why I wasn’t hanging out with them. They never cared. In my new group of friends, I made lifelong friends that still support me, encourage me, and inspire me today — which is huge contribution to my resilience. I realized then that I needed to be careful about choosing the kinds of people I let into my life. If I chose to have people with poor value sets, or made poor choices, they would impact on me and disrupt my life. They would be like holes in my “life bucket”. I could pour lots into the top of the bucket, but it’d be a constant drain on the bucket if I didn’t plug the holes.
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.
- Audit your network: See my story above on the importance of who you let into your life. Are the people in your life contributing to, and encouraging your growth as a person, or are they holding you back? Are they draining your energy and personal resources? Cut away those that are holding you back and/or limit their influence if you can’t fully get away from them.
- Embrace your experience: Often times when difficult things happen, we want things to be different. We want the difficulty to go away. We try to escape and every time we escape or avoid, it makes the situation worse because we fail to learn that we can cope. I sometimes explain to clients, there’s a distinction between the pain of a situation and the suffering we experience. The pain is real, the suffering is what we do to ourselves getting emotional over the situation and struggling to make the situation “go away”. I’ve had 3 slipped discs in my lower back which have caused me chronic pain for over 20 years. I started with 1 slipped disc but trying to fix the pain led to 2x more slipped discs. Eventually, I just stopped trying to fix the pain. I embraced having the pain. I realized that I didn’t have to like having the back injury, but I needed to change my relationship to the pain. I could get on with my life and not let the pain dictate my life to me. I could just leave it alone and get on with more important things. As soon as I stopped trying to fix the pain, I noticed that the pain started to reduce. Today, my back is much better than it has been over the past 10 years.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: You’ve got to push yourself to do different if you want to develop and grow as a person and doing different inevitably means some discomfort. When you learn, life changes. When I joined the Army, I was the oldest officer recruit (30yrs) and I was strong, but unfit. I had done very little running in 10 years. My lack of fitness made initial officer training a painful experience. I didn’t ever want to be exposed like that again. After commissioning I realized I had a choice: remain unfit and be a poor role model as a leader or go through the pain of getting fit. I was a terrible runner. When I ran my my muscles would scream at me to stop. There was a hill near my accommodation, and I just decided I’d get up at 5:30am in the dark before anyone else was up and run up the hill. I told myself I’d turn around when I was tired or it was too hard, but the day after I’d have to go at least one step further than the day before. In that way, I’d gradually get used to the pain. Initially it was tough. I really was unaccustomed to running. I literally did start out just running one or two steps further up the hill than the day before. But eventually I got used to the discomfort. I came to love running, hill running especially and within 6months I’d run a marathon. I never stopped running. It’s become a huge part of looking after myself, my physical and mental health.
- Find the personal meaning in your difficult experiences: Life is going to throw trials and tribulations at you. That is part of the human condition. We will all experience pain and suffering. We may not have control over what happens to us but finding meaning in our experiences is something we do have control over. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist that lived through the Nazi death camps talked of the importance of finding meaning in your experience. He saw this as the difference between those that survived the concentration camps and those that lost hope and died. I’ve found this principle important when working with those suffering burnout. I was working with an executive who was struggling in his workplace. He felt he wasn’t “resilient” enough to cope. But eventually, he came to see that his workplace was toxic. His anxiety was natural in such an environment. We focused on what he would learn, what meaning he would take from his experience. He connected his experience to recognizing how important having supportive people around him was. This experience had strengthened him and connected him back to this important theme in his life. He came to see that this experience could make him wiser and more careful about choosing the right place to work in future. He embedded his learning into a job hunt and eventually, after turning down offers that didn’t “feel right”, took on an offer with a new company. When I followed him up, he was doing well and said he felt like a different person. He had connected his struggle to something important to him, then used the learning to move forward.
- Work On Cognitive Flexibility: Initially I used to think of resilience as a “mental toughness” thing. You had to be strong etc. But I eventually came to see flexibility and adaptability as the key quality in resilience. This makes sense, it is, after all the principle that evolution and survival is based on. For myself, working on flexibility has required a shift of mindset. I spent years in the military being frustrated by the bureaucracy and reactivity of the organization. Eventually I realized that my mindset was tripping me up. I was trying to force things to be the way I wanted them. Trying to exert control to make things suit me. This made me mentally rigid and when things didn’t go my way, I was knocked off emotional balance, getting upset etc. I realized if I shifted my mindset to expecting bureaucracy, reactivity, non-sensical decision making then I wouldn’t be affected by these things. As I did that, I noticed that my orientation toward problems changed. I was now far more flexible and ready to adapt and go with the flow as things went crazy around me. I remember thinking that I was really starting to get this nailed when I was working in special operations, and I got a phone call one day at 11:50am saying “are you ready to present with the deputy director to the regiment?”. I had no idea what the presentation was on nor what they were talking about — no one had told me. It turned out the presentation to the entire regiment was in 10 minutes and the deputy director was not very comfortable with the topic and wanted me to front the presentation that I’d never seen. My mindset around being flexible enabled me to see the situation as just something to be dealt with and that it’d be a funny story in the future. I dropped what I was doing, reviewed the presentation and delivered it and got back to what I was doing.
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. 🙂
Free access to evidenced-based mental health treatments.
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 🙂
Warren Buffet. Simply because he’s lived an interesting life, and at his age has seen a lot and has a lot of wisdom.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!