Clarify a Purpose. I think this is one of the most common and repeated pieces of advice that you hear from leaders across a broad spectrum of disciplines. And the reason is simple: when you have clarity of purpose, the struggles you are facing have meaning and the effort you are putting out becomes worth it. And, research has shown that those who are more clear on their purpose manage overwhelming demands better.
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 Dave Jennings.
Dave Jennings is the #1 Wall Street Best Selling Author of “The Pit of Success: How Leaders Adapt Succeed, and Repeat” and President of Learnable Solutions (www.learnablesolutions.com ). He has consulted with start ups, a Shark Tank winner, and many Fortune 500s (e.g., Salesforce, Microsoft, and Intel) to be better at leading and thriving through change. His PhD research is in change resilience.
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 have always been fascinated with how people perform at top levels, and I am particularly interested in how leaders step up from one level of leadership to another and continue to succeed.
I began this journey studying resilience and peak performance in my PhD program with the focus on how people move forward and upward after facing difficult demands rather than how do they merely bounce back to where they were.
I have spent the last 20 years applying these principles in Fortune 500s (e.g., Salesforce, Microsoft, and Intel) as well as start-ups to make change easier and people more resilient. Last year, my co-author, Amy Leishman, and I completed “The Pit of Success: How Leader Adapt Succeed and Repeat” to bring together ideas to make leaders better at stepping up and leading through change.
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?
For me, it is a painful story, but the truth is I was fired from Microsoft after only 3 days on the job as a consultant. I was brought in to support a large project with another consulting firm, but I was not at my best yet and after the first program Microsoft told me they would not be needing me anymore.
I was in the first year of starting my consulting firm and it was devastating — emotionally and financially. My wife and I had four children and I wondered how we would make it in the short and long term. It seemed like I had had lost my big chance to get my business really going.
We plodded along the next year and then out of the blue I got a call about doing some Leading Change work at Microsoft. I worked with the first group of leaders, and it was a big success. The following year they asked me to design a Change and Transition program that we launched around the globe in 15 countries. I went from not good enough and unwanted to a key player.
My key learning was that no moment defines me. Although it is normal to hurt and be disappointed when we don’t succeed, that moment of low performance, pain, and doubt is not who we are. I had to admit that I was not good at something at the moment, but it was not who I would be in the long term. While I did not want to be fired, I learned a ton from the mistakes I made on that consulting project — learning I still use to this day.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We understand what is going on in the life of a leader — often better than they do. We know that leaders are not in their jobs because they have all the answers. Leaders are in their job to find answers. Leaders are normal people with big challenges to solve. We have worked with so many different types of leaders that we are able to provide a mindset and an array of tangible tools to help them get the results they need.
We recently worked with the president of a medical firm who had defined the new direction of the company with some of her team. She provided the direction to a broader set of leaders, but it was too broad for leaders to fully embrace and act on. In her case, she had a great vision, but she needed a way to reframe and narrow so others could see what she was seeing. We provided her a path to frame what she knew and get alignment. She was able to take the great work she already done, enlist the help of the leaders to create a shared direction, and then gain buy-in with leaders across the country for the new direction and strategy. She knew what needed to be done. She just needed a process to make it actionable for others.
I really believe that our understanding of leaders’ lives and that fact we give leaders the mindset, frameworks, and skills to achieve better results makes us stand out.
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?
When I quit my job at Hewlett-Packard, a consultant, Rebecca Perry — who I used to hire to do work for us at Hewlett-Packard, called me and said she had a project coming up at a different company and that she would like me to be a part of it. She also said she would pay me half the fee — which is a very generous amount. So, there I was having just left an excellent job with a Fortune 20 company and with no clients, no income, and no immediate prospects for any work and she volunteers to give up her money to help me get started. The generosity blew my mind. She did not need me on that project. She was purely doing it as a support to me and my family. I am still touched by it to this day and have found various ways to play it forward.
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?
My definition of resilience is “the ability to be better from demand.” It is not just about bouncing back. It is about moving forward and upward.
You see, right now you and I are at some level of expertise where we can do certain things with ease. However, when you are asked to do things beyond your experience, you are likely to experience stress, doubts, and fears. The most common and logical response to these new demands is to try to get back to where you were and rely only on what you already know. However, if you simply return to the same set of skills that you have now, the demands you are experiencing will be wasted. You will have the experience, but you are unchanged by them. We need to selfishly get the most benefit from our struggles. To me this is what resilience is all about.
To move forward and be better, I believe you need to embrace what I call “The Pit of Success.” A pit lies before every new capability you want to gain. The pit is dark, lonely, and confusing. When you are in the pit you cannot rely only on familiar patterns. Yet, if you are willing to be temporarily incompetent and embrace that pit, you can learn whatever you need to solve the demands in front of you.
This process of doing things beyond your experience makes you more and more resilient. Each demand, every set back, and each detour is your ally that can be used to your advantage. Even if you did not want the experience, you can still leverage it. This mindset gives you the freedom to take charge of all the ambiguity and become more resilient.
In terms of characteristics, there are many factors that help people be resilient and some people will have more of one characteristic than another. You don’t need all the characteristics to be resilient but having more is definitely a benefit.
I think the most important thing is to know that these characteristics are learnable. You are not stuck because of your DNA.
Let me suggest a key idea and five characteristics as a starting point. The key idea is that when you discover (or accept) that you are “enough” you automatically have a new level of resilience. When you realize that in spite of your imperfections, limitations, and doubts that you are enough to figure out your next pit of success, you have power and more resilience. You do not have to be the best or the smartest. You are enough to do what is next, even if it’s a very small step. That idea is freedom, confidence, and peace.
Then to support that idea, I believe “knowing you can learn” is one of the best characteristics you could have. If you really believe that you have the capacity to learn, you are more willing to do the things needed to succeed. Next, I think that people who are able to “find a purpose” for going through a challenge have an advantage because their struggles have meaning. They have an answer to “Why?”
And the next characteristic would be a “willingness to practice.” Resilient people know that abilities take effort, and they are willing to pay the price. Not knowing how to do something is not a weakness. It is just a reminder that you have not been here before and have not practiced this skill. Then, I think the “humility to ask for help” is a common factor for people who are able to do hard things. They do not have to do it all themselves.
And last, the ability to be “gentle on yourself” is a characteristic that makes challenges easier to navigate. Resilient people are willing to work hard, practice, and make mistakes, but they avoid self-criticism. They know that they will figure it out. They just need a little time to learn, and being kind makes the journey easier and faster.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is the ability to do something in spite of the fact that it frightens you. So yes, to be resilient we have to be willing to do things that scare us and that requires courage.
However, I believe resilience is a process, and courage is a step in the process. The resilience process means letting go of something familiar, being lost and confused, practicing new skills, and developing new capabilities. The initial letting go and doing unfamiliar things does require courage. Then, as you go through the resilience process, your courage increases because you become more capable, and you are now ready to take on bigger demands with new courage and skills.
Yet, courage without embracing learning and practice will not make you resilient. You could courageously do things that do not make you better. So, while courage is an important step, it is not enough to make you resilient. You need to practice and learn.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Actually, every person I meet is an example of resilience. I mean that in the most sincerest way. Each one of us has a history of overcoming so many challenges — challenges that are often not seen by others. I am always amazed at people’s innate ability to be resilient — neighbors, friends, family, and coworkers. You never have to look far for a great example of resilience.
So, if I had to choose one example of a resilient person, I would have to choose my daughter.
When she was 14, she had to start using a wheelchair. This started a stream of issues including not able to always go to school, friends withdrawing from her, and lots of loneliness and depression. One day as she was alone in her room, she said to herself, “I can be miserable my whole life, or I can move on. I choose to move on.” She continued to have the pain, physical challenges, and emotional burdens, but she decided to move forward with them.
So why did I choose her? Because she made a conscious decision about how to live. She made a choice to live beyond the pain. She reminds me I have a choice in all circumstances.
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?
To be honest, I have never seen things as impossible and if someone told me it was, I would not believe them. Things may be very very hard and maybe not worth it, but, in general my mindset says there is a way. I can credit this mindset to my mother. She was a schoolteacher and she always conveyed that I should try and do things that I don’t know how to do. She was always trying hobbies and adventures she did not know how to do. And now, beyond the wisdom of my mother, I have done all this research on resilience and how the brain can rewire, and I am even more convinced of my own and everyone else’s ability to do “impossible” things.
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 find it interesting that for me that the examples that come to mind are job related. Jobs affect so many things in life — family, confidence, financial security, and ego. I think the example I discussed earlier at Microsoft was hard because it meant my family as well as my ego were at risk.
Another example is when I got out of a grad school, I could not get a job. My degree and what I wanted to do did not exactly match and for a year I sent out applications practically every week. In most cases, the companies would not even send me a rejection letter. It was demoralizing. It got to the point that I dreaded even sending out applications because I just felt like the answer would be “no.”
Way into the year I decided I needed a new approach. I searched out a career coach and he gave me the cold hard truth. The type of companies that I was applying to would never hire me with my level of experience — in spite of my education. He told me my first job would have to be anywhere doing something similar to what I wanted to do. I needed to stop expecting to start at the big companies. That was painful because my dream was to work at a Fortune 500, yet the facts were that I did not qualify. I refocused my search and got hired by a local firm that gave the some of the best experiences I could have imagined. I am still benefiting from my time at that job. Two jobs later I landed a Fortune 500 position.
This experience taught me a lot about the need for steps in getting to where I want to go. It is OK to have to learn; I can get to my destination over time. Today’s difficulty does not tell me where I will be tomorrow.
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 I had the typical struggles of growing up, I was fortunate that I personally never had a setback that would make a great story. But I think what I really learned about being resilient in my youth was from my watching my father’s approach to work.
My father grew up during the Great Depression. Because of this, he never wanted to be poor and worked three jobs at the same time most of my life. He worked a regular job five days a week at the nuclear test site; he then worked his second job on evenings and Saturdays; and worked a third job on Sunday.
This may sound awful to have a father who was gone a lot, but here is what I learned about resilience: my father never complained. It was just work to him. There was no sense of dread. It just needed to be done. I learned that work is not the enemy, and that work pays off (We went to Disneyland every year, some camping and sports, and I had piano and ski lessons, etc.). So, if things are tough and I have to work longer, it doesn’t mean things are bad. I can be happy and resilient in spite of lots of work.
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.
My answer to “What are the 5 steps” parallels the characteristics we talked about earlier.
First and foremost, Step 1 is Accept Your Amazing Learnable Brain. People often want to discount who they are and say, “I am too old (or too young).” “I could never do that.” “I don’t have a talent for that.” Or, “That is just not who I am.” These mindsets lead us to avoiding taking action and keep us where we are. When you do not believe you can learn, you will tend to blame others, condemn yourself, quit early, and assume helplessness.
Yet, when you fully accept and appreciate how capable your brain is to rewire and learn, you gain the confidence to practice and move toward your goal. Although the space here will not allow me to go into all the research, study after study has shown that you and I have a brain that throughout our lives (even until you are 100) will adapt and change with focus and practice.
So, most whatever you need can be learned. When you accept that you have an awesome brain and that you can change and learn, you have a whole new level of power. What you need really is learnable, and the more you accept that the more resilient you become.
Step 2 is Clarify a Purpose. I think this is one of the most common and repeated pieces of advice that you hear from leaders across a broad spectrum of disciplines. And the reason is simple: when you have clarity of purpose, the struggles you are facing have meaning and the effort you are putting out becomes worth it. And, research has shown that those who are more clear on their purpose manage overwhelming demands better.
Purpose can be found in many different places. Everything from the quest to find a cure for cancer, wanting to be the first person to graduate from college in your family, or wanting to prove to yourself you can do this can give you the energy you need to face the demands. Taking time to write out your purpose gives you strength. And, the key is finding a purpose that works for you, not one that sounds good to others.
Step 3: Redefine the “Betweenness.” When we are “between” our current expertise and our future expertise, we can experience many doubts. In this space, when you can no longer rely on your past skills and you are not yet good at a new skill you need, it is easy to become self-critical.
Yet, when you remove your judgments about what it means to be lost, confused, or slower (in other words “between”), you gain freedom to be where you are and learn faster. Rather than judging yourself and saying, “I am supposed to be better,” you can focus on “This is where I am now, and this is where I should be.” This mindset helps you to stop wasting time on self-criticism and instead allows you to become gentle on yourself and do what matters most. You are not forever lost or incapable, you are just between.
Step 4: Conquer the Next Building Block. It is tempting to see all that needs to be done (or learned) and say, “There is no way I can do it all.” Yet, every big project and every skill consists of building blocks. The research has shown if you narrow to smaller building blocks and take them on one at a time, you will learn faster and accomplish more than if you try to do many things at once.
To apply this, you can ask yourself (or others), “What are the 4–5 building blocks I need to learn?” and “Which one is the next one I need to focus on?” After practicing the first building block and achieving the needed proficiency, focus on the next block. This focus does not mean that you ignore everything that needs to be done. It just means that some things you accept that you will do at a lower level while you focus on the next building block.
Sometimes you may even need to take a building block and break it down into smaller building blocks. You will learn faster when you focus on one building block than when you try to do it all. And given that you have a learnable brain, you know it is always possible for you to learn the next building block.
Step 5: Say “Yes” to Help. Our culture often teaches us to be tough, show no weakness, and never let your guard down. While this may be great advice for a fist fight, it is terrible advice for how a leader should live day to day. I have never met a leader that could not use some help, but I have met leaders who fear vulnerability so much that they do not get the help and support they need to solve problems.
No one in a growing job has everything they need to solve the broad range of challenges. It is impossible. Asking others for help shortens your learning curve, lightens your load, and reduces the loneliness of a tough situation. It can also increase innovation and creativity. To be more resilient, let others in.
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. 🙂
So many good possibilities. But, If I could start a movement, it would be related to our conversation today. I would want people to know that what they need is learnable. I would want them to know that without a doubt that they have a brain that can face a pit of success, rewire, learn, and conquer the challenges in front of them. If we helped children, parents, scientists, doctors, politicians, students, and leaders to know that they have the ability to do things beyond their experience, they could solve the many other causes that need to be championed because they would jump in, do hard things, and change the world without wondering whether or not they are enough.
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 🙂
Wow, there are many amazing people. But I would like to interview Prince Harry (Duke of Sussex) and Meghan Markle because they voluntarily gave up one lifestyle for a new one. They had to let go of a world they knew for a world full of unknowns. Their fame does not prevent them from the challenges of feeling lost and being full of doubts. They have done something that is very hard. It would be interesting to learn how they have jumped into the pit of success and navigated the “betweenness.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can follow me on Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/davejenningsleadership
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!