Do one thing every day that scares you. This can honestly be something as simple as starting up a conversation with someone in the checkout line instead of looking at your phone.
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 Elliott Michael Smith.
Elliott Smith is the CEO of The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Before founding The Ohana, Elliott was an entertainment industry executive, producing more than a dozen major motion pictures.
Elliott has struggled with substance abuse since the age of 17. The pressure and culture of the entertainment industry made it very challenging for Eliott to attain sobriety. After various attempts, Elliott finally achieved long-term recovery with the help of an intensive outpatient program. He opened The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center in 2020 to help others struggling with substance abuse achieve recovery.
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?
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?
I remember working on a small film set as a production assistant. I was an intern, which meant I was not getting paid. I knew somehow I was in the right place, and I loved the energy and potential of what was around me. I knew if I worked just a little bit harder than the next guy, I would stand out and hopefully make some connections. I could and should have quit and gone to work at Starbucks or a place that would pay me, but I knew if I could find the strength to push through and find a way to eat while working for free, it would pay off. Close to the end of the shoot, I was approached by a “consulting” producer they had brought in to help get the production back on track. It turns out that this producer was a titan in the industry. He helped set up my career and success with the many films that I produced. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that I learned that if I was adaptable and worked hard, it would help me achieve my goals even if there was no immediate payoff in sight. Sometimes it’s hard to see the effects of your hard work initially, but you have to believe in yourself and keep going anyway.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center is a very unique company. Our location on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most remote places in the United States. However, the location is ideal for mental, physical, and spiritual healing. I had recovered from active addiction myself in a similar setting. I understand very well how the right environment is integral to recovery.
For many years, I had dreamed of helping others recover from addiction. When COVID shut down all film production, it gave me the time I needed to open the business. So, in 2020, I founded The Ohana at the height of the pandemic.
Besides our setting, one of the other really important things that set us apart is our staff at The Ohana. It’s their experience, strength and hope that really is the lifeblood of the organization. Along with my history and work experience, this helps set a culture to serve the population of people who we work with — executives, working professionals, and artists all struggling with the disease of addiction.
Our clients also differentiate us from other rehabs. We had one person who was a famous musician in our care. He came into our care in a really destitute position with no hope of ever quitting what he was using. We were able to help him realize that drugs and alcohol were affecting his life in a hugely negative way, explore what was driving his use, and give him tools to stay clean and sober. He’s back on tour and doing well, and many people have no idea what he went through. It’s pretty unique and interesting what happens behind closed doors, and The Ohana is grateful to serve people in that way.
I enjoy waking up in the morning knowing that we provide hope and freedom to those suffering from addiction.
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?
I have received so much help along the way, and I am truly blessed. For many, it could be looked at as being at the right place at the right time, but for myself, I like to think it’s my higher power doing for me what I could never do for myself. One of my early mentors, Graham Kaye, a former talent agent at William Morris Endeavor, helped set me on the right path and taught me to put people over profits. He showed me that when you put people and their well-being in mind first, profit, success and everything will follow. He also showed me the value of networking and building relationships. He, among many others, really set me on the right path on my entrepreneurial journey.
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?
Resilience to me is never giving up. Even when you have lost everything, it’s about having the drive and will to rebuild. It requires a positive outlook and optimism in the face of despair. It also requires discipline and working harder than everyone else, being the first one in and the last to leave.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
The biggest misconception about resilient people is that they don’t fear failure, the unknown or a repeat of the bad things that have happened in the past. My experience has shown me that resilient people are very aware of those things. They also hold self-awareness about their own limitations and weak points without falling into despair over them. Other traits include empathy, self-control, optimism, stillness and acceptance.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
The two can definitely intersect. Courage means that you’re willing to do something while afraid. It doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid! I think this is what courage and resilience have in common. People who exercise resilience and courage are so commendable precisely because they know the stakes at hand. They choose to move forward with a perfect understanding of just how risky or difficult something will be. Courage isn’t confidence. You wouldn’t need courage if you knew you could succeed at the task at hand. Ultimately, what resilience and courage have in common is a willingness to move forward even though failure and pain are possible. Resilient people almost always have courage. However, the big difference between resilience and courage is that resilience usually implies that you are “bouncing back” from something that not everyone would be able to come back from. This gives it an almost supernatural, spiritual dimension.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
If I were to think of a really well-known public figure who has a lot of resilience, I would point to Robert Downey Jr. That guy has been to hell and has come out strong on top. From having some of the worst childhood experiences and experiencing trauma to being incarcerated, he turned his life around and has become one of the biggest superstars in the world. I would definitely say I idolize him — not because he’s a star but because he lost everything and turned it all around for the better. I think that’s what recovery is all about, and it helped me on my own recovery journey.
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?
Yes, my mother instilled this in me when I was young, and I think it was intentional. It was her way of helping me overcome challenges. It created a great deal of stubbornness in me and a will to beat that narrative, as well as a drive to be successful. I remember when I produced a film called “Cut Throat City” starring Ethan Hawke. I was so excited about what I had done and told my Mom. When I shared with her all the stars in the film and the budget level (the biggest budget I had raised in my career), she was very disinterested and had an attitude that it could have been bigger and better. While this definitely had its downside in that it led to a constant obsession to do more to win her approval, it also encouraged me to continue working hard. I wouldn’t change anything about that because, without that doubt, I would have never made it to where I am today. But, like anything, I learned that balance is the key. I constantly remind myself that I am right where I need to be.
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?
Yes, I have had many. One story that comes to mind is when I was 23. I worked for a successful company and worked my way up into a partnership position. I was so young but so ambitious and was too smart for my own good. At the time, I had over 100 employees under my supervision. The owner of the company sadly passed away and had left me in charge of the company. The company was already struggling financially partly because the owner was not doing well physically before his passing. Due to my youth and lack of experience taking over the whole operation, the company went under. I remember being so devastated. I felt so responsible. I had poured every dollar I had into the company, trying to save it. I ended up not being able to even pay rent and was homeless shortly after. I had nowhere to turn and just kept reminding myself to pull myself up by my bootstraps and forge ahead. I could have sunk further into a dark place if I didn’t find the will to keep going. After a few years, I had rebuilt everything I had lost. It gave me newfound confidence and served as a reminder that there is always hope, no matter how bad things get.
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?
Being raised by a single mother with no extended family taught me strong survival skills and self-reliance. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood, and I watched my mother work two jobs. She had an uncanny drive and the ability to constantly pull out on top. I remember thinking she was a junkyard dog with the chops to do what needed to be done to keep us going. It instilled an attitude of resilience in me with no other alternative.
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.
1. Do one thing every day that scares you. This can honestly be something as simple as starting up a conversation with someone in the checkout line instead of looking at your phone.
2. Get a support system. Resilient people have this unique ability to be comfortable with leaning on people. This is one of the keys to building a successful, meaningful life in everything from love to business. If you want to lose weight to be healthier, find a person at the gym who can keep you accountable.
3. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Resilient people have a tremendous knack for acceptance. The opposite may be one of the things holding so many people back from achieving resilience. The easiest way to build a mindset of acceptance is to simply jot down every feeling of resistance building up in you. Having a little log of how often resistance keeps you in a stagnated mindset instead of moving forward is such an eye-opening exercise for people.
4. Be flexible in your thinking. Resilient people can bounce back because they know how to stretch beyond what’s comfortable. Rigid thinkers have a tough time with resilience because they often have tunnel vision on a single path being the key to success. As a result, they miss opportunities by ignoring anything that fits within their rigid roadmap. A really easy way to start to chip away at this is to jot down a list of “conditions for being happy” you’ve placed on your life. It can also be helpful to remind yourself of times in your life that cause you to look back in gratitude about the fact that you didn’t get what you thought you wanted!
5. Use some mindfulness techniques. While you don’t need to be a great meditation expert to be a resilient person, I have noticed that many people with incredible resilience practice mindfulness. The easiest way is to download a meditation app that allows you to start with 10, 15 or 20 minutes of mindfulness and meditation every day. There’s a lot of freedom to begin working this into your life.
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. 🙂
Being resilient carries a great deal of responsibility. Having the trait carries a duty to help others, lead them, and guide people that are struggling or have weaknesses. Resilience will inspire through your actions, and others will witness that. It also requires serving others and using this positive trait not only for your benefit but ultimately the benefit of uplifting others. I like to think that having resilience is a superpower, and it can either be used to be a hero or a villain. At the end of my life, I hope to look back and see that I did everything I could to help others and the gift of resilience gave me that opportunity.
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’m going to bring it back full circle and point to Robert Downey Jr. again. On the off chance he reads this, I would love to meet him to pick his brain about his resilience and the humility he is able to maintain. He’s a true man of resolve, in my opinion, and a figure I look up to!
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