Acknowledge that resilience is a choice, and it’s up to you to find it. We’re friends, so I’ll be honest — it used to enrage me when someone I knew in the past used to compare me to another person and say, but you’re so resilient, she’s not like you. Nonsense. Everyone can find inner strength if they look hard enough, no matter how tempting it can be to label yourself as “just not built that way”. But if that sounds harsh, on the flip side — I promise you, if you look, you will find it, it’s there.
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 Jen Hogan.
Jen Hogan started her career in the UK, and has lived across Asia, but now calls the mountains of North Carolina home. After a 20+ year career experiencing the rollercoaster of life as a corporate executive, she is now an executive coach, specializing in leadership development and career coaching. Nothing makes her happier than seeing her clients grow the confidence to reach their full potential, safe in the knowledge that, in her, they always have someone on their side.
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?
If I gave you the full story, I fear your readers might desert this article. As I get older, it seems to take longer and longer… So I’ll the condensed version: born in the UK, first grown-up job in management accountancy for frozen peas, then became expert in why not to eat chocolate ice cream: moved to Investor Relations, where I learned working out what someone HASN’T said is normally more important than what they HAVE said, and that, sure, you can prepare your story, but if you haven’t prepared the answers to the questions, you may as well go home; accidentally got a job in Bangkok, then moved to Shanghai and lived on a street with a Louis Vuitton store and a wet market with live fish; back to the UK for a year; went to the US on a six-week contract, 11 years later I’m still here.
During that time, as well as Finance and Investor Relations, I’ve worked in corporate jobs in Strategy, Marketing and Loyalty, across big name consumer goods brands like Dove, Axe and Sharpie, and even Delta Air Lines. And now I have two careers working for my own businesses: as a fractional Chief Strategy Officer, and as an executive and leadership coach.
Now you can see why I gave you the short version!
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 was working on a VERY stressful event for our biggest investors and analysts, and, at the grand old age of 28, trying to wrangle a particularly headstrong executive team of men close to retirement. It was like herding ageing tigers rather than cats; every day there felt like there was a new crisis to manage or person to very politely remind that, yes, you have a $60bn business to run, but can you please send me the presentation you promised me last week?!
One day was particularly hard — I can’t even remember why now — and, having had a little cry in a toilet cubicle, I took myself to the coffee bar for a breath of fresh air and a restorative cappuccino. The very lovely lady behind the counter was on the phone to a supplier, pulling at her hair as she talked, and getting louder and more upset sounding as the conversation went on, because they had forgotten the day’s delivery of scones and she was having to disappoint her customers. This was in London, where an afternoon cake is vital to get you through the day.
What I realized in that moment is this. There is no escaping the stresses and pressures of life. They will come to you, whether you’re dealing with executive egos or scone deliveries: our problems swell and adjust to fit the space available. So the way to a happy life isn’t to run away from the situations that we think are too much for us. It’s to learn to manage our responses to them.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my company stand out is… me! That’s much easier to say when you’re a solopreneur, because I AM the company. But it’s true of all of us, there is really no such thing as a company, it’s just the individuals within it. What most companies can do is very easily replicable. How they do it is not. When I first talk to my career coaching clients, they often want to focus on what their “hard skills” are, and of course that’s very important. But my number one piece of advice to them is, I have always hired people for who they are, as much as what they can do; and very few people when preparing for a career spend as much time explaining their own unique essence as they do their communication skills, ability to manage a project, leadership experience….
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 sister. I will talk a lot more about her later, but she was a huge influence on my life for many reasons, but especially because she was never scared to tell me things as they were. I am much harder on myself than I am on anyone else, and she once told me to take my own advice and stop putting impossible standards on myself and do my best instead. That stuck with me because I didn’t even know that I was doing it. How often is it the case that we need an outsider to hold a mirror up to our own face? It made me think differently and now I have her voice in my head all the time, especially when things aren’t going my way.
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?
Resilience is failing, or struggling, reflecting, then shrugging off the disappointment of the past and choosing to try again. It’s not shrugging off the lesson: doing the same thing over and over and hoping things will get better. And it’s not finding yourself in a position with no escape, where all you can do is keep ploughing on.
Resilient people see life as full of opportunity, you just have to find the right key that fits the lock. They associate failing at a task only with the task, not as a judgment on them as people. And failure as a stepping stone on the road to success, not necessarily as an outcome in its own right. Resilient people know that you have a choice — you can be deterred when life doesn’t go your way. Or you can look at a situation and say, it is what it is. How am I going to take this and make it work — or even win from it?
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
I think that their biggest similarity is one of the things that, in my experience at least, many people misunderstand. Resilience and courage aren’t abilities that you have, or don’t have; they’re both qualities that you can grow and develop. I have often heard people say: I wish I could be more resilient. It’s true that you don’t know what your baseline tendency is until there’s a situation that calls for either. But that doesn’t mean that that’s what you’re stuck with. Just the raw material you have to start from.
In my definition, the difference is that resilience is a conscious choice, it’s an option that you can choose. But courage is something you have to find because the circumstances demand it.
I guess the way I would summarize it is this. A resilient person has tough times and tries again, goes back and does it differently. A brave person is thrust into something and keeps moving forward.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My sister. I said I’d come back to her.
My sister, Caro, died of bowel cancer in March of this year at the age of 40. She showed a fierce courage towards the end of her life that will humble me for the rest of my life. The way that she unblinkingly stared the reality of her own death in the face is something I will never forget, and it was a strange kind of tragic privilege to behold.
But her resilience throughout her diagnosis and treatment was just as awe-inspiring. She received more body blows and knock backs than any person should have to. But her resilience almost had a physical manifestation. I would see her receive bad news, dip down into her reserves, and then pull back her shoulders and stick her jaw out and decide what she was going to do next.
She adored fashion, and having an ostomy meant that she couldn’t wear a lot of the clothes that she loved. So, she changed up her wardrobe. Her life insurance paid up when she was terminally ill. It’s a devastating way to come into money, and she was too sick to spend it or appreciate it. So, she wrote a will that gave an inheritance to all her friends.
I found out after she died that in writing a blog about her experiences, she had been contacted by other cancer patients and she had been a support to them. If being so resilient that you use it to help other people who need it isn’t a great example, then what is?
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?
Honestly? The person who has most told me that things were impossible was… me. I’m such a… let’s be diplomatic and say… “headstrong” person, that, without really intending to, I seem to have convinced some people that I can make anything possible. If only that were true!
What nobody else sees are the battles you have in your own head about what you can and can’t do. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been learning to more objectively assess, is something “impossible” because I’ve decided it is, and I can no longer distinguish that opinion from fact? Or because it’s actually impossible? But that thought process works whether or not the doubter is you or the people around you.
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?
A few years ago, I went through a series of personal and professional problems that seemed to happen all at once — losses of loved ones, family illness, and what seemed like incessantly hard times at work, including tearing apart a team that I had built. I ended up leaving my job… which in itself caused me more heartache because my work had been such a big part of who I was and now I had lost my identity as well! I took an online test and came back as “moderately depressed”. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to know what “majorly depressed” felt like.
The factors in the situation were individually, and collectively, tough, and I could have chalked up the whole thing as: just too much all at once, a horrible time unlikely ever to be repeated. A younger me would have done exactly that. But I wanted to learn from the experience, not to mention make sure that it never happened again.
I poured myself into understanding psychology and neurology. As I reflected, I came to the realization that I was very good at mentally bulldozing my way through problems, but not in questioning why I saw them as problems in the first place. Like most high-achieving people, I wanted things my way, and I was determined, and therefore very good indeed, at making that happen. So, when faced with such an unprecedented series of things that were the absolute opposite of what I wanted, I didn’t know what to do.
I also accepted what I had occasionally suspected, and can be really hard to judge for yourself, as someone who has only ever lived in their own head. My brain was a teeny, tiny bit off. Its chemicals weren’t quite right (whatever “right” might be) and no amount of “pulling myself together” or “being grateful for what I have” was going to solve that.
What I learnt was how to reframe life as something that happens, not something that “happens to” me. To not judge things as good or bad, they just… are. To be in a position where I am responsible for, and able to exercise, my own personal values, not one where I feel like I am acting against my own beliefs. And to take the medication that I needed to make my brain work properly!
It sounds strange to be grateful for a huge setback, but it set the course for the rest of my life since. Without it, the lessons I learnt and the perspective it gave me, I would not be doing the job I’m doing, which gives me the lifestyle that I have always wanted. And, more importantly, I would not have got through the terminal illness and eventual death of my (inspirational and incredibly resilient) sister that I have already talked about.
I don’t believe that life only sends you what you can handle; rather, I believe that if you are willing to find the lessons in the events it puts in your path, you will at least be better equipped to deal with anything worse that comes your way. Because, trust me, there is no such thing as “unprecedented but never to be repeated.” There is always something you can learn and apply.
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?
Like so many qualities, resilience is something much easier to learn when you have examples in front of you. And I was raised by, and grew up surrounded by tough, resilient women. One of our closest family friends lost her husband at the age of 31, a month before their second child was born. She raised their two girls on her own, but without ever asking for a dispensation from life. Her example taught me that life happens, deal with it.
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.
- Acknowledge that resilience is a choice, and it’s up to you to find it. We’re friends, so I’ll be honest — it used to enrage me when someone I knew in the past used to compare me to another person and say, but you’re so resilient, she’s not like you. Nonsense. Everyone can find inner strength if they look hard enough, no matter how tempting it can be to label yourself as “just not built that way”. But if that sounds harsh, on the flip side — I promise you, if you look, you will find it, it’s there.
- Dispense with the language that events “happen to” you. Say instead — they happened. It’s a tiny change, but it’s the difference between being at the mercy of life, or acknowledging that life isn’t a plan that is targeted at you. You’re just a participant.
- Meet life where it is — not where you think it should be. Stop thinking “should” I have been perpetually guilty in the past of letting my exasperation that life is what it is, and not what I think it ought to be, overwhelm me. So many well-meaning people have told me that the loss of my sister is “wrong” or “cruel” or “unfair”. I know what they mean, but those are all judgments based on an ideal that hasn’t played out, and a futile resistance to reality. I prefer to think instead that it’s desperately sad — which is true, but doesn’t mean that I think it “should” be any other way.
- Know what’s in it for you to face a situation with resilience. Why do any of us do anything? For the reward at the end of it. When faced with the choice — get up and try again, or just give up and walk away, visualize both outcomes. What will it feel like if you try and it goes well? What will it feel like if you don’t bother — but know that you could have done? Which feeling would you rather have?
- Find your inner Caro — and learn how to summon her the instant you need her. I’m sure everyone has had situations in life where they know what they need to do in theory; they just can’t quite do it in the moment, they can’t grasp that gossamer thread that will get them there. Who is the most resilient person you know? What would they say or do? Whatever your equivalent of shoulders back/jaw up is… try it when you need it. You will be AMAZED.
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. 🙂
Advocate for yourself and your own health. I lost my sister to cancer; it was nobody’s fault. But her illness would have been better managed if the healthcare profession had taken her and her concerns more seriously. Don’t be shamed into being quiet, feeling that you’re making a fuss about nothing, or being demanding by expecting the care that you deserve. I will spend the rest of my life spreading this message, and who knows, maybe it will save some lives.
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 🙂
Can I be a huge cliché and say Michelle Obama? I read her autobiography “Becoming” and felt like I knew her so well that we were friends. She has always inspired me by the genuine connection she makes with human beings — I, for one, was in no way offended by her hugging the Queen — and for her grace under impossible expectation and judgment. I used to repeat her — when they go low, we go high to my team all the time. Michelle, I will buy breakfast and I promise not to ask any questions about… thingy… him… your husband? I forget his name now.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thanks for the plug? I have been featured in Forbes, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, UpJourney and The Story Exchange and my website is here
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!