Walk towards what scares you. I was terrified of heights so I learned to skydive. I was even more terrified of drowning. So I took up scuba. Nothing beats unreasonable fear faster than walking into the mouth of the monster that scares you.
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 Julia Hubbel
Julia Hubbel is a prize-winning author and journalist who explores the world via adventure travel. She loves to push boundaries and in the process, rewrite what it means to age vibrantly. She is an athlete, disabled veteran and dedicated “wilder” who inspires others to leave the comforts of hearth and home to explore this extraordinary world and themselves in the process.
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 grew up a Florida farm girl in the 60s and early seventies. While farm chores were important in building my physical strength, my big brother was a predator and my father was an alcoholic.
It’s a complicated story, but I had two moms, one of whom was Black. The experience of growing up with those two families shaped my lifelong commitment to diversity.
I left home at 16 to make my own way through high school, then found jobs to keep me afloat until I joined the Army in 1971.While the Army was an extraordinary experience to help me mature and grow as well as earn my college degree, there was a dark side. I was gangraped at 23, sexually assaulted by a doctor at Walter Reed and then raped repeatedly by the Army psychiatrist, a senior officer, to whom I was assigned for counseling for the assaults. Subsequently I developed severe anorexia and bulimia, which I battled for nearly forty years.
I had to file a medical bankruptcy in my forties due to my health issues and ultimately lost all my natural teeth to the eating disorder. Yet along the way I worked in Fortune 100 companies both as an employee and an entrepreneur, won prizes for my work in diversity, and continued soldiering on until I finally healed my eating disorder. After that I was finally able to launch myself into what I do now: my first love, adventure travel, as an athlete, which I kicked off at the ripe old age of sixty. As many do with sexual assault in their backgrounds, I dealt with smoking (five packs a day until I quit cold turkey at 19), a shopping addiction,, hoarding issues, and other OCDs that I’ve healed on my own over the course of my life. I am in the 1% of people who were obese, dropped 85 lbs and has kept it off for now 35 years. That’s one reason I write about fitness and health after fifty: I am doing it every day.
I never married or had kids, which I would attribute largely to the sexual assaults. However I’ve created “family” all over the world, which has fed my need to be of service and to engage with people of all cultures and stripes. I also massage very large animals from horses to camels to elephants. I feel safer scrubbing the butt of a big ellie (elephant) than I do dating, which at this age is a bit (or a butt) of a joke.
Perhaps my greatest muscle, and this is in addition to nearly fifty years of bodybuilding and weight work to maintain strength, is my sense of humor. I am my biggest target, which allows others to laugh both at and with me. That skill teaches the art of seeing the absurd in what otherwise might kill us off. Some of the things which have happened to me on my adventure trips are unimaginable to others. Those would include breaking my back in Kazakhstan, for example, having been thrown from a horse at the gallop; smashing my pelvis among other bones going tush over teakettle down concrete stairs in Iceland, both of which are among my funniest stories, and finding ways to end up in extremis where no sane person would choose to go.
That I can laugh into the teeth of the winds that threaten to blow me over is precisely what gives me my greatest strength. For someone who has had twenty-two concussions (that’s not a typo) I know something about getting back up and continuing. I might wobble, a lot, but I keep going.
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?
Oh my goodness. With my career, that would be a challenge indeed. Let me give you a rundown of a trip I took to Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania in 2015. Among the things that happened on that same trip:
1.I rafted the Class V rapids on the Nile in Jinja, Uganda. I got multiple concussions and several broken ribs on that rafting trip. Imagine an industrial strength washing machine trying to kill you off and a massive raft hitting you hard on the head and body. Yep. Lots of fun.
2. Shortly after that I went horseback riding with an outfit in Uganda. An acacia branch wiped me off my horse and I got another concussion when my head hit the hard clay. I got up, fell down again, and got back on my horse, and galloped to catch back up. (and yes, I wear helmets for all my sports)
3. A few days later, with all those injuries which I had taped up with Rocktape, I took a seven-day camel riding trip from Arusha to Lake Natrone. Along the way (I was the only client, I traveled with four Maasai men and a Meru man), the Rocktape ripped open three big holes in my right side because of the constant bouncing on the back of the camel. We were days from the closest local clinic, and my med kit was in my luggage in Arusha. Raymond, the cook, had a tiny bar of pink hotel soap. I had my wits.
Every night Raymond would build a fire, heat water while I set up a table and created a tiny “privacy fence.” I’d wash the wound, dry it off, and we would continue the next day. We had no bandages. The wounds healed, they never festered. I credit much of the healing to the fact that my small group laughed so much. I had gotten into the habit of starting water fights after dinner. We saved a lot of water because I didn’t shower every night- I had wipes for that. We shared our water with the Maasai herders, for whom that kind of clean water was like fine wine. We had so much that at day’s end, I could start a water fight around Raymond’s cook fire. The five of us chased each other with water bottles until we were weak with laugher.
Laughter heals. Didn’t matter how much my head, ribs and those holes in my skin hurt. Fun and funny trump pain any day. At the end of the trip, they dropped me off at Lake Natrone for a night’s stay. When the Jeep that picked me up passed the men as they were taking the long trip back to Arusha, I leapt out of the Jeep to say thank you and good journey. Babu, the old man (he was my age) with whom I had the most laughs came over-ostensibly- to hug me. We faced each other in all seriousness, looking hard into each other’s eyes. He grasped my forearm with one hand and I grasped his arm. Then he grinned that lovely impish grin and with his other hand, which was behind his back, he upended an entire huge bottle of water on my head. That was priceless.
Here’s what I learned:
- I am as clumsy as a dyslexic camel. I will injure. A lot. Better learn to laugh with it.
- Laughter heals. Panic kills. To that, I have lost my main parachute twice, and almost drowned/got eaten by bull sharks during a dive in the Sardine Run off the coast of South Africa. I. Don’t. Panic. I have complete and utter faith in my cool head in extreme emergencies, and above all, the wits to see what’s funny. Al,o you want me around when others panic. Nothing calms folks down faster than a cool head giving crisp instructions (thank you, the Army)
- Releasing your stress with laughter clears away the mental clutter for pure creativity and problem-solving. You can’t think if you’re drinking the poison of panic. Laughing into the hurricane tends to rewire your notion of what you can and can’t do. Sure did for me.
- I am less afraid of taking chances as a result. The more I risk, the more I find I can risk, for I keep learning to trust my intuition, my mental competence, as well as my body’s strength. However, this translates to emotional challenges as well. My willingness to take on big physical challenges has paid off a thousand times over in how I deal with work, with people, with life. That doesn’t say I have no fear, not at all. However, given the importance of measured risk-taking, when I fear something, that often is my first indication that that is a burning building that I need to enter.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am one of very few women my vintage who can do what I do, offer top-notch, Fortune 100 consulting, training, speaking and sales skills and who has solid adventure travel chops from all over the world, most of it after sixty. And I am extremely personally responsible, which means when I make a mistake, I own it.
Today that is increasingly rare. Here’s what that looks like:
In late August of 2021, I returned to Ol Pejeta, Kenya, to be embedded for a week in a three-week conservation immersion program. As it turned out, one of the other clients was one of the worst-prepared, most poorly behaved I have ever seen on such a trip. I was stuck in the same Land Rover with her for seven days, and was at the end of my rope. She was in all ways the perfect example of the Client from Hell, and garnered very unflattering nicknames from the guides. When I left, I penned a story which talked about some of what she did. While I didn’t name or describe her, or even name the facility, she saw the story and reported it to m ypotential client. He asked me to remove it, which I did immediately. I apologized to him and for the trouble. Then all hell broke loose. The ensuing mess that this person caused swept many people up in wholly unnecessary drama, and threatened to hurt folks who had no part in it. I continued to argue that if there was an issue, it needed to be with me, and that I was responsible, nobody else. My client watched the hullabaloo, my response to the situation, and thanked me for my calm response and for taking immediate responsibility.
By the time I got home I had an invitation from him to connect on Facebook and Linked In and we are already talking about what we need to do for next year. If the young woman in question intended to waylay my career she made a poor decision about how to go about it.
Here’s the teaching point: we will make mistakes. I should have either waited to publish or wait until my irritation wore off. But I didn’t. My willingness to take immediate and full responsibility was in stark contrast to everyone else’s overreaction. My client knows it won’t happen again. Mistakes are among the best opportunities to secure client trust. It’s not that we make a mistake. It’s how we handle them.
None of us is 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?
Back in 1983, I had just been laid off my then-Martin Marietta Aerospace. I was in search of a Great New Adventure. Then I read Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, who journeyed across 1700 miles of the Outback with four camels and a dog. That did it for me. That was the same year I discovered the poem Courage, below, by Amelia Earhart. Those two brave women’s examples opened up brand new doors for me. If they could do that, so can I, I thought. And did. I threw myself into a four-year adventure hitching across New Zealand, Australia and Fiji, all alone, at 30. I was gone four years, learned to fly ultralights, took up scuba diving for the Great Barrier Reef and redefined who I could be.
Before I left on the trip, I was seeking advice on how to pack. That led me to meet the inimitable Meg Hansson, creator of the Gerry Pack, lifelong athlete. She became my mentor for 33 years. She taught me what it was like to age well, actively and bravely. The day she died, I was riding a fast, half-crazy black stallion at breakneck speed across the sand dunes in Hurgadah, Egypt. She would have been proud. She’s still an inspiration, and a photo of her sits on my desk just to the left of this computer screen as I write.
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?
For me, in the context of how I live, resilience speaks first to a commitment to prepare well for life. That means functional fitness, good food, a constant curiosity and willingness to be wrong, and staying open, soft and curious. I will fail. I expect it. I will fall down. It’s inevitable. What defines resilience for me is how I fall, how fast I get up and how swiftly I choose to learn the available lessons from that failure. Then, the best part, how fast I can turn that into comedy fodder. I fall like a microwaved Gumby doll, which is why I walked away unscathed from a terrible car wreck that sent me airborne and onto the oncoming traffic lane. The car was pancaked. I pushed out the window, climbed out and went looking for my Daytimer. Because, cops. When the trooper took notes from me after the ER visit, we were in stitches. Me literally; he was laughing. Not only did I not get a ticket (it was a kidney stone) but he wanted to know how to follow me on Facebook.
The willingness to first, acknowledge a fear, or acknowledge a frailty is part of courage. My social media advisor said this the other day: ”We need to meet ourselves in the dark.” That’s superbly said. As Pogo, in the comic strip said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” There is nothing so terrifying as the demons in our basements. It takes courage to head into that basement with your best Mag lite and shine that sucker into your demon’s eyes. Remember, unnamed, unfaced demons always get stronger. The ones we face melt like the Wicked Witch of the West doused with water. But we don’t learn this by cowering in fear upstairs. We gotta head to the basement.
This is the very essence of the book IT by Stephen King. The real monsters in that book are the parents and families of the kids. When the kids joined to face Pennywise with collective strength and refused to feed him with their fear, he was done. That is the perfect metaphor.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
This is a bit of a semantics play, here, but if I may: It takes courage to build resilience. Resilience is the gift life gives us for being courageous. And here I will quote from another historical figure whose life inspires me as well.
From Amelia Earhart:
Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.
When we face our fears, we build resilience. Failure isn’t an option, it’s a guarantee. Without the faceplants of failure, which gives me my best humor material, not only will I lack experience but I will also lack empathy and compassion for other’s failures. In essence, the gift of failing is precisely what feeds our humanity, our soul. From these experiences we learn of our limitations, our frailties.
When we are conversant with our frailties we are armed with our next steps: we can choose to strengthen where we are weak, or chose to crawl back to the couch and watch Game of Thrones reruns for the umpteenth time.
The courage poem and another quote both have lived in my Daytimer since 1985. That other quote, from the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore is this:
“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but
for the heart to conquer it.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Barring the famous people whom I admire such as Serena Williams and Nelson Mandela, these are the lesser-known but just as powerful in my life:
- My beloved friend and business partner Dr. Rosenna Bakari, incest survivor, trauma expert, transformational coach, fellow athlete at 59 and friend extraordinaire. What she went through as a child catapulted her into a life of service. I am honored to be her friend.
- Beryl Markham, a firebrand of an early Kenyan colonial, Africa’s first female bush pilot, an expert horse woman, beautiful and brilliant, the first person to fly from Europe to North American INTO the prevailing winds. Markham is my muse. She was universally feted and reviled, reviled for her beauty, her lovers and her out loud lifestyle, and for beating the arrogant Kenyan horseman at their own game with far lesser horses. She was magnificent. And she took a beating for being beautiful while she did all that.
Finally, I find inspiration in the stories my commenters share with me and in the people I meet all over the world. From a Syrian refugee, a firefighter who now works at a private hospital in Cappadoccio, Turkey to the 73-year-old weaver who recently wrote me that she was finally committing to an exercise program and it was transforming her life, I see inspiration and examples everywhere. And this is where I really want to emphasize the difference between an influencer and an Influencer:
In my world, you elevate others’ stories. Sure, I have some pretty good ones to tell, but my readers love the fact that I take their comments, their good news, their stories to make my points. That not only makes them feel like heroes, but it also telegraphs to my audience that everyday people can transform their lives at any point. When we stop trying to center ourselves all the time and instead highlight others’ stories, we influence in a wholly different way. That also takes courage to not only share the spotlight but be willing to acknowledge that others’ stories are just as interesting if not more so than our own.
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?
- I severed my Achille’s tendon at 18. I was a five-pack-a-day smoker. My mother’s doctor, Willy Steele, told me when he removed the cast that I would always walk with a limp and I couldn’t quit (he was a chimney himself). The next day I went to my local middle school and ran the track. I coughed, vomited, and screamed in pain the whole way. I went back the next day and the next. Long story short: I quit smoking. Never limped.
- In 2011, I injured my knee in a crossfit class. My Veteran’s Administration surgeon told me after all the PT, and a surgery that I “should be happy with an 80% knee.” Eighteen months later I stood atop Kilimanjaro. Within seven months I had climbed Macchu Picchu and the Everest Base Camp. I sent him photos with the caption: “This is what 80% looks like.”
- Back in the early aughts, my fireman/EMT roommate bet me $100 I couldn’t do fifty pushups. No. I can’t. I can do 100. I do 100 men’s pushups every other day. Easiest hundred bucks I ever won.
- My father repeatedly called me a “loser.” I ended up writing two prize-winning books, and starting an adventure travel business at sixty. At sixty, at which age my father didn’t have the strength to change a tire. He didn’t think I had what it took to make it in life. I became a top speaker at conferences all over the country, and have done business with 21 of the Fortune 100. That’s a loser all right.
People are forever informing me what I can’t do because I am (weak, female, old, decrepit, fill in the blank). Haters and doubters are my breakfast of champions.
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?
First, THIS: I challenge the pervasive lie that adventure travel is solely for the young (and rich enough to afford it)
THIS: I challenge, by the very life I lead, the pervasive lie that “I’m too old.”
These lies rob us of our birthright to age vibrantly. But I have plenty of roadblocks.
The setback is a systemic, ubiquitous, ageist and gender roadblock: as an older woman,
YOU DON’T BELONG HERE. YOU DON’T HAVE THE CHOPS. YOU CAN’T KEEP UP.
The pushback is unbelievable. If I thought making it in the Army was hard, well.
My first order of business was to ignore the message, train like a banshee and do the adventures anyway. I learned the skills, got very comfortable outdoors in any conditions, and built an impressive resume. You can’t argue with facts. You can’t argue with performance. You can’t argue with results. I kept up, I paddled harder, rode better and had more endurance than even my guides on some trips on steep hills, dense jungle and high terrain.
Last year I visited Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Central Kenya and was back again this year. There were two specific incidents which absolutely secured the respect not only of the guides but also of the potential client. I went out with the anti-poaching unit, which moves fast and through heavy brush. I never faltered once, and kept up despite the long hours, the pace and heat. When given the fastest horse in the stable, I loosed that fine animal to a dead run, and my guide watched us sail effortlessly over a wide clay road. That made my reputation. That and the fact that I strode fearlessly into a corral full of milling cattle to help move them towards an anti-tick spraying shed.
People often expect, and in fact set me up to fail. Because in the adventure travel world, having an old woman succeed or even do better than some of the guys is for some, simply unacceptable
This year I went back I went back to Ol Pejeta with the anti-poaching unit. At 68, I not only kept up at a run behind a training puppy, but also that afternoon I matched a professional poaching team member stride for stride for more than an hour while a girl a third my age fell far behind and spent all her time complaining loudly. The unit was utterly gobsmacked when they found out my age.
By gaining the respect of the outfitters, and the undying regard of the guides, I have created business opportunities. I beat back resistance, ignorance and ageism by simply doing the work. I’ve done it all my life. My clients want solid, competent skills sets in areas of consulting, writing and speaking. I’ve had to develop more advanced physical abilities, gear knowledge and outdoor competence. As a result, even after Covid shut down a lot of operators, clients ask me to work with them to tell their stories by doing their adventures. Because I can deliver.
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?
I have mentioned a few things which shaped my life. Dad’s alcoholism, incest visited on me by my big brother. I had to find ways to cope, which were in part hard work, excellence at school, and a willingness to learn how to manage my life so that when I left home during my junior year at high school, I could manage myself.
Working on the farm taught me to find new ways to get work done when my current height or strength weren’t enough. Dad taught me to ride, and when my horse threw me, I got back on. Learning to care for big animals taught me not only to love them but also the incredible responsibility we have to them, not just the ones we raise. I learned how to deal with injuries, which are inevitable with farm life, the uneven and unsafe household of my youth, and how to manage my life on my own. Those things launched me into the Army, and five years of active duty launched me into the rest of my life, for better or for worse.
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.
- Walk towards what scares you. I was terrified of heights so I learned to skydive. I was even more terrified of drowning. So I took up scuba. Nothing beats unreasonable fear faster than walking into the mouth of the monster that scares you.
- Listen to your self-talk. The moment you argue that I’m too old or I couldn’t do that, is when you might want to consider doing just that. To that, I took up, at 68, aerial silks training. Of course I suck at it. You’re supposed to. That’s how you learn NOT to suck at it.
- Pick one thing that frightens you and take it on. You can do this in baby steps. I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and simply started ramping up my workouts day by day, month by month, until my conditioning was off the charts. I had no idea what I could do until I began.
- Do the work. Whether it’s fitness or becoming a writer or learning how to ballroom dance, just do the work. Every day, do something. I had a huge dream to sell my home in Colorado and move to the Pacific Northwest. It took three years, hundreds of projects, untold physical labor, a lot of money and determination. Yet here I sit gazing out at the firs right outside my window. Do NOT seek hacks and shortcuts for those rob you of critical knowledge, experience and the sacred work of failure. Without failure you learn nothing.
- Find your funny. What is brittle, breaks. When we laugh at our foibles, we can turn those moments into our life’s best comedy moments. And in doing so we gain mastery only over our fear but we learn to release the awful, life-killing self-importance that undermines our willingness to risk. If you can’t deal with making a fool of yourself, then stay in bed with Game of Thrones. You’re safe there. I tried learning how to inline skate at 61. Not only was I utterly awful at it, I hurt my butt pretty badly on the concrete. I lay there laughing not only at myself but the awful pain. After several more tries, I realized that the sport was just not for me, thanked my trainer and donated the skates. It’s good to find out what you can’t do, and in doing that, I ended up with some of my best guffaws.
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 would love to spark this movement:
I’m NEVER too old for this shit!
There are plenty of super-geezers like Diana Nyad. Great for her. I’m not talking about those who are aging and who already had a stellar career. I am interested in moving more of us older folks off the couch, and out into the wilds, even if the wilds simply means the local park. Old age and fear and a lack of good habits are killing us off right when we have the most to give back. I want my readers to realize how much personal power they have in determining their quality of life very late in life. The science backs me up. Older folks need to stop listening to ageist stereotypes. They also need to find health providers who support aging vibrantly through better food, more movement and engaging with friends. If I listened to all those folks who said I’d get killed doing what is now pretty easy for me, I’d likely be crippled and obese from hiding inside.
Travel, real travel wherein we immerse ourselves in the culture, is the world’s greatest teacher. You learn about animals, lives, climate change, language, culture, religion. It teaches tolerance and grace, and the ability to appreciate other’s sacred spaces. No other activity teaches so much in so little time. When we travel with a commitment to learn, we transform ourselves. That changes how we think, how we vote, how we spend money and on what, and where we might leave a legacy. Not a small thing, travel.
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 🙂
Ashton Applewhite, whose boundless enthusiasm about rewriting the ageing story is a delight to behold. Or, Dr. Carl Safina, who already knows how much I love his work, and whose books continue to guide my irrepressible love of the outdoors and all that is in it. We just haven’t made it to lunch yet. He’s in New York and I’m in Oregon. But we exchange emails, and his Safina Center gets half of everything I have left after I kick the bucket.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me at www.walkaboutsaga.com, and Medium.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!