Not everybody who struggles with resilience has the luxury to simply eddy out. Many who need to the most can least afford it. To eddy out need not be a months-long process of self-examination; it can be an evening off when you focus on restoring your resilience so you can then return to serve others.
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 Stephen Legault.
Stephen Legault is an author, photographer, conservation activist and communications consultant who lives in Canmore, Alberta. For more than 30-years Stephen has been leading conservation campaigns across Canada, and for nearly as long has been burning out as a result. His fifteenth book, Taking a Break from Saving the World — A Conservation Activists Journey from Burnout to Balance was published by RMB in 2020.
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 was born on the island of Montreal but raised in Northern Ontario by a swarm of blackflies. That’s the Canadian version of the Jungle Book story and may explain why I grew up to be such a pest. That childhood in the northern woods, and later my search for a refuge in a remnant woodlot of Southern Ontario just west of Toronto, led me to a “career” in conservation. It’s hard to call something that pays poorly and intermittently a career; really, it’s been a passion.
It was in those remnant woods that I first picked up a camera, and later a notepad and pencil. Writing and photography have been my refuge during difficult times throughout my life and have allowed me to travel and explore mountain ranges and deserts, canyons, and wild rivers, along with remote and exotic places such as India and northern Africa. All of this has brought me to the Bow Valley of Alberta, where I’ve raised two boys, and made my home with my wife, Jenn.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’ you learned from that?
I don’t know if it qualifies as interesting, but losing my job with a prominent conservation organization was the auspicious for the book Taking a Break from Saving the World: A Conservation Activists Journey from Burnout to Balance. I won’t go into the gory details — they are in the past — but the takeaway was the start of an understanding of my motivation for doing the work that I do.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company (Highwatermark Strategy and Communications) is a small two-person consultancy. If it stands out at all it’s because I share the work with my wife Jenn, who is brilliant and the hardest working person I know. If anything that I contribute stands out at all, it may be around the intersection of my 30-years of work with the non-profit sector, managing teams and executing campaigns, and the progressive political work I am doing more and more of. For the longest time, I labored on the outside of politics, trying to convince decision-makers to save endangered species or protect fragile ecosystems, but without the power that comes from participating in the political process. Part of what I do now is manage political campaigns, and in doing so am learning more in a five-week “writ” period than I might in a five-year public interest campaign.
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?
There are about a hundred people who I could point to and say, they contributed to my “success.” How many of them would want me pointing to them is a harder question to address. In the late 1990’s I was helping to lead the campaign to pass Canada’s first endangered species act. I was working at arm’s length with Defenders of Wildlife’s Canadian start-up at the time, and through my friends in Washington got a chance to meet Brock Evans. Brock is a legend in the North American conservation community, and he spent time with me, and others, helping us build our campaign, and offering us guidance on everything from government relations to policy. Brock’s famous axiom “Endless pressure, endlessly applied” graces the bulletin boards of many activists’ offices, as it does mine. That was more than twenty years ago. I’ve been able to spend time in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks with Brockie while hosting him for leadership events, and to this day consider him a mentor and friend.
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 think of resilience as the ability to bend, but not break. This is a very old concept, first written down by Tao Tzu in the Tao te Ching. I studied many translations of that book for my own first book Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership. Lao Tzu said, “that which does not bend, breaks.”
It’s more than that, of course. Resilience is the ability to withstand the tumult of challenges that we face today and not lose our footing, at least not entirely. Many of us suffer from stress, depression, and burnout from time to time. Today, the myriad factors that test our resolve are greater than ever before — from COVID to climate change, from racial inequality to economic uncertainty.
There are both internal and external characteristics of resilience, and they vary from one person to the next. The external characteristics can include humility, humor, patience, kindness, and courage. These are outwards manifestations of an internal foundation based on restraint, love, and compassion.
Together these qualities of resilience will not prevent us from encountering burn-out, but they can armor us against the worst of its impacts.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
There can be no courage without humility, restraint, and love; therefore, courage is both a characteristic of resilience and a means by which we can weather the storm that seeks to undermine our bell-being.
Courage, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for bravery, or worse, bravado. The relationship between courage and resilience is less like the sort of aptitude needed to battle against what threatens to tear us down, and more like the daring required to embrace what challenges us and what we hold dear.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Just one? Then it would have to be the Buddha. I can think of hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of people today struggling to create a better world — faces in the crowd of protesters demanding social and environmental justice — each of whom must be grappling with their own resilience, or lack thereof.
Each of us, however, might learn from the young prince who become Gautama Buddha, who left the comfort of his father’s palace and set out into the world to try and understand the roots of human suffering. For years the young man wandered ancient India in search of a teacher who would help him reconcile the pain and despair he had seen in the world, with the dignity and boundlessness of human life. In doing so he became disillusioned, and on several occasions fasted to the point where death was close at hand. Then, while meditating beneath the Bodhi tree he achieved the ultimate insight into the cause and path to conquering human suffering and becoming the first enlightened being.
The noble eightfold path that the Buddha discovered has become a powerful means by which we might prepare ourselves to be resilient in the world. This armor is not worn on the outside of our bodies, but rather within our hearts and minds. It is adorned through meditation and the recognition that while there is suffering in the world all around us, which may create great suffering within, that we can withstand these wounds if we remain centred in the fundamental goodness and fleeting nature of humankind.
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?
Are we not supposed to do that? I guess I’ll have to adjust my parenting strategy going forward. I don’t remember anybody ever saying this to me. I’ve said it to myself many times, however. Sometimes I was correct, and others I was simply too fearful of failure to try.
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?
It remains to be seen if I have bounced back “stronger” but stepping out of the formal and professional conservation sector to focus on politics, writing, photography and consulting (I wonder if that can really be called focusing?) have been a step to the side. My departure wasn’t entirely voluntary, but it did provide some time to consider how best to serve my personal mission, which is to help make the world a better place, in particular through the conservation of nature.
In Taking a Break from Saving the World I employ the metaphor of canoeing a white-water river, and how from time to time as we’re taking on water and struggling to paddle big rapids, it’s important to find a quiet reach of the river where you can “eddy out.” Paddlers know this is key to their success; they can rest a while, and even step out of the boat to scout challenging stretches of white-water downriver.
When we eddy out of a job, a career, or a volunteer position, even if it’s just for a few days of rest before heading back into the fray, we might use that time to strengthen our resilience. While for me Eddying Out meant taking several months to ground myself after a difficult experience fighting to save the wild, it need not be a permanent change. 50% of the folks working in the not-for-profit sector don’t even take their full vacation time! We need time away to maintain clarity on what we are trying to, and how we are trying to do it.
For me, the best way to do that is through time outside, in nature, wherever we might find it. Being in nature can help restore perspective, an essential element of resilience. When we see ourselves as a part of the whole of nature, we might regain humility and remember that no matter how important we believe ourselves to be, we’re still just a small — but important — parts of the whole of nature.
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?
The rediscovery of the importance of nature would likely be the most significant experience from my childhood that helped me build resilience. There are as many ways to build and practice resilience as there are people on the planet; it’s not a one size fits all practice. For me, however, it always comes back to nature. As a teenager in the suburbs outside of Toronto, Ontario, I didn’t realize how much I missed my proximity to nature until I found myself one afternoon standing in a forested right-of-way — spared for the time being for a future highway — and measuring barely a kilometer square. I wasn’t doing very well in high school, and my family was enduring a major upheaval in the form of divorce; to say I was the antithesis of resilient at that moment would be an understatement. But there I was, in the woods, not all that far from home, and that re-discovery become a touchstone for the rest of my life. Whenever I have needed to recharge my resilience, I’ve turned to nature and have never been let down.
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.
To maintain my resilience, I may not offer a story for each of the five steps.
- Resilience is something that must constantly be built upon, so the five steps might be more like a spiral or one of those weird staircases in an MC Esther print. The first step would be prevention. To strengthen our resolution means to be constantly practicing physical, mental, and emotional maintenance. I like to run, ski, lift weights, and practice Tai Chi. I meditate most mornings. I know that when I’m away from my family and friends for too long, I suffer. Not seeing people during the pandemic has been hard on many of us who need that proximity to others to shore us up. Because everybody is different, you likely have your own things that you know contribute to your resilience, but sometimes it’s hard to stick to them without someone else to hold you accountable.
- That would be my second step in resilience, which is to form a team, or at the very least, a duo. In business, this might be thought of as a co-coaching arrangement, where we spend time together — online or in-person — to set resilience goals and help hold each other accountable. For many years I worked with a formal coach, but as our friendship grew it become a reciprocal undertaking, where we would ask one another the hard questions, and not let one another gas-light their way into self-delusion. Discussion or support groups can be effective too, so long as they are not just co-workers. Sometimes it’s really hard to talk about difficult things like resilience and burnout with people you supervise, or that you need to depend on for confidentiality.
- Even with a preventative practice, and despite having a coach or mentor in your corner, from time to time we’re going to need to eddy out. When paddling a big river, we look for a place where the water curls in behind a rock, or on the inside bend of the watercourse. Here the water miraculously moves upstream! We point the nose of our boat so it “cuts the eddy fence” and after a few swift paddle strokes, we can sit still while just feet away the river courses by. The parallel of this in our work and volunteer lives is plain: we need to find a quiet place for a few days, a few weeks or sometimes a few months where we can rest, scout the river downstream, and re-charge our resilience levels.
- How we spend our time in the backwater eddy is the fourth step. I wrote a book. Some people go back to school, or take a course, seek the help of a professional counsellor, travel to a far-away land, or take up gardening. Whatever you might do while in the eddy, one of the most important lessons is to treat yourself with kindness. Whatever rough water forced you into the eddy doesn’t matter now; you’re safe. Not everybody who struggles with resilience has the luxury to simply eddy out. Many who need to the most can least afford it. To eddy out need not be a months-long process of self-examination; it can be an evening off when you focus on restoring your resilience so you can then return to serve others.
- The fifth step is to eddy back in. Some may choose a very different path going forward, and others may feel as if their resilience levels have been restored — the muscles strengthened — and that they can peel out of the eddy, back into big water. Here we come full circle to the first step, prevention, and maintenance, so you can avoid burnout and stay on the river, paddling at your own individual pace.
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. 🙂
That’s easy. Fight climate change. Full stop. End of story.
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 🙂
The Dalai Lama. It would be fun to have tea with him. He is the living incarnation of the Buddha. I have some questions for him.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The usual: Facebook (are we calling it Meta? I really hope not…), Twitter and Instagram, though the latter two I’m horrifically inconsistent in maintaining my social media presence. If folks want to follow me into the woods or mountains, I’m cool with that too.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!