Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you could not fail?
I asked myself that question in 2008 when I was feeling like my life was in a tailspin. I had been having some trouble falling asleep (and taking Ambien…) and waking up feeling tired, alone and anxious. The days had begun to look and feel very much the same — that is, except for the weekends when I would be engrossed in kids activities and had a few precious hours to swim at the YMCA or read in the hot tub. More often than I can remember, I woke up in the morning and started my day feeling dread. I didn’t know what had caused it exactly, I just knew it would kill me sooner or later if I didn’t find a way out. It just kept repeating daily — like some kind of sinister “Groundhog Day”.
The trend reached its crescendo one Saturday in October when I pulled off the side of the road near our home in New Jersey. I asked my wife Randi to take the wheel. She rapidly, albeit nervously, switched seats with me and followed my driving instructions. Before she knew it, we were pulling into the local hospital parking lot.
My next recollection is having feeling numbness in my fingers, the alternating combination of cold sweat and hot flashes, and electrodes pasted to my chest. I was being wheeled into the emergency room and nurses were talking about a possible heart attack. Randi stood at my bedside with a look of fright I had never seen before — not even during the births of our children. My thoughts went to believing that I would not ever see my family again. I thought to myself, “Our four amazing and beautiful kids will grow up without their dad.” I was angry at myself — and terrified at the same time.
The drama reached its climax when a young doctor entered the scene and declared “You’re not having a heart attack, Mr. Markel”. At that point, tears of relief rained down from Randi and I like the fountain show at the Bellagio. The doctor emphatically stated that the pressures and lack of balance he detected from my 60-70 hour work week as an attorney, inadequate exercise and rest, as well as the poor diet and caffeine I was consuming all conspired to produce my presence in the emergency room. It was not cardiac arrest — but an anxiety attack. Oddly enough, and perhaps symbolic, an anxiety attack feels the same — except without the clogged arteries and threat of imminent death.
I walked out of the hospital that day thanking god for what I have come to call my “reprieve” — the second chance I got that day to look at my life, my habits, my health, my dreams of the future — and make a conscious choice about what I wanted to do next. Would I go back to business and life as usual and make just a few tweaks, knowing that I could survive such an event? Or would I “pivot” into a new mindset for how I wanted to experience myself living my life?
I chose the latter even though I frankly didn’t know what that meant at the time. I asked myself the question “what would I do if I knew I could not fail” and new answers starting showing up. I started following a different kind of guidance system and began navigating some small yet meaningful changes in both my beliefs and behaviors. Those seemingly insignificant changes in the way I saw myself and my potential created greater clarity and ultimately allowed me to act differently as well.
In the years since that low water mark — or “pivot point” as I now refer to it — I have changed both my “physical” and “mental” diet considerably. Among the things I learned — and continue to learn — is the importance of “resilience”. Resilience is something I define as our ability to bounce back even stronger from setbacks. What doesn’t take us out truly does make us stronger, as Niche said long ago. But there’s more to it than just being stronger. There’s the growth that comes from our ability to cultivate resilience and utilize the changes that often come with challenge.
I look at the process of resilience as one of the most important life tools you can cultivate. It can produce alchemy (turning lead into gold) if you want it to — and often does — whether you seek that result or not. In fact, there have been many articles and reports published showing the importance and impact of resilience. Among these is a Harvard Business Review report showing the importance of resilience and recovery rituals when it comes to higher performance in both champion athletes and corporate executives. https://hbr.org/2001/01/the-making-of-a-corporate-athlete.
Over the years I have used a simple 3-part process for dealing with life’s challenges and ailments to develop more resilience. It goes like this:
Step 1. Frame up!
This means looking at any situation with an eye toward its benefit in your life. That can be hard to do at times, especially when there are a lot of emotions tied up in the event. To see things through a slightly different lens, I use a specific question that my wife taught me: I ask myself “What is the creative opportunity here, now, in this?” Almost instantly I’m presented with new perspectives on the challenge at hand.
Step 2. Learn the lesson!
I always remind myself that everything I have created in my life is there to serve a higher purpose — whether for myself or my family or for others that can be helped by what I have learned. I believe that until we take responsibility and “own” our part in any situation, we cannot gain the invaluable insight and wisdom that is our right — and responsibility — to possess.
Step 3. Recover quickly!
Resilience is something we choose to make a habit — or we leave it to chance. Taking care of bodies, our minds, and our spiritual selves is vital to quickening our recovery from setback. Some examples of the “recovery rituals” I use are: Taking a twenty minute walk each day, getting a massage regularly, meditating for 10 minutes at the start of each day, writing in a gratitude journal before bed, making a green drink or smoothie for breakfast, reading a new book, going to the gym or out to the movies on Friday nights. Whatever you choose doesn’t have to be a long process — it could be just a few minutes of sitting alone quietly and feeling present. Yet, it is essential in the process of developing resilience. There’s no hierarchy when it comes to these rituals. And, there’s nothing religious about calling them “rituals”. I use that term because it signifies simple actions with special importance that we CONSCIOUSLY practice on a REGULAR basis for a length of time until they become UNCONSCIOUS HABITS that add value to our lives.
Recovery rituals have allowed me to move very far from the day I thought my life was ending in the emergency room. Now, the first thoughts in my head and words out of my mouth when I wake up to greet the day are “I love my life!” — and I actually mean it.