Preparation is Key
How long can you hold your breath underwater? David Blaine holds the world record at just over seventeen minutes, but when he set out to achieve that goal he was way off target. In his, literally breathtaking, talk the performer describes what motivated him to go for the world record and what he learned along the way.
All of Blaine’s work requires intense preparation—for this particular event he spent fifty-five minutes each morning practicing breath-holding techniques. This made him tired and ill, but he kept going because he knew the importance of preparation. His first attempt failed, but he came back and tried again.
Blaine knew that if his second attempt was going to succeed he had to keep his heart rate down. For the first five minutes, it looked like he was going to fail as his heart rate climbed up and up. Then he started to feel pains across his body, his limbs went numb, and he felt a desperate urge to breathe. Nevertheless, he stayed underwater—and long enough to beat the world record and prove that the impossible is indeed possible.
When we look at a big goal, it’s very common to assume that because no one else has achieved it, we won’t either. However, with the right preparation we can build ourselves up to a point where suddenly what seemed like a giant leap becomes a small step. We can push ourselves further and harder than we believe possible, but to do that we must practice, fail, practice more, and try again. And we can’t give up—not even when it feels like we’re drowning.
How Failure Cultivates Resilience
What if failure wasn’t something to be feared, but something that was necessary to build resilience? Raphael Rose works with NASA—an organization whose motto is “Failure is not an option”—to look at the effect failure has on us and how we can recover from it.
Far from seeing failure as something to be avoided, Rose believes it is one of the greatest teachers we can have and the key to a more fulfilled life. Resilient individuals put themselves in situations where they might fail but where they also might grow—in other words, they go outside their comfort zone. In his talk “From Strength to Resilience,” Rose uses the example of a student who signed up for an advanced math class, asked out a prom date, and joined the debate team. All those situations had the possibility of success or failure, but by simply taking part in them the student built up her resilience levels. Even if she failed, she would have learned something from the experience, and surviving failure would build her confidence.
To build our resilience, we have to put ourselves in situations that might seem foreign or challenge our set behaviors. Rose recommends starting small, being compassionate to ourselves, and engaging in something meaningful. Doing something for the joy it brings, and accepting that sometimes we might fail, lowers our stress levels and builds our resilience.
Aimee Mullins was born with a physical condition that resulted in both her lower legs being amputated. As a child she spent a lot of time in hospital doing physiotherapy, which she hated. Her attitude to the physio changed one day, however, when a doctor praised how strong she was and offered her $100 if she could break the elastic bands she had been using to do her exercises. Simply by praising her effort and reframing the goal, the doctor gave Mullins a completely different view on what she had to achieve. What really struck Mullins, though, was how the doctor’s use of language changed her perception of herself from someone who wasn’t capable to someone who was strong and getting stronger.
When we’re faced with adversity, we can focus on what we haven’t achieved, but simply by changing the language around a problem we can take ourselves from a failure to someone on the road to success. Try it next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or if you think you’ll never find the solution to a problem. Instead of telling yourself that you aren’t capable of solving the issue, praise yourself for being someone who is creative enough to have thought of so many solutions already, even if you haven’t yet found the one that works. As Mullins puts it, success is not about emerging from a challenging circumstance; it’s about allowing the challenge to change us and being proud of those changes.
You Can’t know Everything
There are roughly half a million hazardous objects floating in orbit around Earth, yet currently we track only around 1 percent of them, explains astrodynamicist Moriba Jah. Some are as small as a speck of paint, but when traveling at the right speed even these tiny fragments could cause untold damage to our infrastructure.
It would therefore seem like a good idea to have some sort of map that tracks all these objects, but as Jah explains, not only do we not have the technology to do that, but the information changes depending on who you talk to. The result is that we have a galaxy filled with very crowded space highways and no way of controlling the flow of traffic.
This is often how it feels in leadership—you can see that there is a problem, but you have neither the data nor the resources to solve it. When faced with this situation, it’s worth remembering the approach Jah took—map what you can, collect as much data as you can, and keep talking to everyone about it. The key is not to be overwhelmed by what you don’t know, and instead focus on what you do know and go from there.
Lean in to Pain
Austin Eubanks survived the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. It left him with the question, “How do we define pain?” Is it just about the physical responses we feel, or is there an emotional element too? And why are we so keen to avoid it?
After the shooting, Eubanks was prescribed pain medication to treat the physical symptoms he was suffering, but he soon realized that they were much better at numbing his emotional pain. In fact, they were so good that when he tried to stop taking them he couldn’t, and he became a drug addict.
What this made Eubanks realize is that we’re too quick to try to smother emotional pain rather than actually dealing with it. He describes how he finally made a recovery when he learned to lean into the pain rather than trying to avoid it. Often, we can try to find a way around the difficult or painful problems, but when we go through the pain we experience growth. As Eubanks puts it, “By finding a way to endure through significant suffering, you can actually have meaningful development of personal character.” Our society pushes us to find quick fixes for tough issues, but true leadership means accepting that sometimes you have to go through dark times to get to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Hope Conquers All
You might have heard of the hero’s journey—a mythical look at how we overcome difficulties in our lives. For cancer survivor Suleika Jaouad, however, myths weren’t good enough. She needed an actual journey to help her move on from cancer.
Jaouad explains how being in the midst of a cancer crisis was easier for her to deal with than the aftermath. She was focused on surviving and beating cancer, but once it was gone she felt lost. For many of us, being in a crisis situation gives us a goal to work toward and our adrenaline kicks in, but when the crisis has passed, we’re left exhausted and unsure of what to do next. As Jaouad puts it, “being cured is not where the work of healing ends. It’s where it begins.”
When we’ve been through a difficult or stressful situation, we may want to cling to safety and avoid being hopeful in case those hopes are dashed. On a 15,000-mile road trip, Jaouad learned the power of optimism. As leaders, we will often experience setbacks or failure, but to be able to lift our heads up, pull ourselves together, and try again, we have to have optimism—we have to believe that the best could happen even if the odds are against us. When we have that, we start to feel enthusiasm for the world around us again and we’re ready for the next challenge. This “radical, dangerous hope,” as Jaouad describes it, is what propels us on to the next challenge and gives us the energy to keep fighting.