Rising Through Resilience: Author Sterling Hawkins On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Hunt Discomfort — seek out and do the things that are uncomfortable. Studies show that discomfort, be it physical, mental or emotional, is processed about the same way by the body. So the more you find it anywhere, the better you can deal with it everywhere.
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 Author Sterling Hawkins.
Sterling Hawkins is an internationally recognized entrepreneur, motivational leader, and public speaker.
His 2019 TED Talk, “Discomfort is Necessary for Innovation,” has been viewed more than 100,000 times.
Sterling Hawkins is out to break the status quo. He believes that we can all unlock incredible potential within ourselves, and he’s on a mission to support people, businesses and communities to realize that potential regardless of the circumstances.
From a multi-billion dollar startup to collapse and coming back to launch, invest in and grow over 50 companies, Sterling takes that experience to work with C-level teams from some of the largest organizations on the planet and speaks on stages around the world.
Today, Sterling serves as CEO and founder of the Sterling Hawkins Group, a research, training and development company focused on human and organizational growth. He has been seen in publications like Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, The New York Times and Forbes.
Based in Colorado, Sterling is a proud uncle of three and a passionate adventurer that can often be found skydiving, climbing mountains, shark diving or even trekking the Sahara. Maybe you’ll even join him for the next adventure — and discover the breakthrough results you’re looking for. He’ll have your back, #NoMatterWhat.
Twitter: @SterlingHawkins | Instagram: @Sterling_Hawkins
TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB9vy9ElJ1g
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?
Many people that have built a platform and community like we have, have done so because they’ve won an Olympic gold medal despite overwhelming odds, taken a company public at some astronomical valuation or perhaps they’ve performed some incredible human feat like climbing Mt. Everest on their hands. I haven’t done any of those things. In fact, almost the opposite.
I’ve been incredibly humbled in my life and career and I actually think that’s part of the strong appeal. From growing up in Central New York, I founded a company with my Dad that we sold to a group in Silicon Valley that became part of a massive biometrics company — kind of like Apple Pay before Apply Pay.
That company reached a multi-billion dollar valuation before going bankrupt around the time of the housing market collapse. And when the company crashed, so did I. I ended up playing out a depressing country song-of-a-life… running out of cash, moving in with my parents and even my girlfriend breaking up with me. During that dark time in my career (and let’s be real my life) I eventually found tremendous power in the discomfort that came along with it. I discovered for myself, like many have before me, that discomfort is necessary for growth. And used effectively, can be a vehicle to create breakthrough results.
I’ve used what I’ve learned about discomfort to come back from that low point to launch, invest in, and grow over 50 companies. And I’ve taken that experience and combined it with thousands of hours of research to create what I call the #NoMatterWhat system. Today I use that system to create breakthrough results for C-level teams, speak on stages around the world and I just finished my book on the experience and learnings, appropriately named, Hunting Discomfort.
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?
Undoubtedly it’s the billion dollar company bankruptcy I was a part of… I spent many dark days trying to understand what happened, how I had fallen so hard, so fast. Not only so I could dig myself out of the hole filled with anxiety and depression I was in, I wanted to be certain it would never happen again. Not that I would never fail, but so I didn’t crash like I had.
One of the things my Mom said often when I was a kid came back to me during those hardest times . It was — “the way out is through” (actually Robert Frost, but to me it’ll always be my Mom). I had to go through the things I feared most and the results I was looking for would be on the other side.
We all have things we’re afraid of. For me at the time it was that I was deathly afraid of public speaking. I was one of those people that would rather have been in the coffin than giving the eulogy. With that phrase in mind — the way out is through — I went big into it. I applied and was accepted to give a keynote for a conference in Singapore (true story, the stars must have aligned). Terrified, I practiced incessantly. In spite of the practice, the terror only seemed to get worse when the day finally came. I heard them call my name, announcing me to the stage. I was so scared I think I may have blacked out, but I did it. And when it was all over, the conference director found me and said: “That’s the best keynote I’ve heard in all my years of doing this!” To this day, I don’t think he was in the same keynote I gave. But he did go on to tell all of his conference director friends about me and it was the beginning of building myself back into the person I am today. At that moment, I understood deeply that my Mom was right, the way out is through.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I speak to hundreds of thousands of people every year, sharing my story and what I’ve learned from it. As amazing as that is, it’s those people who grab onto the #NoMatterWhat system and use it to create turnarounds, breakthroughs or even make seemingly impossible results possible in their lives and business, that stand out.
One of our #NoMatterWhat Community members came to the US from Cambodia. He didn’t speak English, had no money and ended up living in the projects of Southern California. Over years, he worked his way up. Learning the language, finding jobs to make ends meet, and doing whatever it took. That work has paid off. Today, he’s the founder of Cambodian Beef Jerky Company, Psych-Ko’s Jerky. He’s happily married, has several children, a house, a sports car, and he’s selling more beef jerky than he can keep up with.
I can’t change someone’s life in a keynote. But it can be a turning point for someone to start changing their own life and business. And over time, they’ll be the ones to create the standout results.
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’s definitely a long list of people that have supported me, helped me, trained me, and loved me along the way. One I’m constantly grateful for is my Grandmother, who passed away when I was about 13. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I remember pouring through old family photographs and reminiscing with her. She made plans for what would happen when she was gone and she expressly wanted to teach me and my brothers and sister to live our lives fully, even when dying. She even called everyone she knew and said goodbye — acknowledging she wouldn’t be around much longer. I was struck by her grace and was inspired by her courage, even under the most difficult circumstances.
What she taught me, even though I didn’t realize it as profoundly at the time, was how to gracefully surrender to the unknown. She modeled for my siblings and me how to love life and let go at the same time, how to die with honor and grace. When her time finally came, she left her family forever transformed for the better. It wasn’t just the amazing life that she lived that made such an impact, it was how she left it, too.
When I crashed in my life I was confronted with the unknown in a different way. Not knowing what end was up or where to turn. But reconnecting with what my Grandmother taught me about loving and letting go was a big piece of coming back. I don’t think I’ll ever reach her level of grace and acceptance, but I’m forever grateful to her for showing me the 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?
Well, resiliency definitely tracks with all my background! I’ve found that there comes a time when strategy fails, motivation runs out and the struggle just becomes too much. It’s not just rising in the face of that adversity that’s true resilience, it’s being willing to give up the parts of yourself — your identity, your views, your ways of being and acting — that contributed to you falling in the first place. Everyone wants to be the Phoenix rising from the ashes, but nobody wants to burn (figuratively of course) the things about themselves that are no longer serving them. It’s the underrated traits of humbleness, gratitude, love and acceptance that give you access to letting go of those things that are no longer working to continually rise, each time stronger than before.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Let me say before we go there, if when you’re knocked down you’re not giving up the parts of yourself that led to your fall (and I mean this whether it was your “fault” or not), that’s not resilience. That’s stubbornness, only motivated by protecting the ego. And its endurance will be limited, but maybe more importantly, it will be limiting to what you’re trying to achieve.
Resiliency, as I’m talking about it, to give up parts of yourself that aren’t working in order to keep going — requires real courage. Courage like my Grandmother showed me, to love and let go at the same time. To let go of things that might seem like very real aspects of yourself, others or the world around you, not from a place of bitterness or resentment, but from a place of love and surrender. The etymology of courage is right on, it’s from the Latin for “heart”. And it’s that heart that will get you through.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There are many — especially in the line of work that I’m in. I’m constantly inspired by what people in the #NoMatterWhat Community are both confronting and achieving.
Emanuel has been with us for years now and has become a #NoMatterWhat Community partner and friend. He has overcome an incredible amount of adversity in his life, the latest was when he separated from his job early in the pandemic. He could have just started looking for a new job in what was a challenging market. But he didn’t. He decided that this was his moment to start his own company. Instead of filing some LLC paperwork, he actually went to a tattoo shop and had the name of his business tattooed on his arm! He endured many months without a single sale. But he pressed on, continually adjusting and re-evaluating both himself and the business. Today, he’s running a six-figure marketing business, Leftspire.
Had he not been resilient, beyond what maybe would be reasonable I might add, he never would have achieved that.
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?
When someone is out to break the status quo — just for themselves or bigger, for the world — one of the signs they’re doing it right is that someone tells them it’s impossible. I’ve met impossible head-on a number of times and from a number of people.
Years ago someone close to me told me that I’d never make any money in the keynote speaking business. It was too competitive with too few opportunities, and it’s only the lucky few who “break through”. I don’t know if I’ve broken through, but I’ve certainly broken the status quo for myself as we’re on track as a 7-figure speaking business this year.
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?
Well I’ve shared a big setback already from early in my career, but much more recently I faced a huge setback early in the pandemic. In March of 2020, our entire business disappeared in a matter of days. I’ll never forget watching all our workshops and keynote clients back out of engagements when the world shut down. It felt a little bit like (ok, a lot like) my whole life was falling apart again!
There were weeks that I was scared, worried and depressed. It wasn’t until the pizza place called me, asking me if I was ok because I was ordering so much pizza, that I started to snap out of it. I realized that I had been through this before and I could do it again. One of the tricks I use when in a tough place now is to do something really hard. I’m not a runner, but that weekend I strapped on my running shoes and ran over 50 miles. It was enough to kickstart me to build a virtual studio, start virtual keynotes and figure out how to keep it going #NoMatterWhat. I couldn’t be happier that we’re getting back to in-person events these days, but forever we now have the ability to deliver knock-out virtual keynotes as well.
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 might cultivate it now, but it was my Mom with her — the way out is through — attitude that built any resiliency I had in my early life. Anything that we signed up for she would make us finish. I’ll never forget that I wanted to go to basketball camp when I was about 10. At least until I realized that I hated it for some reason after the first day. Despite my protesting, fighting and refusing — she somehow managed to have me still go, day after day, until I finished it.
I might not have liked it (ok, I really did hate it), but the lesson is invaluable. Continuing forward with what I had committed to when it really would have been easier not to. She was teaching me resilience before I even knew I needed 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.
This is a great setup because I actually teach 5 practices to intentionally grow your resilience and push forward to results, no matter what is in your way.
The first step, Hunt Discomfort — seek out and do the things that are uncomfortable. Studies show that discomfort, be it physical, mental or emotional, is processed about the same way by the body. So the more you find it anywhere, the better you can deal with it everywhere. One of my favorite stories about this is Kip Keino. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Kip was living out his dream of competing in the Men’s 1500M race. He didn’t have the best training, equipment or coaching, and that was all made worse when he collapsed during a qualifying run, diagnosed with a very painful and potentially fatal gallbladder condition. Understanding the risks, he ended up running and won gold by what is still the largest margin in history. A Sports Illustrated editor analyzed his run along with some of his Kenyan compatriots, who have won countless marathons and set an impressive number of records. What he discovered is that Kip and his countrymen’s winning is not attributable to genetics, diet or environment. It’s because the tribe they were from, the Kalenjin, put children and young adults through what amounted to painful endurance trials. It built a resiliency inside of Kip and his fellow countrymen to push ahead when the future looked bleak and adversity was overwhelming. It gave them what became a resiliency advantage that yielded incredible breakthrough results.
Once you Hunt Discomfort, then you need to commit, a step I call Get a Tattoo. When you commit, it calls forth the creativity, ingenuity and determination within yourself to achieve. And bonus, when others see you working towards that commitment, it inspires them as well. I shared about Emanuel getting a literal tattoo of his startup business on his arm. But it doesn’t have to be a physical tattoo, it can be a verbal commitment. I’ve always been inspired by JFK famously saying that, “We choose to go to the moon within this decade”. At the time, he, nor the thousands of people at NASA, knew exactly how that was going to happen. After all, they had the computer processing power of roughly a desk calculator. But when JFK committed — it inspired ingenuity, hard work and sacrifice — for Neil Armstrong to take that giant leap for mankind.
Build a Street Gang is the third step, or have people around you that support you along the way. Maybe most importantly, they hold you accountable. Research shows that when you’re specifically accountable, you’re 95% more likely to achieve your goal. I have a story in my book that I love from a friend of mine, Sabrina Kay. She arrived in the US from Korea with her parents well below the poverty line. Of all the hard workers that I know, she might be the hardest working. But she combined that hard work with surrounding herself with the accountability, mentorship, love and inspiration she needed to grow. From not speaking the language and doing janitorial work to get by — Sabrina founded the Art Institute of Hollywood and eventually sold it for a comfortable 8 figures.
The fourth step is Flip It — or find a way to use your problems, obstacles or limits to your advantage. And I don’t think any of us are short on problems! I was lucky enough to meet William Hung, the American Idol phenom that butchered Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” so badly it went viral, at my TEDx Talk in the San Diego area. He shared that the negative reviews of his performance were nearly instant. He suffered enough humiliation, rejection and embarrassment that I imagine would make anyone want to crawl into a hole. But William worked to Flip It to his advantage. He capitalized on that moment by appearing on talk shows around the world, releasing his own record and even managing to perform live with Ricky Martin! He turned that initially negative experience into a positive by grabbing on to it and riding it to future success.
The fifth step is maybe the most important… Surrender. Accept everything exactly how it is and exactly how it isn’t. To be clear, this isn’t a step of giving up. It’s active, intentional and courageous. You already know I do all sorts of endurance activities — and sometimes I invite people from the #NoMatterWhat Community to join me, at least those that are crazy enough to consider. And I had a few that met that criteria to take on a road-bike race known as the Triple Bypass — 10,614 feet of elevation gain and covering 106 miles through three mountain passes of the Colorado Rockies. Sarah Link committed to joining us without even having a bicycle. She, of course, eventually got a bike and put in countless hours of training, directed by our coach. But the surrender didn’t come until we arrived at the final mountain pass with still 2,000 vertical feet to climb. We were both exhausted and what we looked up at seemed next to impossible. It wasn’t about giving more, it was about letting go. It was about surrendering. Sarah surrendered her resistance to what was ahead and actively accepted — the time it was going to take and the pain that went along with it — to just keep turning the pedals. It would have been all too easy to call it quits and take the bus to the finish line. But she surrendered to what it was going to take to finish that race. Now, she might never join me for another race like that (I can’t blame her) but her confidence and determination to surrender and finish #NomatterWhat exemplifies the movement. When you learn the art of surrendering, what emerges is your potential and all the genuine peace, true presence, authentic comfort and real, sustainable results that go with it. And no matter what happens in this crazy world of ours, nobody can take that potential away from you.
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. :-)
Well thank you! We’re definitely making a bit of a mark with the #NoMatterWhat Community. I actually think this group is already inspiring a bit of a movement. A movement of people declaring big visions, big goals, big dreams and then going through the discomfort necessary to achieve them. Breakthroughs aren’t easy and they aren’t pretty. But they are the things that change our world and maybe even the world. I am reminded of the quote by Martha Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Like I mentioned in the beginning of this interview, every one of us, no matter how ordinary we may feel, no matter how much life has beaten us down, the capacity lies within each of us to breakthrough and make a difference in our lives, the lives of others and in our communities. The power may be dormant until we unleash it by hunting discomfort, overcoming fears, facing challenges and making a difference, one step at a time, #NoMatterWhat!
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 :-)
Very nice! Many have probably read The Alchemist, it’s such a great story about an Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, who sets off on a big adventure. But on his way to achieve worldly treasures, he finds the most important things inside of himself. It’s a roller coaster of a story that I think so perfectly captures the human experience. Certainly mine. I would love to spend some time with the author, Paulo Coelho. Just to hear more about his background, what’s meaningful to him, and how he’s lived out a version of the story he wrote would be a dream come true.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thanks for this, it has been fun! SterlingHawkins.com always has the latest and greatest blogs, social links and appearances.
And if you want to order a copy of my new book, Hunting Discomfort, you can find all the details here: HuntingDiscomfort.com.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.