Rising Through Resilience: Charles Higgins On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Most people value strength in character. What I have found is that if you build your own strength, you can be strong for others. It is a kind of service that has a reverberating effect that makes everyone feel more resilient.

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 Charles Higgins.

A native of San Francisco, social entrepreneur, life coach and author of a new book, Adventure Wellness: How to restore joy and wonder to your life, Charles started his career as a political, events and communications consultant. Later, as an executive director of nonprofit organizations, he worked with hundreds of people in staff, board and volunteer teams. Parallel to his career, Charles developed a dedicated practice of yoga and Mindfulness Meditation that led to an awareness of the fundamental elements of well-being, emotional intelligence and happiness.

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 and raised in San Francisco. My parents moved there in 1949. They divorced when I was 12. That’s when my resilience training started!

My schooling was all in urban public schools in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. San Francisco was a tumultuous place to grow up and I learned how to navigate the city pretty much on my own. My mother was an eccentric artist and alcoholic, so I tried to get out of the house as much as possible.

In high school, I discovered student government and sports as arenas for finding my community and developing healthy habits and discipline. During the summers, I travelled to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to work on a cattle ranch. There, I was exposed to the therapeutic effect of working outdoors and being in nature.

I remember lying in bed in San Francisco, listening to the rants of my drunken mother, wishing I could be teleported to the pasture behind the barn in Colorado. It was the middle of winter, but I figured that a naked landing in the snow was better than the shitshow of my city house.

Concurrent with my growing connection to nature, I grew stronger in the city and learned a lot about how it worked. I remember feeling a special glow after shaking hands with a smiling Mayor George Moscone at a softball game near the tennis courts where I had been playing with my best friend. Mayor Moscone was assassinated several months later. Waiting in line as a teenager to see his coffin under the dome of City Hall was part of my resilience journey.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When I was hired as the executive director of Slide Ranch, a 35-year-old environmental education nonprofit farm on the California coast, I told the board that they should find the best person for the job. After three months, they told me that I was the one. The challenges facing the organization were pushing it near the brink of catastrophe. Dilapidated staff housing and other ranch facilities were rodent infested, staff morale was low, money was tight and relations with the National Park Service, the landlord, were strained.

The board was nervous and unsure, but had given me a vote of confidence to move the organization forward. So I got to work finding new sources of revenue, removing old trailers used for staff housing and replacing them with tiny homes, bolstering staff morale and managing relations with the federal government employees at the Park Service.

One of the takeaways from my five years at Slide Ranch was how to know when to move quickly, such as creating a new fundraising event to raise unrestricted money, and how to get things done before anyone told me I was not allowed to, such as building tiny houses without going through an arduous permitting process. I learned also that moving quickly may leave some people behind. At times, for example, staff members felt excluded from my decision-making process (or lack of process).

Ultimately, I learned that my leadership style was not aligned with everyone but that it allowed me to rebuild the place, enhance the organization’s position in the community and fortify its finances to make it much less vulnerable. And it is sometimes better to ask for forgiveness than permission!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My career has evolved over the years and my company, my offering, has evolved with it. Earlier in my career, my offering stood out because I was perceived as a problem solver — a turn-around guy. I was unafraid of chaotic situations, constrained resources, the negative opinions of others or uncertainty. I was always up for a challenge.

Of course, my approach did not always work and I learned lessons along the way. In one organization I led, I was given a directive by the board president to change the way the nonprofit’s major fundraising event was produced. He felt that the people running the event allowed it to incur outrageous costs that were out of proportion to the revenues that were generated for the programs.

Being the new fearless leader, I started asking a lot of questions and making comments about changes to come. We would go with a different caterer, invitation design and printing would go out for bid, expenses would be trimmed and the event would align better with the nonprofit organization’s standards and interests. The questions and planned changes made me wildly unpopular with the committee of well-healed folks who had been intimately involved with the event for many years. Ultimately, they won and I lost (and was shown the door out!)

It was clear that the board was not unified around change and that I, as an agent of change, would be flying into stiff headwinds.

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?

Really, there were many people along the way who helped me. The rancher in Colorado who welcomed me each summer served as a surrogate to my father. I adored my father, and he was the North Star for me, but I did not get to see him often after the divorce.

My best friend in high school, now a provost at the University of California, encouraged me to excel academically while having fun on the tennis courts and roaming the streets of the city (he was with me when I met Mayor Moscone).

My business partner in the public relations firm I joined gave me the freedom to try new things while adhering to the professional standards of the field.

The story is about connecting with people when you need a boost or just a smile. It is about learning from others even if it makes you uncomfortable. And it is about managing your expectations of what others can and will do for you. Ultimately it is on you to make good things happen that lead to success.

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?

Resilience is that quality that helps you step out the door into the fresh air after suffocating indoors. It is picking yourself up after you have be knocked down. It is the wind under your wings that lifts you out of a bad situation and carries you to places where you can see new horizons.

Resilient people tend to expect that bad things happen sometimes. They know that there are downs as well as ups. They manage expectations and they have tools to steady themselves when they get thrown off balance. They know when to step back and rest. They find ways to refill their fuel tank when it gets near empty and they can accept an empty tank for a while before finding a new source of fuel.

Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different from resilience?

Courage is similar to resilience in that both require you to dig deep for the inner resources that calm you in the face of uncertainty, threat or fear of something in the future. Where they are different is the degree of humility and acceptance that come with resilience. Courage can operate without those traits. Courage, however, is a critical and foundational element for resilience.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

When I was early in my career, I started a nonprofit bike shop to train inner-city kids how to fix and ride bikes. I hired a man who came to run the shop and teach the kids. When I hired him, he already had three kids of his own, one of whom worked in my PR office, but unstable housing and very little money. He loved bikes and loved working with kids, so he took the job with us on faith that it would lead to something good. At the beginning, we could afford to pay him only $100/month. Later we paid the rent on a studio apartment for his kids and him and started paying him for half-time work. But he still had very limited resources. Yet he stayed with the bike shop and eventually secured a second job in the building where one of our program sites operated.

It was his resilient character that carried him through the tough times.

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?

The backstory about about Slide Ranch was all about that, but I will share another one. My first job out of graduate school was executive director of an after-school program that was the result of the merger of two long-standing nonprofit groups. Each had its own staff and board. There was abundant distrust and dislike throughout. The cultures of the two nonprofits were quite different and contrary to each other. It was remarkable that the merger happened at all and people told me it would be impossible to hold the new organization together.

Through rebranding, community building, PR, fundraising and marketing, I was able to form a new identity for the organization that was separate from either of the two previous nonprofits. We expanded the reach of the mission to new neighborhoods and I demonstrated that the new unified program was better than the sum of the two parts.

Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

This is a tough one because I am still bouncing back. In 2021, my brother-and-closest-friend died of cancer. Four years older than me, he was someone I turned to for a smile and hug on a regular basis. We were the dynamic duo of our broken family. Losing him was a huge setback. While he was dying, I told the board of the nonprofit I was running that I wanted to resign. They asked me to stay until a solid replacement could step in. I stayed for three more months.

When my brother died, I grieved and slowed down. I tried to stay light, but I felt heavy.

What brought the lightness back was a new career trajectory. I decided that I no longer wanted to play the role of executive director, reporting to a board and supervising a staff. But I wanted to harvest all the learning from those years leading nonprofits for the benefit of other people struggling with their own careers, life and the so-called pursuit of happiness. So I studied integrative wellness and life coaching for several months while continuing with my own practice of wellness — time in nature, yoga, meditation.

I don’t know if I am stronger than ever, but I feel life living through me in a new way. I still feel sorrow at times, but it is interspersed with wonder and joy.

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 think I learned to see beauty and experience wonder at a young age. This is not to say that I did not carry lots of fear and apprehension. I did. Schools and playgrounds were daunting places for me. Parents screaming late at night disrupted my sleep. I was a child growing up in the shadow of the war in Vietnam, the Cold War, the protests that came to Golden Gate Park, Hippies, Drugs and the grittiness of city life. It was scary and unsettling stuff for a kid.

My brother was a steady hand through much of my childhood and I found a network of support in high school through sports, advanced placement classes, student leadership and social events. My resiliency developed over the years.

The event that capped it off for me — that I had somehow done enough of the right things to succeed — was delivering a speech at my high school graduation after being accepted to U.C. Davis. It was not a great speech, and this was a class that chose someone else to be class president, but it was a moment in the spotlight, literally, that made me feel resilient.

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.

What comes to mind is a series of questions to ask yourself:

1. Who are you and what are your values?

2. Why are you here and what is your purpose?

3. How do you achieve your purpose?

4. Can you use stillness, time in nature and breathing to open your mind’s aperture to let in more light so that you can perceive more of the options available to you?

5. Each day, can you include dedicated time for movement, strength building, flexibility and circulation of oxygenated blood as habits that you maintain with discipline?

Stories:

For the first question, values, the story is about maintaining a healthy body and mind while enduring the stresses of relationships, work, career etc. For me, this meant carving out regular time slots, during the work day, for yoga. It meant also that I usually took jobs that allowed me to ride my bike to work (as a bonus, my environmental and community values were aligned with that commute). People on my staff often looked at me sideways when I arrived late in the morning after yoga, but I knew the value of the practice not only for me, but for my ability to solve problems and produce results for the organization.

Most people value strength in character. What I have found is that if you build your own strength, you can be strong for others. It is a kind of service that has a reverberating effect that makes everyone feel more resilient.

As for purpose, it can shift as the landscape around you shifts. This is especially true in the workplace. My professional purpose in the workplace at the beginning of my career, when I was working in politics and public relations, was centered around producing results within a fairly narrow scope of work. I was given tasks and I completed them to the best of my ability. As I advanced in my career and could see things from an elevated perspective, I saw a bigger purpose.

My purpose as an individual evolved. As I learned more and listened to my heart more deeply, I noticed changes in my sense of purpose. In the middle of my nonprofit career, I felt a strong sense of purpose in helping clients who were struggling find better ways to navigate. When I had the bike shop, I was excited to see changes happening on the streets as more people used bikes for everyday transportation and infrastructure emerged to make biking safer and more convenient.

I was often on the look out for other people and organizations for collaboration and leveraging resources around common purpose. Connecting with others through purpose is a powerful way to experience resiliency.

Now that I coach clients who are stuck or disheartened by their lack of purpose of derailment of purpose, I have started to feel the importance of using the “pause” button and devoting more attention to deliberate stillness. This is where I am able to open my mind’s aperture to let in more light so that I can see more options and experience breakthroughs when I am stuck. In guiding clients, I ask them to suspend their minds for a few moments and focus just on breathing. They let go of attachment to thoughts so that their brains can rest. Intention leads to rest; rest leads to resiliency.

Developing discipline for good and healthy habits that build resilience is perhaps the toughest part of the questions. When I was unhappy in a job, I found that my habits would be lackluster and unproductive. But I never strayed too far from the values I had for maintaining a healthy mind and body. I never stopped going to the yoga studio and I stayed with my meditation schedule (once in the morning and once in the evening). Some weeks these routines got off track, but I always forgave myself and mustered the will to get back on track. I knew that healthy habits, based on those values, would offset the unhealthy habits or patterns that sometimes crept in.

We all have, inside ourselves, the fundamental essence of life, love and joy. It’s just a matter of finding the opening to let them out.

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. :-)

In this country, people have adopted consumerism as their primary religion. They may still consider themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims or Hindus, but they are enthralled with buying stuff. Our economy relies on consumer who buy stuff whether they need it or not. While I realize that changes in an economy can have huge ripple effects, I would love to see people buy less stuff, learn to fix things, read more, get out in nature more, help each other more and collectively build resilience.

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 :-)

I would love to meet Jon Kabat Zinn, who coined the term “Mindfulness” and has done extensive research on how it improved mind and body wellness.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.practice.place

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 best-selling author, syndicated columnist, podcaster, stage 3 cancer survivor, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC. He has interviewed notable celebrities and TV personalities and has been featured on Fox News, The Wrap, and has worked with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, BuzzFeed, Food Network, WW and Bloomberg. Savio has been invited to cover numerous industry events throughout the U.S. and abroad. His mission is to provide clients, listeners, and viewers alike with tangible takeaways on how to lead a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. Savio pens a weekly newsletter in which he delves into secrets to living smarter by feeding your “three brains” — head, heart, and gut— in the hope of connecting the dots to those sticky parts of our nature that matter to living our best life.

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor