Possibility — This practice is about navigating the paradox of risk and opportunity. Any time we have a new possibility, there’s always some risk associated with it. For example, taking a new job requires that we risk leaving the comforts of what we have known with our current employer and also ensure that the opportunity for taking a new job provides an opportunity that is worth taking on the risk of trying something new.
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 Dr. Taryn Marie Stejskal.
Dr. Taryn Marie is the #1 international expert on resilience, in both leadership and life, whose mission is to positively impact the lives of 1 Billion people, through the concepts of resilience, by 2030. She is recognized as a leading global authority on resilience, wellbeing, and mental health, and she is the Founder and Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) of Resilience Leadership Institute (RLI) and believes that resilience is the key to individual and organizational actualization and acceleration across the globe. By leveraging over a decade and a half of original research on resilience, she developed the empirically-based framework, The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People.
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’d be glad to. I just married the love of my life, and together, we have five beautiful children ranging in ages from 13 to 7. Aside from learning a lot through our blended family and practicing a lot of patience and resilience as a parent, I first became interested in resilience at about the age of our oldest son when I realized the definition of resilience was circular and difficult to understand. As I progressed in my career, it was when I was completing pre- and post-doctoral fellowships in neuropsychology, focused on brain and spinal cord injury that I first got to see the impact of resilience.
We found that patients that had the best outcomes after injury were the ones that had access to reliable transportation so that they could attend their rehabilitation and doctor’s appointments. As I moved into a corporate career, heading up leadership and executive development as well as talent strategy for Fortune 100 companies like Cigna and Nike, I got to learn more about what makes leaders resilient in leadership and in life.
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?
The most interesting story of my career is the story that I least want to tell. I like to say that everyone has at least one resilience story and that we carry around an imaginary strip of paper that reads, “People would think I was crazy if they knew _______________.”
According to the Vulnerability Bias, a term I researched and coined, vulnerability is so difficult because while we think more of others for sharing their resilience stories, we have a cognitive bias that tells us that people will think less of us if we are truly known and seen when we share our own resilience stories. I am no different.
One of my resilience stories is that beginning at age 14, a man came to my ground-floor bedroom window and watched me get dressed in the morning before school when I was unaware of his presence. This man became a stalker whose presence and aggression escalated as he continued to come to my family home for the next four years of my high school schooling. About a year after I graduated and moved away to university, he brutally attacked and raped a woman in my neighborhood, which got him a sentence of 20 years in prison.
I received my own prison sentence, because as a result of those early experiences, I developed two decades of PTSD. The faulty nature of the Vulnerability Bias told me that if people knew this story, they would think less of me, so it was the story I least wanted to tell, because I was afraid that this experience, coupled with my mental health diagnosis, would diminish my credibility as a rising executive. Yet, when I had the courage to tell my resilience story publicly, this story became one of the most powerful and interesting stories of my career because it taught me how the Vulnerability Bias misleads us to believe that being vulnerable enough to share our resilience stories actually enhances others views of us, rather than diminishing us.
I also learned that the aspects of our experience that we believe are our greatest weaknesses, like my experience with the stalker and having PTSD, actually often turn out to be our greatest assets.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Resilience Leadership Institute (RLI) stands out because we are the only company that has an empirically-based framework focused on how individuals, teams, and organizations can holistically cultivate greater resilience. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and collected thousands of pieces of data that have led to our research-based framework, The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People.
We have set an audacious goal for ourselves, which is to positively impact the lives of 1 billion people across the globe through the work of resilience. Our deep scientific research base as well as our broad scope and desire to improve and enhance the lives of so many people across the world sets us apart, I believe.
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?
I couldn’t agree more. The person that has had the greatest impact on my life is my husband. From the very beginning, he saw an even greater vision for me, Resilience Leadership Institute (RLI), and how we can expand our service offerings to reach more people, and he’s encouraged me to both believe in myself and to dream bigger. Before we were engaged, he sat down with me and my team at the time and held a zoom meeting to go over his ideas for the company after reviewing our website and services. I’d say he’s been my greatest champion and has taught me to believe in myself and the work the company is doing. He inspired me to believe in myself and this body of work to an even greater degree.
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?
At RLI, we define resilience as “The ability to effectively address challenge, change, and complexity, and in doing so, to be enhanced, not diminished by these experiences.” This definition is powerful, not only in its simplicity for what is written here and also for what is not written.
There are commonly held myths of resilience that you do not see here, which I believe we’ll discuss subsequently. The traits of resilient people are exemplified by our empirical framework that I’ve researched for over a decade and a half entitled The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People — these are the five behaviors, available to any human, that when demonstrated are the difference between creating a more productive and positive outcome anytime we face challenge, change, and complexity. These Five Practices are: Vulnerability, Productive Perseverance, Connection, Grati-osity, and Possibility.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
It’s true that courage and bravery are often linked to resilience, yet fear is not associated with resilience, and I believe it should be. You see, fear gets a bad rap as something we should avoid or deny. Yet, it is fear that is the prerequisite to courage and bravery.
If you think about it, you can’t be brave or even courageous unless fear is present. I like to say, “What Scares Us is Sacred”, which means that the things that scare us are often our greatest, most sacred opportunity for development and growth.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There are, of course, so many examples that come to mind, but there is a story of a little boy who grew up in a polygamous tribe in a rural area, with very little economic support, in a family that was largely illiterate, that always speaks to me. This little boy was very close to his mother, and he lost her at a young age, which was traumatic to him. When he excelled in school, he was accepted to university, but was expelled when he joined a political action group the university didn’t approve of. Rather than going home, where he was to be married against his will, to avoid matrimony, this young man went to a neighboring city, and took odd jobs and was homeless for a period of time.
Most people don’t know this, but this is the lesser well-known story of the well-known Nelson Mandela. I really love learning the backstory, the lesser well-known stories of well-known people, like Nelson Mandela, because knowing the degree of challenge that well-known people have faced encourages me, and all of us, to continue to pursue our dreams and to see challenge, change, and complexity as an inevitable part of the journey of being human. Also, Nelson Mandela sites these experiences of hardship and adversity in his early life as being formative, preparing him for his mission to end racial injustice later on in his life. Of all of the resilience stories and public figures, Nelson Mandela has always been my favorite.
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?
Has there ever not been a time when I was told something was impossible? I feel like this is one of the themes of my resilient life story.
Early on, in elementary school, I was in the lowest reading group. My parents were told that likely I would not progress with reading at grade level. However, I believed I could excel to the top reading group in my class. After school, I taught myself strategies to read better, and a year later, I was in the highest reading group in fourth grade. A year later, in fifth grade, I was reading at a 12th-grade level.
Many years later, I learned the reason for my difficulty with reading. I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Yet, when I received the diagnosis at age 37, I had already completed all of my schooling, including being awarded my doctorate without accommodations for having a learning disability.
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?
One of the greatest myths of resilience is that we bounce back. We don’t go back to the way we were before we experienced challenge, change, or complexity, yet we are fundamentally changed by every experience we have. So instead of going back to the way we were, we go forward, and we bounce forward.
Aside from having an undiagnosed learning disability and developing two decades for PTSD from a stalker in high school, another instance where I bounced forward, was enhanced by the challenge, I experienced when I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome my senior year of high school, which caused my hands and arms to go numb in swim practice. Once I was diagnosed, I was told I would not be able to swim my senior year. Yet, I trained differently, was able to complete the season, and in fact, swam the fastest I’d ever swum before I hung up my goggles after than final swim season.
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?
At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of 2020, I had just begun leading RLI full-time. As a single mother and head of my own household, I’d booked clients to replace my income through June of 2020, but when the pandemic arrived all of that business that I’d booked evaporated overnight. I no longer had a way to support my family.
It was the first time in my life that I didn’t know how I was going to make it because the landscape of the pandemic was so unlike anything any of us had ever experienced. On top of revamping my business model and prospecting for new clients, I was tasked with also navigating homeschooling my sons full-time, who were in kindergarten and second grade at the time.
When I met my fiancée, I was barely sleeping between caring for my sons and trying to save my business while sewing socks to save money. Since then, RLI has been blessed, and I have been grateful to expand the company 10x. So, not only did I have the opportunity to share resilience with individuals, teams, and organizations at a critical time, I also got to practice what I preach, The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People, simultaneously.
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.
Indeed, resilience through practice, is like a muscle that can be strengthened — similar to how we increase our cardiovascular ability when we train for running a race or marathon.
The 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilience are best exemplified by The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People which are:
- Vulnerability — This is the practice of allowing our inside self, our thoughts, feelings and emotions to match the outside self we show to the world. Vulnerability is a foundation of resilience because if you think about it, we can’t be authentic or empathetic without first connecting with our own vulnerability. Three practical ways to enhance our resilience through the practice of vulnerability are to:
- Admit when we don’t know the answer or feel unsettled by an experience, rather than pretending we are okay,
- Rely on others in our network for support — I like to say the only insane thing is to attempt to be sane all the time, and
- Share our challenges and failures as much as we share our achievements and successes.
- Productive Perseverance — The intelligent pursuit of a goal, knowing when to maintain the mission, despite challenge, and when to pivot in the face of diminishing returns. One of my favorite stories of Productive Perseverance is the story of Sylvester Stallone making the first Rocky film. He knew he wanted to both sell the screenplay and star in the film, so despite having very little money, he still intelligently pursued his goal and held out until he was offered the opportunity to make the screenplay and be cast in the starring role.
- Connection — This practice is focused on navigating the interplay between the connection we have internally with ourselves, our feelings, desires, and knowing our value, alongside the connections we have externally with others, and their feelings and desires. This is probably the most intuitive resilience practice as well as the most difficult. It’s very easy for many people to prioritize the needs of others, to the detriment of ourselves. On the other hand, when we largely ignore the needs of others, in favor of our own, this leads to things like being insular and narcissistic.
- Grati-osity — This practice combines the notion of both gratitude and generosity as a practice of resilience. First, it’s about practicing gratitude, often in retrospect, after facing a challenge, when we’re able to see the good in what happened, even if we wouldn’t have chosen the circumstances. Secondly, it’s about drawing on the first practice, Vulnerability, to share our resilience stories generously, so that others can learn from our resilience stories vicariously. In business, practicing grati-osity is the difference between giving advice and coaching. Outside the office, in parenting, it’s the difference between telling our children what to do and engaging them in a story of our own experience to impart a lesson.
- Possibility — This practice is about navigating the paradox of risk and opportunity. Any time we have a new possibility, there’s always some risk associated with it. For example, taking a new job requires that we risk leaving the comforts of what we have known with our current employer and also ensure that the opportunity for taking a new job provides an opportunity that is worth taking on the risk of trying something new.
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. :-)
Ah yes! I love this question. First of all, I don’t think of resilience as being my movement, but instead, all of our movement. So, now that you know about The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient People, I like to ask, “So, how will you create your resilience movement?”
I would like to inspire 1 Billion people to create and share their own resilience movements to more positively and productively address challenge, change, and complexity. One movement I would like to create is a movement on social media that inspires more vulnerability and authenticity to reduce social comparison, especially for girls ages 9–14, whom we know are likely to have their self-esteem decrease as a result of social media. One idea I have is to have a social media campaign called “Give Vulnerability a Dance,” where everyone does a funny dance move in their most authentic and vulnerable state to the song “Give Peace a Chance.” My hope is that this allows us to truly be ourselves and to take off the mask of perfection that drives social comparison on social media. I’d love to collaborate with others to bring this idea alive!
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 :-)
Thank you for this incredible offer, wow! There are so many people whom I admire and whose stories I’d love to know more about. For this reason, I created the podcast Flourish or Fold: Stories of Resilience, in which well-known people join me in intimate conversations sharing their lesser well-known stories of resilience.
Of course, first and foremost, I would be honored to have the private meeting with Arianna Huffington for tea. I would also be so delighted and honored to connect with Oprah as I love so many of her resilience stories and that she believes resilience is a key element of character she evaluates in applicants to her girls’ school in Africa. Finally, I’m a huge admirer of Trevor Noah and absolutely devoured his book “Born a Crime” with his resilience stories, so I would be absolutely over the moon to meet him and get to have a private conversation, not to mention I know he’d have me in stitches with all of his funny jokes and witty perspectives.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente helps cancer survivors 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 to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.
Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.
He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Food Network, WW, Bloomberg, Amazon, and Facebook. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.
Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.