My first test of resilience came without warning. Until that point, I’d never really experienced serious struggle or hardship. My husband and I had been on a trajectory of personal and professional success, and I had come to expect that our reasonably good fortune would continue. I was living my life in a comfort zone—a safe little bubble in Orange County, CA where everything ran smoothly and I never had to push my own limits —and I had no reason to believe that my course would be significantly altered any time soon. It wasn’t that my life was without challenges, but until that point in time, they hadn’t felt insurmountable.
My older daughter was two and I was pregnant with my second daughter when my husband, who was a salesman in the high-tech consulting industry, was laid off one September day in the aftermath of the dotcom crash. Then, the following Monday, at my twenty-week ultrasound, the doctors told us that our baby had a serious birth defect with one of her kidneys.
The very next morning was September 11, 2001 and we woke up to find the bubble of safety we had always taken for granted as Americans had also been burst. My entire business calendar canceled out for the next month. Because I billed only for the time I worked, my income for the foreseeable future vanished on the heels of my husband’s layoff.
I spent about a year struggling with anxiety, fear, anger and depression. I was eventually able to recover and deal with my situation productively. Choosing to face struggle takes stamina, courage, and resiliency. And you are probably asking, “Where does it come from?” What I started to realize as I faced my own personal difficulties is that I could leverage the power of EQ (emotional intelligence) to help me overcome them. If IQ is a measure of your intellect, EQ gauges your ability to read a situation involving yourself or others and to respond appropriately. An easy way to operationalize EQ is through what I call “the three Rs”: recognize, read, and respond.
When I choose my comfort over my EQ, I react from an instinctive place. When we use our EQ instead, we have the tools we need to cope calmly and confidently with the challenges we face. The skills I draw on regularly make up what I call the MOST model of resilience, because its three pillars are Motivation, Optimism, and Stress Tolerance.
The MOST model will help you when you’re faced with major life challenges or have a goal you want to achieve—as well as help you stay engaged and energized on a daily basis at work and in your personal life. When you use the MOST model, you’ll find that you are calmer and less anxious, and you’ll build the confidence you need to move out of your comfort zone and into your confidence zone. Building your emotional intelligence will help you face whatever life throws at you with grace and confidence.
By definition, motivation is “a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence, even despite setbacks.”[i] A willingness to take action to attempt to help ourselves, instead of waiting helplessly for someone to save us, is a foundational hallmark of those who survive hardship and end up stronger. This self-induced motivation results in resilience and a desire to continue overcoming obstacles. Most people who demonstrate motivation also understand the underlying reasons for their actions. To achieve all you’re truly capable of, it is important that you find out what really motivates you. Easy answers like “I want to be the CEO” or “I want to be rich” won’t keep you on task when the going is tough. You’ll need to do some real soul searching to determine what you’re willing to work for and what your motivations are. What is really in it for you if you choose to take more risk and get very uncomfortable?
Optimism is the belief that the best can happen, instead of the worst. Whereas motivation gets you started, optimism helps you persist. When you cultivate optimism, you will be able to move through setbacks rather than allowing them to defeat you. Optimism as defined in the MOST model is not passive. It’s the belief that you can move beyond your current condition, accompanied by the willingness to do the work it takes to get there. It acknowledges that you have the power to change your own circumstances. The key to this kind of healthy optimism is your ability to do a reality check: to see a situation for what it is, not what you may want it to be. It means letting go of what you wish were true, so that you can accept things as they actually are. When you do this, you take back a measure of control over your own life. Having optimism about yourself, your abilities, and the day ahead of you will get you out of bed and give you the stamina you need to persevere. Optimism gives you hope and reminds you that success is possible even against strong headwinds.
We all face stressors from everyday life: issues at work, conflicts at home, the pressure to earn a living and pay bills, the need to keep up with all our commitments. Although stress is an expected part of life, extra stressors are the challenges that will inevitably come up when you try to do something new or different; they are the obstacles you will need to overcome on the way to achieving your goals. The first step to improving your stress tolerance is to recognize when your reserves are low. Too often, we don’t use our EQ to monitor our stress level. The pressure creeps up on us gradually. We often pile on self-induced stress and then give ourselves little room for failure. An ability to handle stress lets you respond to events with mindfulness—to be present, read the situation, and make a good decision—because you’re not overwhelmed by fear.
Since 2001, I have had to overcome business setbacks, financial hardships, a surgery for my daughter, and a divorce. There have been plenty of times when I have stopped and said, “Wait, this is not the plan!” My comfort zone not only kicked me out, it locked the door behind me. I didn’t want to change and challenge myself, mostly because I didn’t think I could. But after all these years, I have learned that struggle is good. The harder things are, the sweeter the sense of accomplishment is on the other side. When you begin your own journey of seeking challenge and reaching your goals, you will find that, just like me, you are much stronger than you ever realized.
Whenever we find that we’re staying in our comfort zone out of fear or avoidance, we need to formulate an exit strategy—a permanent change to our philosophy and our responses. The key isn’t necessarily to leave your comfort zone all at once; rather, you can make a series of small adaptations that ultimately rewire your intuitive and automatic responses so that you look beyond the easy or comfortable solutions. Gradually, you can become more willing to take on risk, try new things, and pursue your goals. This will help you build a rich life of challenge and fulfillment, resulting in increased pride, self-confidence, and happiness. Response is a choice. Resilience is the goal.
 Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader,” Harvard Business Review, January 2004, https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader.