Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you could not fail? I asked myself that question in 2008 when I was feeling like my life was in a tailspin. I had been having some trouble falling asleep (and taking ambien for about a year) and waking up feeling tired, alone, and anxious. The days had begun to look at feel very much the same — that is, except for the weekends when I would be engrossed in kids activities and had a few precious hours to swim at the Y or read in the hot tub. More often than I can remember I woke up in the morning and started my day feeling dread. I didn’t know what had caused it exactly I just knew it would kill me sooner or later if I didn’t find a way out of repeating it like some kind of sinister “Groundhogs Day”. The trend reached its crescendo one Saturday in October when I pulled off the side of the road near our home in Freehold, New Jersey and asked my wife Randi to take the wheel. She rapidly switched seats with me and followed my driving instructions and before she knew it we were pulling into the local hospital parking lot. My next recollection is having electrodes pasted to my chest and feeling numbness in my fingers and the alternating combination of cold sweat and hot flashes. I thought for a few minutes that I would not ever see my family again and that our four amazing and beautiful kids would grow up without their dad. I was angry at myself and terrified at the same time. By the time Randi had parked the car I was being wheeled into the emergency room and nurses were talking about a possible heart attack. Randi stood at my bedside with a look of fright I had never seen before — not even during the births of our children. The drama reached its climax when a young doctor entered the scene and declared almost instantly “you’re not having a heart attack Mr. Markel” at which point tears of relief rained down from Randi and I like the fountain show at Bellagio. The doctor emphatically stated that the pressures and lack of balance he detected from my 60-70 hour work week, lack of adequate exercise as well as rest, the foods I was eating and caffeine I was consuming all conspired to produce my presence in the emergency room — not in cardiac arrest — but having an anxiety attack (which felt oddly the same, except without the clogged arteries and threat of imminent death).
I walked out of the hospital that day thanking god above for what I have come to call my “reprieve” — the second chance I got that day to look at my life, my habits, my health, my dreams of the future — and decide what I wanted to do next. Would I go back to business and life as usual and make a few tweaks to the situation knowing that I could survive such an event or would I “pivot” into a new mindset around how I wanted to experience myself living my life. For the record, I chose the latter even though I frankly didn’t know what that meant at the time. I asked myself the question “what would I do if I knew I could not fail” and new answers starting showing up as a result. I started following a different kind of guidance system and began navigating some small yet meaningful changes in my beliefs and behaviors. Those seemingly insignificant changes in the way I saw myself and my potential created greater clarity and ultimately allowed me to act differently as well. In the years since that low water mark or “pivot point” as I now refer to it I have changed my diet considerably (both my physical diet as well as my mental diet). Among the things I learned and continue to learn is the importance of “resilience” — something I define as our ability to bounce back even stronger from setbacks. What doesn’t take us out truly does make us stronger as Niche said long ago. But there’s more to it than just being stronger. There’s the growth that comes from our ability to cultivate resilience and utilize the changes that often come with challenge. I look at the process of resilience as one of the most important life tools you can cultivate. It can produce alchemy (turning lead into gold) if you want it to — and often does whether you seek that result or not. In fact, Harvard Business Review recently published a report showing the importance of resilience and recovery rituals when it comes to higher performance in both champion athletes and corporate executives. https://hbr.org/2001/01/the-making-of-a-corporate-athlete. Over the years I have used a simple 3 part process for dealing with life’s challenges and ailments to develop more resilience. Step 1. Frame up! This means that you look at any situation with an eye toward its benefits in your life. That can be hard to do at times especially when there are lots of emotions tied up in the event so I use a specific question that my wife taught to see things through a slightly different lens. I ask myself “what is the creative opportunity here now in this?” and I am almost instantly presented with new perspectives on the challenge at hand. Step 2. Learn the lesson! I must always remind myself that everything I have created in my life is there to serve a higher purpose — whether for myself or my family or for others that can be helped by what I have learned. Until we take responsibility and own our part in the situation we cannot gain the invaluable insight and wisdom that is our right to possess. Step 3. Recover quickly! Resilience is something we chose to make a habit or we leave it to chance. Taking care of bodies, our minds, and our spiritual selves is vital to quickening our recovery from setback. Taking a twenty minute walk each day, getting a massage once a week, meditating for 10 minutes at the start of your day, writing in a gratitude journal before bed, making a green drink or smoothie for breakfast, reading a new book, going to the gym or out to the movies on Friday nights can all become rituals for recovery and are essential in the process of developing resilience. There’s no hierarchy when it comes to these rituals and there’s nothing religious about calling them rituals — they are simply actions that we consciously practice on a regular basis for a length of time until they become unconscious habits that add value to our days. Recovery rituals just like these have taken me far from the day I thought my life was ending in the emergency room. Now, the first thoughts in my head and words out of my mouth when I wake up to greet the day are “I love my life!” and I actually mean it.