One of the greatest films ever made is The Untouchables. Yes, I know that Sean Connery’s Irish accent – yes it was meant to be Irish – for which he won an Oscar – yes, he won an Oscar for that nonsense – was hopeless and some of the dialogue had the texture of cheese, but it contains some of the best scenes and characters to grace the silver screen.
The interaction between Connery and Kevin Costner – Malone and Elliot Ness – sitting together in the church is the stand out moment of the film. The Irish-Scot is asking his boss how far he would go to defeat public enemy number one, Al Capone. When Ness answers; “Everything within the law”, Malone snaps back: “And then what are you prepared to do?”. Later in the film, he repeats this line as he lies dying on the floor of his apartment after being attacked by Capone’s men, with the glorious Vesti la giubba” (Put on the costume) from Pagliacci as the backdrop. Epic cinematography. Incredibly moving.
This question; this challenge; this plea, has been with me throughout the last few days. Why?
I’ve just competed two sessions with MBA and MSc students at LJMU on resilience. I am doing two further sessions next week. So far, I’ve had around 50 people join the sessions, bringing with them a wide range of backgrounds, work and life experiences and current career challenges. They had a broad variety of outlooks, perspectives and ambitions but one overriding, common feeling; the demands of work, on top of everything else that life can throw at us, can be too much. Too hard. Perhaps impossible at times.
Coincidentally, (not ironically as some lazy journalists would write!), I walked around the room (I very rarely stand still when presenting), sipping my tea and flicking between my slides, talking about resilience at a time when mine own resilience was being severely tested. I was facing a very tough work challenge on top of a busy personal life (with the daily school runs, the hectic routine of breakfasts, dressing more than one person, school, work, school, home, homework, cooking, dishes and the like, alongside the Christmas build-up) and the ongoing battle to stay on top of my mental health. I brought all of this into the room – along with my cold – no, my heavy cold – as I took the sessions.
I get into the conversation about resilience – one of the most mis-used words in the workplace – by telling my story. The fall and rise of my mental health and wellbeing as my work-life balance was decimated and my world turned upside down makes for a real, human and at times humming introduction to debate some of the principles that lie behind the challenge that we all face to build up our resilience. I use photographs from throughout my life, in particular the period where it is all going wrong and still feel a shiver down my spine when I see on the big screen what was becoming of me as I stretched and stretched my elastic band of resilience past its breaking point.
We talk in the session about how to define resilience and try to focus on our capacity to recover and bounce back when things are tough and not buying into the false narrative of trying to create robot-like superheroes who can handle everything that life throws at them and with a leap and a bound they are free. I use the word “replenish” to describe the important work that I believe we must all do – in the ways that work for us – to recharge our batteries, our emotions and our energy – so that we can get up the next day and meet the challenges put in front of us. But the hard truth that I try to surface through these sessions is that in the final analysis it is my life – your life – their life – and ultimately it is about each of us making the right choices that work for us.
Waiting from your manager or employer – no matter how brilliant, switched on, compassionate or enlightened to lift the load – will only get you so far – if anywhere at all. You have to ask yourself what is success for me – what do I value most in my life – and then make decisions that allow you to focus on those. This same principle applies to building up and maintaining your resilience. It will not just be there by wishing for it but by working at it; being vigilant and deliberate about making it happen.
I know that down time with my girls, rest, lots of tea, music, exercise, reading, crosswords, golf and the like (I have a list of around 20 things that help me build and maintain my resilience) and so I must be prepared to make time for them and dedicate proper time to them. I must make choices and trade-offs – sometimes giving up things I may want to do in that moment – like going to another match or watching another episode of my current favourite Netflix series or answering one more work email – to put time into my resilience.
People in the sessions have talked about that old cliche about attending a funeral and never hearing anyone say “she wishes she spent more time at work” or the fact that none of us have heard a eulogy at a funeral that says “he always answered every email really quickly”. We know there are no medals for pushing ourselves beyond the limit at work and yet many of us have done it and do it every week, perhaps every day. Why? Why do we do it? Why don’t we stop and remember what is important to us?
Perhaps because we haven’t been clear enough about what is truly success for us: is it the next promotion or the next bath time? Is it climbing the greasy pole at work or climbing a hill walking the dog? Is it about status at work or the state of our relationships, the lack of bags under our eyes or how often we don’t dream about work? Only we know what really matters to us and only we know what we are prepared to do to make it happen.
If we want to be resilient – if we want to be able to take the rough with the smooth in life – I believe we need to be hard on ourselves and ask what are we prepared to do and when we answer we should channel Mr Connery as Mr Malone. In whatever accent we can muster.