Spirits that soar above

Four resilient lives

Never has resilience been a more valuable attribute. In today’s globally competitive society, the winners will be those optimistic, adaptable people who can take changes and setbacks in stride. Failure fortifies such dogged individuals to seek bigger and better opportunities. Where does resilience come from? Most likely, it’s a mix of nature and nurture. Some people demonstrate buoyancy from childhood on; others aren’t born with a tenacious spirit but can grow hardier with age and experience. The four individuals profiled here provide insight into this coveted talent for turning adversity into accomplishment. They have developed strong values and passions and drawn inspiration from parents, religion and other outside sources of support. For them, change is not merely the norm, it is the spark that drives them forward.

by Ronald J. Alsop

THE ECONOMIC turmoil of the past two years tested the resilience of millions of individuals throughout the world as they faced unemployment and other financial strains. Now as the economy recovers, resilience will be no less critical as constant change becomes the norm.

Resilience isn’t a trait one can magically conjure up in times of stress. Rather, it’s a precious attribute that seems to come naturally to some people. For others, it can gradually develop as they face hardships, pick themselves up, and move on – hardier and wiser after each trying experience. Certainly, it is much more than a survival instinct. Buoyant people not only survive, but they also go on to achieve fulfillment and success in new ways and never look back with regret.

The four accomplished people profiled here demonstrate their self-confidence, flexibility and perseverance in overcoming impoverished beginnings, personal tragedy, physical illnesses and handicaps, career and business setbacks, and other adversities. Each of their stories shows how they adapted with agility. They gave themselves time to cry, but shook off negative feelings as quickly as possible. Then, they motivated themselves to seize new, life-changing opportunities. For some of them, families or religion helped nurture their indomitable spirit.

Life as an adventure

A decade ago, Stefanie Reid was the consummate high school athlete – captain of the rugby, basketball and volleyball teams and a member of the swimming and cross-country teams. Then in an instant, her athletic ambitions were shattered. While tubing at a friend’s cottage in August 2000, she lost her foot to engine propellers in a boating accident and became a below-the-knee amputee. “It was hard to imagine what life would be like without sports,” says Reid, who claims citizenship in Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain.

What a difference a few years can make. Reid showed true grit and returned to the sports world using a running prosthesis for track and field events while studying at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Today at age 25, she competes in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, as well as the long jump. She even claimed a bronze medal in the 200-meter sprint at the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympic Games for athletes with disabilities.

How did Reid recover and thrive after such a devastating accident? Sometimes it takes just one special individual to ignite resilience in another person. For Reid, that person was “Nurse Claudette,” who helped her progress beyond anger and lethargy. About a week after the accident, the nurse brought in breakfast. When Reid refused to eat, the nurse slammed down the tray and told Reid about a little girl in another ward of the hospital who had lost both legs but was still able to smile. She said Reid’s family needed a smile from their daughter, whether she felt like it or not. Then she marched off telling Reid she had better clean her plate, as well. “She was the first one who really challenged me and expected something more from me besides moping,” Reid says. “It felt really good, and that day I made a choice that I was still going to enjoy my life.”

Determination defines people like Reid. They stretch themselves and set new goals, prepared to accept difficulties and disappointment along the way. For Reid, that meant turning rehabilitation into a series of feats to master, such as learning to carry a lunch tray while on crutches. Just one year after the accident, she was ready to return to the rugby field, but many referees wouldn’t let her participate because they feared the metal parts in her artificial leg could hurt other players. So she turned her attention to academics, graduating first in her high school class and receiving a full scholarship to Queen’s.

Then one day at Queen’s, Reid’s passion for sports was rekindled as she watched a track and field practice. Why not give sprinting a try, she thought. Little did she know what she was in for. “Showing up for those initial practices was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” she says. “I was out of shape, I was training with athletes who had been doing track since grade school, and to top it all off, I was learning everything from scratch while learning how to use my new running prosthesis.” But she persisted, and by her fourth year at Queen’s she was traveling to competitions with the varsity team.

To Reid, resilience is all about “looking at life as an adventure, not as an exercise in perfection.” She says she “wants nothing more than to be flying around a track. I will always run, and I will always believe there is nothing I can’t do.” At the same time, Reid doesn’t take her comeback for granted. Some days she gets out of bed and really doesn’t feel like training. She tries to motivate herself by remembering past frustrations, like difficulty with her hamstrings, and feeling thankful she is healthy enough to train. “I don’t think learning to be resilient is like riding a bike,” she says. “Being resilient is a choice. You have to practice and work at it always.”

Blue sky thinking

People like Reid rebound more easily if they have a passion in life that continues to drive them forward. For David Neeleman, that passion is improving the flying experience for travelers, whether through lower prices or better service – or both.

The airline business has proven very rewarding for Neeleman, but it also has tested his staying power. Most challenging by far was his ouster as CEO of JetBlue Airways in 2007, which he calls a “sucker punch” that he would never want to experience again. He couldn’t help but feel mournful and angry after losing the top job at his prized creation. Like a proud father, he had launched JetBlue in 2000 as a way “to bring humanity back to air travel” and watched it soar to become one of the top-rated airlines for customer satisfaction.

Unfortunately, JetBlue’s sterling reputation suffered under Neeleman’s stewardship. Things went terribly wrong during an ice storm on Valentine’s Day 2007, when about ten planes kept passengers stranded on runways at New York’s Kennedy Airport for up to nine hours. As JetBlue struggled to recover in the following days, Neeleman did all the right things from a crisis-management perspective: He publicly apologized and even crafted a customer bill of rights. Yet a few months later, the board of directors relieved him of his CEO title, leaving him only the role of chairman. That wasn’t acceptable to Neeleman, who soon departed. Despite his sore feelings, he wrote a parting e-mail to JetBlue’s employees, telling them that “it’s not about what happens to you in life, it’s how you deal with what happens that really matters.”

Entrepreneurs may best personify resilience. These risk takers are always looking to the future, seeking ways to hatch their next venture and make a splashy comeback. Like a phoenix, Neeleman already has risen anew and is back in the skies with a start-up airline in Brazil called Azul (Portuguese for “blue,” appropriately enough). “I have a different way of looking at the world,” says Neeleman, who draws strength from his Mormon religion. “I cope with setbacks by seeing a new way of creating a company.” He saw a market opportunity in Brazil, where many people ride buses between cities rather than fly. Azul’s strategy: Provide local cities with lower-cost, non-stop air service. Neeleman also was attracted to Brazil, the land of his birth, because he holds citizenship there, as well as in the United States, and is fluent in Portuguese. Another plus: He won’t have to worry about ice storms.

Entrepreneurs often achieve continued success because they heed the priceless lessons in every hardship life throws at them. To prevent any more of those sucker punches, Neeleman has applied some critical lessons from his JetBlue ordeal at Azul. First and foremost, he has retained control of the voting shares of Azul. His JetBlue experience also taught him the need to keep his board of directors better informed about corporate developments.

Failure can spur people to show their true mettle and prove their critics wrong. Neeleman’s dismissal from JetBlue wasn’t his first in the airline business. In 1993, Southwest Airlines acquired his first airline, Morris Air, and brought him on board. But within a few months, Southwest fired him. “It was a double whammy because I had sold the company I started and missed it,” Neeleman says. “I had wanted to be involved with a great company like Southwest but all of a sudden that was gone, too.” Of course, his response to the Southwest sacking was JetBlue. “I wouldn’t call it revenge,” he says, “but I was showing the guys I could do it again and do it even better with JetBlue.”

Over the wall

Some people try to inspire resilience in others. David Wilson, the head of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), sends a letter titled, “Over the Wall and on to Tomorrow,” when he learns of a setback in the life of someone he knows. It details some of his own thorny problems, most notably his dismissal as a partner at Ernst & Young at age 53, just as his son was about to start college. He had expected to retire from the accounting firm, but a new leadership team felt differently. He ultimately came to realize that the new management’s values (“cash flows, not ephemeral concepts like partnership”) didn’t match his own, and that both he and the firm bore responsibility for the dismissal. At that point, “you must take ownership” of the situation, even if external forces influenced the ordeal, Wilson says. “As soon as you cede control to someone else, you give up your resilience. Far from being victimized with the rather tasteless termination notice I was given, I was liberated. I was over the wall, never to return. I was now in charge of my own destiny.” He began networking and soon found a new calling withGMAC.

For Wilson himself, inspiration came from his parents. Through both words and actions, they taught him optimism and resourcefulness. Wilson remembers his father encouraging him to reach for the stars and give his all. His father often read him the poem, “Be the Best of Whatever You Are,” which starts, “If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley – but be the best little shrub by the side of the rill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.” Wilson also had a role model for adaptability in his mother. After working her way through college, she developed tuberculosis and was confined to a hospital when she was only 26 years old. “She decided, ‘I can’t do what I would usually do’,” Wilson says, “so she learned about the many flowers she received in the hos­pital and ended up writing four books about flowers.”

Physical ailments dogged Wilson even earlier in life. As a young child, he suffered from celiac disease, a digestive disorder that had killed his uncle. He remembers his mother making him a cake from cottage cheese and sending him to friends’ birthday parties with a sign around his neck warning, “Do Not Feed This Child.” The celiac disease left him more robust when he faced his next trial, which came quickly in the form of a serious sinus infection at age ten that required surgery. His parents bought him a pair of hockey gloves as a gift to try to temper the bad news. “But I took it in my stride,” Wilson recalls. “By then, I knew that when you get knocked down, you get back up.” He confronted his next challenge in high school when he suffered a broken ankle that sidelined him from playing basketball, a sport he loved. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, he followed his mother’s advice and switched to another love – singing. He took vocal lessons and later performed Gilbert and Sullivan in college.

Such flexibility requires hope and self-confidence, but also an awareness of one’s limitations and what is feasible to achieve. People must soberly assess their situation and understand what is within their control and what is not. In short, resilience is a blend of idealism and realism. “You have to know your strengths,” Wilson says, “and how far you can push them.”

Beating the odds

Overcoming a rough start in life can push some people to heights even they never dreamed they could reach. That was certainly true for Edith Kelly-Green, whose journey took her from accompanying her grandmother as she cleaned apartments to graduating with an accounting degree from the University of Mississippi to ultimately becoming the first female African-American vice president at FedEx Corp.

Overcoming a rough start in life can push some people to heights even they never dreamed they could reach.

She believes she owes some of her stamina to her grandmother. Her mother had moved away and lived with her siblings in Iowa, leaving only Kelly-Green behind with her grandmother in Mississippi. That experience made her feel that she had to prove she was as good as everybody else. But it was her grandmother who truly inspired her, cleaning other people’s homes to support Kelly-Green and encouraging her to do homework rather than help with the chores. “When I went to those apartments, I saw that people flew on airplanes and had better lives,” Kelly-Green says. “I was motivated to finish college, find new opportunities and become more self-sufficient.” Her motto became “Dream in color,” and words like “impossible” or “can’t” were banished from her vocabulary.

Kelly-Green learned early to take responsibility for failures and correct any deficiencies. When she was passed over for a coveted promotion at FedEx, for example, she didn’t blame it on sex or racial discrimination. Instead, she took the disappointment as a wake-up call to improve her qualifications. She made a lateral career move to get operational experience, and she enrolled in Vanderbilt University’s M.B.A. program because she had lost the promotion to an M.B.A. graduate. Those additional credentials eventually helped her move up the chain of command at FedEx. “It probably would have been harder for me to bounce back if I had used the race card or sex card,” Kelly-Green says.

What makes Kelly-Green’s career accomplishments even more notable are the painful personal obstacles she faced at the same time she was climbing the corporate ladder. Her husband died suddenly in 1992, which left her to care for her two children alone. Shortly after his death, fate dealt her another blow when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kelly-Green turned to prayer and also grew determined to beat the cancer by researching it and taking an aggressive approach. She had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, even though the radiation was optional. She won the battle and has been cancer-free for the past 16 years. “As individuals, we must define who we are and take control of our lives,” she says. “We can’t let other people or tragic events shape us.”

Resilient people have strong values and find meaning in life’s trials and tragedies, helping them forge ahead. They tend to be people who give back to others, sometimes in response to major hurdles in their own lives. Kelly-Green retired from FedEx in 2003, but has started a second career and is involved in philanthropic projects. She established a scholarship in memory of her grandmother for African-American women entering the School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi. She also aims to cultivate a can-do attitude in the young people who work for her latest business venture – Lenny’s Sub Shop franchises. She is urging her employees to get over any feelings of hopelessness and strive for more than an hourly fast-food job. “The younger generation is less resilient today,” she says. “I don’t want them to give up; they should take control of their lives and either manage or own one of the sandwich stores.” They need only look to Kelly-Green’s life to see the wisdom of her words.

RESUMÉ Ronald J. Alsop

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Ronald J. Alsop is the author of eight books, including The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace; The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation: Creating, Protecting, and Repairing Your Most Valuable Asset; and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Top Business Schools. A longtime writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal, he is now a freelance journalist, consultant and public speaker.