You can spend a lifetime resenting the tests, angry about the slights, and the injustices. Or you can get over it.
Carly Fiorina made this observation during her commencement address to the graduating students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. It was her first public appearance since being fired as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard in February of this year. Standing before the students, their families and friends that day was a living example of resilience; the remarkable human ability to bounce back after even the most devastating setbacks. For Fiorina, the setback was brutal. She was one of the highest profile CEO’s in a glamorous industry. She played hardball to get where she was and was at the top of her game. When she crashed, the press went on a feeding frenzy. But standing on that stage, there was no doubt she meant what she said; you can get over it and you can even come back stronger.
Coming back stronger is what resilient people do. And they bounce back using a common set of tools. Fiorina revealed three of them in her speech. The first is humor. On stage she joked that she was busy dusting off her resume, shopping for a new interview dress and trying to drum up some references. Beyond the jokes, her entire affect made it clear that she could look at the pain, disappointment, absurdity and sheer awfulness of the firing and laugh at it. In doing so, she controlled her response to events rather than yielding to them. Unfortunately, for most folks, when hard times come, the first thing to go is a sense of humor. That’s usually a mistake. Humor has a way of cutting problems down to size.
She also told the crowd that she was “at peace,” and that her soul was intact. This is the second tool of resilient people. A spiritual center helps define our purpose in life. It explains why getting up every morning is about more than accounts received and payments due. It’s the source of our strength and a constant in our lives. But though it’s our anchor, in times of crisis, people often drift. They give way to impulse and feed their passions with abandon. But it’s hard to bounce back with a deflated spirit.
“The truth is I’m proud of the life I’ve lived so far; and though I’ve made my share of mistakes, I have no regrets,” she said. This is the third tool: character. Unlike many CEO’s in the news today, Fiorina was fired because she and the HP board had differing visions for the future of the company. There was no malfeasance, no corruption, no looting of the corporate coffers. She was tough, but always operated with integrity and a commitment to excellence. She earned the right to be unapologetic through principled behavior. Resilience is impossible in the absence of good character.
Not everyone is resilient, but everyone can learn to be. Try laughing at life’s absurdities, listen attentively to your spirit and behave as if your mother was watching! —Ebert