I’ve got to thinking that we may be missing a trick in the way we develop resilience in employees. It only took me 2,725 miles for me to have this epiphany, but I think I am onto something.
I recently participated in the Tour Divide, the self-supported mountain bike race that goes between the border of the USA and Mexico and Banff in Canada (or vice versa) along the line of the Continental Divide. It’s nearly 3,000 miles of wild open spaces, epic climbs and stunning scenery. What I was hoping to be a delightful adventure race in the wilderness, ended up being an exercise in survival. Intense temperatures on day one threatened to end the ride with heat exhaustion. Then, after about 1,000 miles, a strained thigh muscle meant pedalling was acutely painful. The change in riding position to cope with the pain resulted in redraw saddle sores that were deeply uncomfortable. The sores meant that the only way I could get the power down was to ride standing up out of the saddle. I had to do this for a little over 250 miles into a stiff headwind across wide open plains. Next, a gear failure which meant riding over a hundred miles in the biggest gear I had through the Yellowstone National Park and into Idaho.
A further two days were spent trapped in the easiest gear, where progress on the flat was possible only by moving the bike along with one foot in the pedal and the other pushing off the ground to maintain momentum. I spent a total of 350 miles in one wrong gear. Next up was a terminal failure of two parts of the bike requiring a replacement bike and by this point, I was about 2,000 miles into the race.
However, the race was not yet done with me; over the next two days I broke two teeth. First one on the righthand side of my mouth and then a second on the left side. This made chewing food difficult. Finally, the riding position of the replacement bike caused nerve damage in my hands, resulting in loss of grip and numbness. I struggled to control the bike on the very rough ground. All of this was aside from days of relentless rain, riding through sticky mud, sleep deprivation and encounters with wildlife including seven bears, two of which were uncomfortably close. Many times I was close to tears wondering just what else this race was to throw at me. I managed to make it to the end and, somewhat surprisingly given the problems, as the first Northbound rider.
Since completing the ride, I have spent considerable time pondering what kept me going in spite of the many problems I experienced. The conclusion I have reached is not that I am blessed with some extreme level of resilience but rather it was the strength of the dream I had. I spent two years preparing for this event and as time went on, my obsession grew and almost every waking moment was spent thinking about it. I would find myself in the middle of a piece of work daydreaming about the race rather than the job at hand. I had lived almost every moment of the ride even before I turned the first pedal stroke. I had arrived in Banff so many times in my mind that when I finally did arrive, it felt like a familiar place. I had lived the routine of packing my bivvy, cleaning my teeth, oiling my chain, checking my bike and loading the next route file onto my GPS before heading off into the sunrise. The desire to complete the ride had become this aching ambition.
In contrast, just the other day I saw a TV advert for green tea. A woman awoke dressed in her running kit, stretched, warmed up and opened her door only to be confronted with rain. Rather than heading out, she put the kettle on and had a cup of tea. Whatever the goal motivating her to run was insufficient to overcome a bit of rain. My simple epiphany was that the stronger the goal, the greater the resilience to overcome the hurdles preventing success.
In terms of business, managers and subordinates set goals to be achieved within a certain timeframe. Although time is spent thinking about what that goal should be, how much time is spent dreaming about the goal and what it could mean for everyone involved? I would suspect in most instances - almost no time. Why then should we be surprised when in the face of adversity people struggle to achieve the targets set? How much more challenging could the goal be set if sufficient time was spent allowing people to dream about what achieving that goal could mean for them. It might be the ability to buy a beautiful sports car with the bonus earned, or standing on the stage at the annual conference as the recipient of a CEO award, or the opportunity to be considered the industry expert. Whatever the dream might be, the stronger the sense of what it means in all its glorious detail may turn out to be an incredibly powerful way of developing employee resilience. Perhaps instead of helping people manage stress, we should help them grow their dreams.