I am often asked the questions, “Who do you admire? Who motivates you?” My answer is, humans who are dealing with adversity and find a way to persevere: my mom, ordinary people coping with unexpected loss or bad environments, and the extreme cases of those dealing with some of the worst trauma—refugees.
“Who do you admire? Who motivates you?”
When I was nine years old, my mom came to me, the oldest of her three daughters, to let me know we were leaving my father. He was and is a good man, but at the time, he was an alcoholic and a bad husband and father. My mother, the youngest of six kids whose father had died when she was very young, had an entry-level administrative job, not suitable for supporting three kids. After years of trying to just accept it, ignore it, or make it better, she found that what she believed was (or should be) her life (a happy, safe home for her and her children) was just not possible unless she made a change. Option A was gone.
Despite people encouraging her to stay (my father had a good job that provided for the family), she was more concerned with our safety and way of life than she was worried about her standard of living. She came to the conclusion, despite feeling the impossibility of making it work, that her only option, out of obligation to her family, was Option B—to leave, with three kids aged three to nine, and go out on her own. She asked herself, "If not me, who? If not now, when?"
She did not allow herself to be trapped by her ideal option not being available. She did not allow her circumstances to define her.
I could not do justice in one post to the complexity, compromises, trade-offs, and risks she had to endure. What I can honor is the grace, dignity, and commitment with which she, with few resources and little support, pursued this new chapter in her life. She did not allow herself to be trapped by her ideal option not being available. She did not allow her circumstances to define her. She focused on what was needed and what was possible, not on what was no longer possible. We left, and that created a better life for all of us.
She worked multiple jobs for many years to make ends meet. She fed us on a food budget of ten dollars a week for three years. I took care of my sisters and started working at a very young age. Despite those challenges, I seem only to remember my mother being happy and focused on our education and on being good people—although I know she had her dark moments.
That is the leadership example I grew up with—my mom set the bar for how to deal with adversity.
She used to say, “You just figure it out and make it happen.” That was her humble overgeneralization of how tough it was for her (and is for all of us) to adjust to Option B, but spoken like a human who has been through sh*t and come out on the other side.
Using her example, it’s not surprising that I could persevere when I hit personal challenges in life, whether it was being one of the few women or the far youngest in leadership ranks in businesses. As I built teams and worked with others around the world who were dealing with challenges, I too learned to focus on what was possible. That grit I developed let me accomplish extraordinary things, often putting myself in new situations with opportunities to grow and make an impact.
As a part of the UN Global Entrepreneurs Council and a participant in other humanitarian work, I’ve seen resilience of the most extreme kind firsthand: Syrian refugees rebuilding their lives either in refugee camps or within new cities. Make no mistake about it—they desperately, with the deepest pain, want Option A. They would give anything for it: to go home, to have their family members back alive or back together, to stop getting the bad news—every week and month, for years on end—that more family and friends are dying and the war continues. They have to start over, with little to nothing, sometimes in unfamiliar lands with VERY different cultures. Many of them struggle, persevere, build businesses, and raise families—somehow. They know their only option is to kick ass in Option B.
Of course, there are demonstrations of resilience in far worse and far easier situations than these—I try to remember that such examples help with inspiration but do not diminish the realness of each of our own struggles, be they big or small, and the resilience required to overcome them.