Resilience is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, and spring back into shape; toughness, elasticity.” Psychologists say resilience is the process of adapting in the face of adversity, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.
There is an old adage that says, “Calm seas don’t make a good sailor.” If that’s the case, then our current “turbulent seas” make now the perfect time to build your resilience as a founder and a company.
Being a founder has taught me some big lessons, that weren’t just about running a startup, but also about the life experiences that happened in parallel.
In life and business, there is a natural tension between the real and the ideal. Ideal is what our business plans account for and what our professors and business books teach us. And then there's the real—what actually happens. The 'real' is the messy, unpredictable middle.
Our job as founders is to bring the real and the ideal as close together as possible, then recognize and embrace the fact that there's always going to be tension in the middle. Struggle is going to happen, as sure as life is going to happen. Embracing this struggle is where the growth happens. The good news is, we all have the ability to grow through the struggle and develop the innate human capacity for resilience.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is positive action in the face of fear. It’s a decision, it’s a mindset, and it’s key to resilience.
In 2000, I was the cofounder of a software-as-a-service application for the residential construction industry. At the same time, my wife and I were about to have our first child. Both very exciting events, both very much about creation. We went through the normal excitement and joy of being new parents with the added complexity (and exhaustion) of starting a company. I knew I needed to balance the founder role with the soon-to-be father role.
Then we got some tough news. We found out that our unborn child, Anna, had spina bifida, a neural tube birth defect that's permanently disabling, and usually paralyzing.
We had our vision of the “ideal”- a new baby, a new business. Life dealt us the “real”.
Since my wife and I are both creators, we both possess a bias for action. So we went looking for a solution. We found out about an experimental surgery for kids with spina bifida at Vanderbilt University. (By “experimental,” I mean only a handful had been done before in the United States. There was almost no data to accurately support outcomes. A frightening dilemma.)
We had a decision to make: do the very risky and life-threatening surgery that may give Anna a chance for a fuller life, or don’t, and one day have to explain why we didn’t have the courage to face our fears. After much prayer, we moved forward.
The surgery was an open-womb operation on our unborn child at around 22-weeks gestation. At that time, our baby was the size of a can of Coke. After anesthetizing the child, the surgeon opened the womb and took the amniotic fluid out, and then did a procedure to close a hole in her back exposing her spine. After the procedure, he returned her and the fluid to the womb, and closed it up. Pretty crazy even in today’s world, and this was almost twenty years ago!
Fortunately, and thanks to an excellent team, the surgery was a success. Anna still had spina bifida, and was left with physical challenges, but to a lesser degree than without the surgery. Anna was paralyzed below the knees, but you would never know it. She developed into a very active child, and was even the point guard on her high school basketball team.
Being paralyzed at the knees means her life is different. Her life is not easy, but through her challenges she has had to pioneer new ways to get things done. (Imagine a point guard that doesn't have use of their ankles and calves, that's really hard.) She teaches us every day that what is hard brings about what is good in life.
In 2014, Anna went to Duke University to undergo another complicated surgery that would correct some of her bone growth and improve her mobility. The first surgery on her right leg went great. The second surgery on her left leg failed - catastrophically - leaving her ankle destroyed beyond repair.
That loss of her ankle meant a loss of the thing she loved most, which was sports. She was facing a leg amputation below the knee at age 15. Calling up that bias for action, we sought out a better solution, consulting with doctors across the nation from UVA, Duke, UNC, and Johns Hopkins. The diagnosis and prognosis wasn't great; she would have to choose between no mobility or amputation. Once again, life dealt us the real when all we wanted was the ideal.
With tremendous courage and a steadfast embrace of the real, Anna opted for another radical surgery to remove what was left of her ankle, fuse her leg bones to her heel, and then extend the leg bones by almost two inches, with new orthopedic technology.
Today, I am happy to share that she is doing great. She has some physical limitations, but we are super proud of her resilience and courage. She attends the University of Virginia and fulfilled her dream college experience by earning herself a spot as the only woman student manager on the defending national championship men’s basketball team (Wahoowa).
What does my daughter Anna’s struggle with spina bifida have to do with startups? Why tell this story? Because the message to entrepreneurs is the same: I hope that you’ll embrace the hard things. If you do, the perseverance and resilience it will develop will pay off in your career and your life.
When you hear the famous founder stories, you never hear about an easy, breezy path. Great success is almost always a struggle. But successful people – just like Anna – are some of the most resilient people on the planet.
So that brings us to our current global struggle, and what probably feels like insurmountable difficulties for founders and startups. These are unprecedented times, with generation-defining challenges. But I encourage you to hold on, don’t give up, and grow through this adversity.
Take time to be reflective on your experience. Seek out the good in the bad, because it’s inside the storm where you learn, grow, refine, and define yourself. The tension is where great ideas and creativity come from, and where resilience grows.