Anthea Smits, CEO The Difference Incubator
Over the past six months, we as a team have navigated our own business changing and helped hundreds of others to do the same. We went from having a clear business model and ready to write our best year ever, to having nothing certain and many parts of our own business model under threat. Early on I named this time with a metaphor – it’s like our house has burnt down and we’ve set up a campsite in which we’re now living in and trading out of. We will rebuild someday, but we don’t know when and neither do we fully understand the new world we are building for. So, for now we live with the discomfort of a camp site. For most of us we’ve navigated the pain and grief of leaving the certainty of so many things to a world where now face masks are mandatory, Victoria has a curfew and our borders in Australia are closed to each other.
We’ve helped businesses write COVID continuity plans, find new customers, pivot to completely new product lines, test those product lines quickly. We’ve helped groups to manage cash flow, reassess expenses and navigate all the government stimulus packages, all while setting up home offices and for many of us home schooling our kids. I’m exhausted just writing this list. Then particularly for us in Victoria when we thought we were ready to put lock downs and home schooling behind us, it all began again resulting in even more serious lock downs than before. All this required us to dig deep and find resilience on all fronts. We have been incredibly impressed and inspired by the amazing resilience of the entrepreneurs we’ve worked with through COVID.
But there is one thing that deeply concerns me, the key word we’ve heard over and over again is resilience. We hear ‘Entrepreneurs are resilient’, ‘women are resilient’ – a large proportion of our work is amongst Australian Indigenous entrepreneurs and Pacific Island entrepreneurs and again ‘resilience’ is named for these groups. It appears resilience is something we admire in someone – something we celebrate. But at what cost?
My great concern is how quickly we ‘pull up our big girl pants’ and get on with the task. We don’t stop to acknowledge the very real and valid feelings this crisis brings. In many conversations now, I’ve taken to asking the question ‘how are you really doing?’ As we scratch below the surface, we begin to see real cracks. Yes, the resilience that we are currently displaying exists, but it sits right alongside a deep human emotional cost that rarely gets acknowledged. As humans, we are complex beings wired to sit with multiple emotions at one time. However, we struggle with this. We think it needs to be more black and white. But I’m finding that it’s possible and necessary to sit with both the malaise and anxiety of the unknown future, and also hope and creativity for it.
I should disclose, I’m no psychologist or counselor, I’m simply naming what I’m seeing amongst the many incredible people we get to work with.
When I look at the definition of resilience ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness, the ability for a substance or object to spring back into shape’. Resilience is something often hard won, out of necessity and out of previous crises. For some, being resilient is a not a choice. It’s born out of a desire to thrive despite the inequalities and injustice that they experience. For some, being told that they’re strong and resilient is good but it also needs to recognize the very real personal cost of stepping up and persevering. I think a lot of what we are seeing are coping mechanisms. How long can these be stretched for?
I’m asking particularly at this time, if we are naming resilience in people, we first need to create spaces of empathy, to listen, to sit alongside them in the paradox of emotions. Not to jump to the silver lining or problem solve, but to hear them and validate their feelings, in all of the complexities. I find this brings a deeper sense of connection and offers refreshment.
I’ve found that I need to start with myself first. When I start to acknowledge pain or uncertainty, I notice that I’m quick to rebound – to use positive thinking to pull myself out. Sometimes, we don’t even let ourselves go there because it’s too scary. And because we’re torn – we think we’re meant to feel one thing or another. But that’s the thing – naming our full human experience of emotions, and learning to sit equally with both sadness and joy, or lament and hope is to become truly resilient.
There are some amazing things that I love during this COVID experience – the freedom to be with my family and a new found awareness of the beauty around me, the first signs of spring and these things sit right alongside the feeling of being caged, the grief and exhaustion of dealing with businesses in chaos, everyday.
So next time you notice yourself, or others too quick to ‘pull up their big girl pants’ and brush aside their struggles… just pause. I hope that you too can find ways to hold space for all of the human experience. And in that to find deeper connections and new strength for each day.