By Nataly Kogan

7 things I learned about struggle, resilience, and the human spirit after doing 165 talks in one year

nataly at homeSince the pandemic broke out, I’ve given 165 virtual talks and workshops on emotional health and resilience skills. (No, that's not a typo.)

I’ve had the privilege to share these skills  with companies, teams, and leaders and got to do pro-bono talks to teachers, doctors, nurses and other frontline workers. Being able to help so many Awesome Humans has been the greatest honor and also my lifeline through this overwhelming and difficult time. (And, I’ve never talked this much or consumed this much tea in a year!)

I miss being on stage and feeling the energy of a live audience. But I have fallen in love with Zoom (yes, really!) and being able to interact with my audiences more than ever through the virtual chat. Being able to ask participants a question and see dozens or even hundreds of responses in real-time has created a level of connection and intimacy I never expected. 

Below are a few reflections on what I’ve learned (and been reminded about) throughout this past year that felt like ten. Writing them down has been both fueling and healing for me and I hope you find some fuel and hope as you read them.

Our brains HATE uncertainty.

Neuroscience has it right: Uncertainty is the hardest thing for the human brain to handle. The brain’s main job is to protect us from danger and uncertainty makes doing that job really hard (especially when we’re dealing with an actually dangerous virus!) If we let it, our brain will cause us so much stress and make up many negative and dramatic stories about the future in its efforts to find some certainty within uncertainty.

Your mindset about a challenge determines how much you struggle.

Challenges are external, but how much you struggle is determined by how you view a challenge and your relationship with your thoughts and emotions. If you look for all the ways a challenge sucks, is unfair, and makes it impossible for you to make it through, you will struggle more. If you see it clearly as it is, embrace it, and then look for ways you can support yourself and people you care about to move through it, you will struggle less. 

Self-care is not a luxury. It’s your responsibility.

Especially when times are tough, fueling your emotional, mental, and physical energy—which is how I define self-care—is not a nice-to-have luxury, but your responsibility. To your work. To your colleagues. To every single person you care about. Because you can’t give what you don’t have. Going through a crisis like this pandemic has helped many more people realize this, although we can all collectively do better (especially by treating self-care as part of work, not something separate from it.)

Witnessing the pain of others is so much harder than our own.

The number one question I got during my talks was how to help a loved one or colleague who was struggling. Even people who had  big personal challenges or suffered great loss, shared how much it hurt them to see others struggle and asked for ways they could help. There is so much empathy and compassion in the human heart!

As human beings, we want to do more than just survive through tough times.

Having a sense of purpose beyond just making it through, gives us strength to keep going. I’ve been humbled by seeing just how many ways people have found to help others and to learn and grow in new and meaningful ways. Research shows that the most resilient people search for positive meaning amidst adversity and I’ve witnessed the power of this research a thousand times over during this pandemic (including in my own experience.)

Gratitude is the best corrective lens for the negativity bias in our brains.

There are so many things that have been and continue to be wrong, negative, scary, worrisome, and frustrating and the negativity bias in our brains means that it’s really easy to over-focus on them. Practicing gratitude is the most powerful, simple yet profound way to counter this tendency of the brain and to not lose touch with what’s OK, good, warm, kind, beautiful, and meaningful, even amidst the toughest challenges. I’ve seen more people starting a gratitude practice over the past year than many years before combined, and that brings me so much joy.

Sharing your struggles is an act of kindness.

When you open up about your struggles, you give others permission to share theirs and that vulnerable honesty creates the most meaningful and genuine human connections. We all fear how others will react to our vulnerability but seeing people of every background, title, and organization open up about their struggles this year showed me that our fears are mostly unjustified. We crave honesty, authenticity, and when times are hard, knowing that we are not alone with our struggles and challenges.

The lesson I personally treasure the most is this:

The human spirit is generous, kind, and strong. 

I’ve witnessed more generosity, warmth, and kindness than I could ever describe in the past year and even with all of the challenges we’ve faced and continue to face—individually, as communities, and as a country—I’m filled with immense hope. 

Next up: How to be (a little more) OK when life isn't OK

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