How to be Resilient: what to do when things don't go to plan

Author Stacey Copas knows a bit about resiliency. At twelve years old Copas broke her neck diving into a shallow swimming pool, an event which left her depressed, heartbroken and a quadriplegic.

But through her body was broken, her spirit wasn’t. Copas eventually put her life back together, and since that day she’s run for parliament in the 2007 NSW State Elections, bought several properties, become an educator for wheelchair users in the Soloman Islands, become a speaker and coach, and is currently training for the 2016 paralympics.

She’s also just published a new book – How to be Resilient: The Blueprint for Getting Results when Things Don’t go to Plan.

We spoke with Copas about the writing of the book, about looking on the bright side and the secret for overcoming even the biggest of life’s obstacles.

Image: How to be Resilient author, Stacey Copas

Idealog: Hi Stacey. Nice book. How long has it been in the works?

Copas: Thanks. It’s been a long gestation. I started kicking it around about three years ago. I wrote a brief e-book, partly to test the concept and partly to try and build a community around it and see if there was an audience.

What’s the reception been like?

It’s been absolutely amazing how well it’s been received. I think people connect with how easy to read it is, and how practical the information in it is. It’s been kind of surreal.

Let’s talk a little bit about what’s in the book. Executives seem to be very prone to issues around psychological distress – depression, anxiety. What do you think causes this situation?

I think definitely it comes down to the expectations and the pressure people are under being in leadership roles or as business owners. In that position, you’re responsible for other people’s lives, plus you’ve got your own stuff that you’re dealing with too.  When you’re in the spotlight, all that starts to build on itself.

Also, people can be professionally isolated in those roles. From an executive’s perspective, they’re really on their own. I think also in that sort of role, there’s a tendency to keep this stuff to yourself – the last thing you want to do is worry someone else with the fact that you’re worried. If a leader shows signs of being worried about something, then that can be a contagion of worry. If there is that element of fear and uncertainly and worry, its contagious in a toxic way.

After your accident what was it like trying to put your life back together? Was it a slow process?

Oh yeah, it was. The rug had been completely pulled out from under me. And everything I thought my life was going to be changed in that moment. So yes, it was a very slow process. I think in the beginning there was a glimmer that I wanted to prove everyone wrong, but I had no concept of how challenging it was going to be. I was resentful and bitter about how my life had changed, and I kept that from everyone. Everyone thought I was doing so well, but I was completely torn up.

Around 17 I had this moment where I just felt that it was all too much for me and I wanted it to stop. I found myself in my bedroom with a bottle of prescription medication and a bottle of water. But I thought: if someone finds me and I’m still alive, perhaps I would be in an even worse situation than I am now. That scared me. That’s what really snapped me into that proverbial fork in the road. I had to decide whether I was going to give up or get on with it.

So what’s the premise of your book, if you had to sum it up?

It sounds so simple, but it’s this: ultimately everything comes down to decisions. Every day is a collection of decisions. It’s like those 80s books – every day is a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.

Because we’re faced with challenges every day and it’s how we respond to those challenges every day that determines the quality of life we’re going to have. How are you going to respond? How are we going to turn challenges into opportunities? It's about turning adversity into an asset.

And resilience these days is becoming more important, especially in the business community. If you’re looking at the entrepreneurial space, resilience is crucial. When you’re in that space nothing goes right the first time.

Businesses often have a much shorter lifespan these days than they had, say, 20 years ago. Do you think that’s a resilience issue at play there?  

I think it is, yes. Of course there’s the technology there as well. The pace of technology has increased and that definitely has an impact on business, but people don’t seem to be as resilient as they used to be. It’s the same in business, and it’s the same in relationships and marriages. There doesn’t seem to be as much energy and commitment to fixing things.

We live in a disposable world. Take a look at the younger generation. At school in some sports games they don’t even keep score because they don’t want anyone to feel disappointed. We tell people how great they are, then they get out into the real world and they don’t know how to take the setbacks.

I think the way relationships are these days is symptomatic of this. I was speaking to couple the other day and asked them about their relationship and they said the same thing. When something’s broken, they fix it. But that’s the world we live in. When something’s broke, we don’t fix it; we just throw it away.

I noticed your book is dedicated to 'adversity' itself. Why is that?

Because adversity has led me to all these wonderful experiences I’ve had. People see adversity as a negative, but really, adversity presents us with opportunities. It stops you in your tracks and it can stop you for a moment or for a lifetime. Adversity has given me all these opportunities and insights. When something goes wrong, I look at it excitedly. From a business sense, things not going to always go to plan, but things will give you an opportunity to innovate and to improvise.

If people were to do one thing a day that would make them more resilient, what would it be?

The big thing is certainly looking for the bright spot when things don’t go according to plan. At the end of the day, when you lie down at night, if you can look back on the day and ask: What were all the things I learned today? What was the good stuff? Once you condition yourself to do that, it will make a huge difference. If that’s what you’re thinking about when you fall asleep, then that will make all the difference.

Looking on the bright side is surely easier said than done though, right? What are the actual mechanics of that? How do you do it?

There are three things I do every time something goes wrong.

Firstly, I say thank you, because you can’t feel bad about something you’re feeling grateful for.

Secondly, I ask: Where’s the opportunity in this? What’s the lesson here? Once you start to look for the good, you’ll find it, every time.

Thirdly, I ask: How will this help someone else? When you look at a situation like that, all of a sudden it creates this level of value that wasn’t there before. When you can relay your learning to someone else, it changes your outlook on things.

Buy How to be Resilient: The Blueprint for Getting Results when Things don't go to Planhere.