Lessons from my Grandma

On Radji Beach

I’ve been reading a looooooot of textbooks lately on resilience and associated topics…..

  • On GRIT as I have previously blogged about – passion and persistence towards long term goals.
  • On Mental Toughness, which is a ‘short hand’ way of explaining why some people cope well under pressure and others seem to falter.
  • On Resilience, particularly the work out of the University of Pennsylvania with Martin Seligman and the armed forces.

These related concepts give us great insights into measuring and developing these qualities and traits but I can’t help wondering what people did before they knew all this stuff? Before they had the pile of textbooks by their bed (maybe I’m just a nerd?).

This is all the more ironic given that, by many accounts, we are considered to be less resilient and experiencing more anxiety, depression and general existential unease than at any other time in recent history. Maybe we also have better measurement tools now?

My business partner; Sam and I talk with our clients about VUCA – coined by the American military to describe the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world we live in. Organisations are waiting for the next disruption to come along but don’t know from where it will come, when and with what speed. The possibilities to be blindsided are endless…

So yes we can argue that globalisation and the digital revolution are unleashing the highest level of exponential change ever. Let’s not forget however, how challenging it would have been to live through; the industrial revolution, two world wars and the great depression ….not to mention being a frontiersman in early American history (has anyone seen Revenant?).

So what are the lessons about grit, resilience and mental toughness that we can learn from history and in particular our own stories?

My Grandma Jean

I started pondering my paternal grandmother’s experience. She lost her sister in WWII and her husband shortly after. Her sister Dorothy “Bud” Elmes was one of the Australian nurses captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore and then lined up on Radji beach and shot. Vivien Bullwinkel was the only survivor. You can read about this in “On Radji Beach”, or experience it at the War Memorial in Canberra.

As if that wasn’t loss enough, her husband died shortly after his return from WW2. She then had to support herself and two children at a time when women weren’t educated or empowered to do so. I remember her insistence that my sister and I go to university and her lack of enthusiasm for my chosen profession of acting at the time.

What would she say of all my resilience books?

I think she might say read a good novel instead (though not Enid Blyton!). Coincidentally she later became the librarian of Wangaratta.

Then perhaps she’d say, “Well that’s all well and good sweetie but you just have to get on with it and make the best of the hand you are dealt… life isn’t easy”.

So what did my Grandma know that we have lost touch with – or perhaps swung the pendulum too far away from?

  • Expectations that life would involve difficulty, loss and challenge – as well good things
  • That hard work is involved in any worthwhile achievement
  • That we can cope with difficult situations and don’t need to be “cotton wool-ed”
  • An understanding of the old adage “service before self”
  • That Helicopter parenting wasn’t doing anyone any favours.

What lessons have you learnt from your Grandparents?

And my favourite book on Resilience in honour of my grandma is by Anne Deveson with a definite narrative (not textbook) form.

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