This January, Dr. Anne Harbison will keynote our inaugural virtual event, Connect 2021: Thriving Together. In anticipation of her talk and her new book, Never Waste a Crisis, we sat down with her to learn more about her inspiration, her professional journey and how she motivates herself and others to thrive in even the most difficult times.
I want people to feel a sense of hope for what’s ahead. There are absolutely things they can do far beyond a positive mental attitude to put themselves in motion to thrive.
Your upcoming book is titled Never Waste a Crisis. How do you define a crisis? What makes a crisis different than other difficult situations that we experience?
What defines a crisis is that the foundation of what you knew to be true is fundamentally cracked. It’s a moment in time when nothing is ever the same—there’s no going back to normal. It’s different than a failure, disappointment or setback. Those experiences are painful, but a crisis hits us in a more destabilizing and profound way.
Crisis is also very personal. Two people can experience very similar hardships, but only one confronts it as a crisis. For example, you can lose a job and your pride is hurt. You may be worried about your paycheck or your resume but not experience the setback as a crisis. Fundamentally, you have the same skills, your family hasn’t left; you know you can regroup and seek a better situation. Someone else could face a similar loss, but have a complete crisis of confidence that leaves them immobilized.
So part of crisis is external and objective—like the shared COVID crisis. But a huge part of crisis is subjective. It’s the individual meaning that we attach to the external event.
Thriving is engagement in motion. You’re not just happy; you’re growing.
You write in your book about thriving during even the toughest times. What does it mean to thrive?
Thriving is engagement in motion. It’s distinguished by personal development. You’re not just happy; you’re growing. You’re not just confident; you’re learning. It produces a different physiological state called “flow” that connects the emotions of hope to physical energy and mental clarity.
Thriving doesn’t occur just because everything is the way we want it to be. In fact, the thriving I speak about stems from overcoming hardship. There’s actually a new body of research on “post-traumatic growth” that shows the potential of difficult experiences to propel our growth rather than stunt it. But, there’s no guarantee that will happen. We have to have the right mindset, support systems and nurturing to thrive through crisis instead of crumble. That’s what my book is all about.
We have to have the right mindset, support systems and nurturing to thrive through crisis instead of crumble. That’s what my book is all about.
Many of us are glad to put 2020 behind us. But you’ve got a different perspective on the opportunity that crisis introduces. Can you explain that?
My research, consulting and certainly personal experience has shown me that we can use the worst moment as an opportunity for growth and renewal. That is the heart of my message.
When life knocks you down, it’s painful. You’ve experienced loss; you’re vulnerable and uncertain. At the same time, vulnerability and uncertainty are ideal states for learning. You’re open to new things because what was before is no longer an option. As difficult as a health crisis, a divorce, a business collapse—and certainly COVID—can be, they can also be a catalyst for rebuilding a life that is more fruitful and sustainable.
Quite a bit of firsthand research informs your book. Can you share some highlights and how those stories helped you define your topic?
When I was a doctoral student at Harvard, I interviewed successful mid-career professionals who had experienced a very public failure. It wasn’t “I didn’t get the promotion.” It was “My business collapsed” or “I was a doctor and made a medical error that cost a life” or “I lost an election that ended my political career.” In each case, a lot was at stake and the failure was difficult to hide or minimize.
Those stories captivated me because, ultimately, they were about resilience and growth. The professionals I studied faced massive crises, but compared to more typical cases, they made meaningful change in their lives because of that.
I found several factors that characterized their response to crisis. In the aftermath, they were willing to look honestly at the role they played in their crisis. They were willing to share openly, without going down a shame cycle. They were open to seeing themselves differently, to try something new. They also had a trusted mentor, friend or counselor that helped them gain perspective and wisdom from the experience. No one in my study grew from the experience of crisis on their own; there was always a key relationship or community that supported their growth.
Part of my story is a grief journey. I’ve realized that I don’t have to resolve sorrow to feel real joy.
You have personal experience with tragedy that gives you uncommon empathy to our current situation. How else did that loss change your outlook?
Part of my story is a grief journey. I’ve had a really blessed, phenomenal life in my business and my family, but five years ago we very suddenly lost our nine-year-old son Ben. It’s been a devasting path, but also one in which I’ve gained incredible compassion and courage. I’ve realized that I don’t have to resolve sorrow to feel real joy.
The greatest gift for me of 2020 is that I’ve been able to bring my professional life as a leadership consultant along with my personal experience as a grieving mother to help others grapple with loss. I’m an example that thriving is possible, even when the very worst has happened. It’s not because I’ve “resolved” my grief; it’s because I’ve grown my capability to experience profound loss, along with the ability to lead a purposeful life and create a hopeful future. That is something we all need coming out of the crisis of 2020.
We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. We can confront a crisis communally, but we experience a crisis personally.
What can Connect 2021 attendees expect from our keynote? Can you give us a preview?
I want people to feel a sense of hope for what’s ahead that’s not completely dependent on the vaccine or politics or the economy. There are absolutely things they can do far beyond a positive mental attitude to put themselves in motion to thrive.
One of my messages is we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. We can confront a crisis communally, but we experience a crisis personally. It’s important to look inward and understand the very personal aspects of the losses and change you’ve faced in 2020. It’s also important to look outward and connect with others with sensitivity and compassion about what we’ve experienced as a community and society. The Connect 2021 event is a wonderful opportunity to do that.
Start your 2021 journey with strength and resilience. Join us on January 21 from 4-5 p.m. CST for the Connect 2021 virtual event featuring Dr. Anne Harbison, and her book pre-order Never Waste a Crisis.