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Forging Resilience

Members of the BYU Marriott community share ideas on how to overcome adversity

There was a time, Melissa Lewis-Western says, when “I would cry every morning when I woke up and remembered my life, and I would cry myself to sleep at night.”

Melissa Lewis-Western

An unexpected divorce rocked Western’s world, but it was the aftershocks that really destabilized her. “The hardest day for me that year wasn’t the day I found out my marriage was over and my husband was leaving us,” she says. “The hardest day for me was about eight months later. I had a panic attack while giving an accounting presentation. I’d been having dark feelings, feelings of not being enough, and I let them all in.” She passed out and was taken to the hospital. For some time after that experience, she felt unable to talk in front of an audience—a serious dilemma for a teacher.

Now, 10 years later, as an associate professor and Robert J. Smith Fellow in BYU Marriott’s School of Accountancy, Western says that divorce was the best thing that ever happened to her.” It prompted her to find and join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she met the man who would later become her husband. “[But] if you would have asked me during that first year, I would have said the divorce is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “It was soul crushing. I wondered how other people could even bear this.”

The challenges we each face may range from common conundrums to outright crises that can drastically change our lives, such as the one Lewis-Western experienced. Such crises often stop our progress in some way: for example, the threat of COVID-19 kept tens of millions of people at home; led to unprecedented job loss, economic uncertainty, and mental health issues; and required many people to pause aspects of their lives, such as schooling or relationships. Many even lost loved ones.

It’s common to want to see progression or direction during crises, but many times we can’t. We may eventually find meaning in challenges, as Lewis-Western did in hers, but in the words of literary scholar Kathleen Donegan, crises hardly ever feel “forward leaning.”1 Sometimes the things that happen to us—such as loss, chronic illness, or abuse—don’t appear to hold any meaning and even seem to mire us down. With hindsight, however, people can often identify past events as leading them forward into growth and progression.

Lewis-Western and four other representatives of the BYU Marriott community agree it is possible to stay on our feet and keep moving in a crisis—and it doesn’t require looking for evidence of “forward leaning” in the things that happen to us. Rather, it requires us to do the “leaning” ourselves. By being mindful about who and what we rely on, fostering optimism, building relationships, and learning to persevere, we can become more resilient through life’s upheavals, from the tremors to the quakes.

What Are You Really?

If anyone knows about endurance, it’s Adjetey Wilson. This global supply chain management major was born in refugee housing in the West African country of Benin after his parents fled a violent dictatorship in their home country of Togo. After they moved to the United States, his family of eight struggled: none of them spoke English, and they didn’t have a car. At the time, 10-year-old Wilson had experienced a series of worrying seizures before being diagnosed with and receiving treatment for epilepsy. Years later following a challenging Spanish-speaking mission to Alabama, he had played collegiate rugby at the University of Utah until a back injury ended his athletic career.

Adjetey Wilson

Wilson says he was able to overcome disappointment by putting his previous experiences behind him and pursuing something different. “I had to disidentify with what I was doing,” he explains. “I saw myself as an athlete and a rugby player. That’s what I wanted to do—that’s what I was. But I had to pull myself back in to say, ‘Okay, what are you really? I’m a human being. I’m a child of God.’ And this identity gives me the confidence to pursue other things and feel like I can do them well.”

Wilson attributes his ability to start anew in part to his parents, who constantly reminded their children to take advantage of opportunities and to be their best selves. He also credits his athletic experience for teaching him that failure is a part of success. “I hadn’t played sports until high school, where I started playing rugby, football, and soccer and took up wrestling,” he says. “When you start off with anything, it’s difficult to be good in the beginning. But I ended up winning a district championship with my wrestling team and a state championship with my rugby team.”

He isn’t alone in noting the backbone-building power of sports. In 2019, BYU education and psychology professors published a study with evidence that parents of youth who participated in sports saw much higher levels of resilience in their children than the parents of children who didn’t participate saw.2 As Wilson found, facing challenges in controlled, relatively low-stakes scenarios such as sports can prepare adolescents to respond effectively to real-world challenges later.

Just as in athletics, pure endurance doesn’t help us overcome challenges, Wilson says. “A lot of people think of resilience as not letting things break you,” he notes. “But you’re going to break. And that’s totally fine.” If you fall down during a game, you shouldn’t be embarrassed that you fell—you should only be thinking about getting back up again. “Just come back,” Wilson continues. “Don’t stay in the slump. Remember that it’s okay to fall. You just pick yourself back up and actively look for ways you can better yourself.”

Training for Resilience

How can we build the ability to overcome challenges in the workplace? In an unpublished 2019 study, BYU Marriott assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources Taeya Howell investigated this question alongside Peter Madsen, BYU Marriott professor of organizational behavior and human resources, and David Wood, assistant professor in BYU’s School of Social Work and a uniformed clinical psychologist for the Army National Guard.

“We were interested in how resiliency trainings might affect turnover as well as mental health for new employees,” Howell says. “Coming into a new organization can be overwhelming. We wanted to know how to help people adjust more readily.”

By collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania and drawing on aspects of the US Army’s resilience program, the group formulated its own training program aimed at increasing employee resilience. “You can focus on a variety of components when it comes to resilience,” Howell explains. “We created trainings on two of those aspects: optimism and building connections.”

She and her colleagues worked with a local call center for the study because “it has really high employee turnover, and they have metrics for tracking how their employees perform in a variety of ways,” she says. It was an ideal environment to study how to help employees better overcome professional challenges.

The new hires received no training or either a one-hour training on optimism or building connections. After several months, Howell and her colleagues checked in to see how many from each group were still employed at the company and how their performance metrics compared. “We saw a trend that people who had received the training on building connections were least likely to quit their jobs,” Howell says. “We also saw that the optimism training had the greatest impact on people who came into their positions already reporting symptoms of depression. The training tended to help people stay at the company longer and have better performance.”

While resilience looks different for everyone, there appear to be things that employees and employers can do to promote resilience across the board, Howell continues. “As employees, we have to practice putting setbacks into perspective and not catastrophizing things,” she notes. “And as employers, we can create environments where people feel safe making mistakes and where they can build relationships with one another.”

A Link in the Chain

When their sixth child was born, 1981 MBA alum and National Advisory Council member Martin Egbert and his wife, Allyson, faced an unfamiliar challenge. Their son had been born with feet twisted inward, a condition called clubfoot. “We didn’t really understand what was wrong, and we had so many questions,” Egbert says. “What would happen to him? What would his future life be like?”

Egbert continues, “Initially, I took the doctor at his word when he said there was no option for treatment but surgery. And then I got to thinking that, as his parent, I needed to understand more about his condition and what his future would be. I asked a bunch of other doctors about it, and some of them said, ‘I know all about this condition, and surgery is the only way.’”

Martin & Allyson Egbert

But when Allyson used the couple’s newly installed internet to search for alternative treatments, she found a nonsurgical option offered through the University of Iowa. Despite being advised against it, the Egberts found themselves in Iowa only six weeks after their son’s birth.

The treatment, the Ponseti method, remedies clubfoot through a series of casts, and it wasn’t long before their son’s clubfoot was corrected. Almost immediately, Egbert began sharing his experience with other parents. “About a week after we were done, I found a chat room for parents of children with clubfoot, and I told them about this alternative and answered their questions,” he says. “In six months, a group of 20 of us were telling all the new people about the option for nonsurgical treatment. Now there are even more of us working to share how the Ponseti method became the mainstream method accepted by major medical associations in the United States.”

Egbert’s son wasn’t the first to receive the Ponseti method of treatment, and Egbert made sure he wouldn’t be the last. He sees himself as a link in a chain of people helping other people—not only in the challenge of treating clubfoot but also in challenges in general. “Part of resilience is understanding your own family history and knowing that your ancestors went through extremely challenging situations,” he says. “You see what happened to them and how they got through it, and often you see you have the same types of support they had.”

In addition to gaining perspective by reflecting on others’ difficulties, it can be helpful to look back on your own, Egbert says. “Sometimes kids haven’t been through enough of their own personal challenges yet to understand that they can do hard things and trials will pass at some point. But when you’re an older person, you’ve likely had many other challenges in your life. . . . You know that you got through those, so if you could do that, you can do this too.”

Maximizing Joy

While pregnant with her son, Alicia Gettys, managing director of BYU Marriott’s Ballard Center for Social Impact, kept receiving alarming news from her doctor. First, Gettys found out she had severe anemia. Then they found baseball-sized fibroids in her uterus and, soon after, what they thought was cancer. (It wasn’t.) “With this many shocking reveals,” Gettys wrote on her blog, “my body [felt] like a Tiger King microcosm.”3 Thankfully, her son was born without any complications for mother or baby.

Health troubles weren’t the only things that had been on Gettys’s mind during her pregnancy. “I had a lot of fears,” she says. “I was working with a birthing coach, and she had me write them all down. Then for each fear, we came up with faith statements, or confidence statements, that I could focus on instead of the fear.” To illustrate, Gettys continues, “One of my fears was that my baby would die during delivery—which I think is a pretty common fear. My faith statement for that one was ‘I trust that I can find peace in my journey.’”

Alicia Gettys

In fact, faith, hope, and charity are three principles that Gettys relies on to guide her through many kinds of challenges. “They are all joyful terms, and something that motivates me in life is finding as much joy as I can,” she says. “There are no guarantees that we’re going to have joy throughout our lives, so I just ask myself, ‘How I can maximize my joy right now?’”

For example, Gettys worked hard to maximize her joy during a time when she wanted to get married and have a family but it wasn’t happening in the time frame she anticipated. “Friends of mine were sending their kids to college, and I hadn’t met my partner yet,” she says. Rather than stay bogged down by dismay, she turned to confidence statements then as well, trusting that good things would come.

During these trials, Gettys also learned to be a better friend to herself. “Think of all the nice things that a best friend might say to you when you’re going through hard things—things like ‘You can do all the things you need to, you just can’t do all things at once. You’re doing the best you can, and you’re going to get through this,’” she says. “That’s how we should all be talking to ourselves; that compassionate self-talk is so critical.”

Was she always resilient? “No, I wasn’t,” she says. “Sometimes during those times, I would pray and say, ‘God, I’m out of ideas here.’ But then I would sit down and have these cocreation conversations with God, where I’d consider problems and listen for heavenly input.”

Such conversations come in handy when solving problems at work too, Gettys says. In her work at the Ballard Center, she has encountered plenty of snags as she’s helped grow the center from 1,700 participants to 14,000 over the last nine years. “One time we were hosting an event, and we made a goal to sell 600 tickets,” she says. “A week before the event, we’d only sold 50. I was stressed out. For that week, I’d wake up in the morning and just meditate on the problem. Ideas would come to my mind, I’d write them down, and they would become my to-do list for the day. By the time of the event, we’d reached our goal.”

Gettys continues, “I cocreated that solution with God. Those cocreation conversations have helped me get through challenges on a regular basis. And when I’m going through that process and relying on Him to do what seems impossible, that’s a wonderful place to be.”

Leaning and Adjusting

So how did Lewis-Western, who panicked in front of a crowd, return to teaching with confidence a year later? Counterintuitively, it wasn’t because she perceived herself as strong. “I’m resilient because I know that in my worst moments, I have access to power,” she says. That power stems from stabilizing resources such as counseling, supportive family and friends, other tools for overcoming anxiety, and the love of God.

“When I was at some of my lowest points, what I needed was to be filled up, because I was broken and insecure,” Lewis-Western recalls. “At that time, if someone had just said to me, ‘I don’t like you,’ I would have started crying. I had zero ability to deal with criticism at that time. So I gave myself permission to say, ‘Right now, I can only be around people who love me unconditionally.’ I spent a lot of time with family and a few good friends, and things got better.” She continues, “Sometimes we have to pull back a little bit and lean on safe people while we develop strength.”

In addition to leaning on safe people, Lewis-Western adjusted her expectations for herself in times of difficulty. “There’s a difference between what we can do on our best day and what we need to do each day,” she says. “At my best, I get up at four in the morning, work 10 hours, and spend time with my kids. But Best Me is not going to be able to do that through a divorce, and that’s okay. Maybe Struggling Me can only get to a few things, so I’m going to choose the things that matter most: things like taking care of my kids, getting in a few hours of productivity, and taking care of myself.”

She points out two keys for her resilience: “I allowed myself to be proud of my efforts, even if they were a fraction of what I would have done on a normal day, and I did it again the next day. I didn’t give up. I didn’t give up today, and if I don’t give up tomorrow or the next day, over time I gain confidence and I’m able to do what I thought was impossible. . . . You get 10 years down the road, and you can see all the things you’ve overcome, but really all that happened is on that day and the next one and the next, I didn’t give up.”
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Written by Clarissa McIntire
Photography by Bradley Slade

About the Author
Clarissa McIntire is a former assistant editor of Marriott Alumni Magazine. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in rhetoric and composition. She’s one of those people who always says hi to other people’s dogs.

Notes

  1. Kathleen Donegan, Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America, Early American Studies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 7.
  2. Paul Caldarella et al., “Adolescent Sports Participation and Parent Perceptions of Resilience: A Comparative Study,” Physical Educator 76, no. 4 (2019): 1026–1045, doi.org/10.18666/TPE-2019-V76-I4-8451.
  3. Alicia Gettys, “The Secret to Tight Abs,” Scooter Soulmates (blog), November 24, 2020, https://scootersoulmates.com/our-story/f/the-secret-to-tight-abs.

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