We see inspirational taglines for women like “you can do it” and “you go, girl!” every day. Here’s another one I shared in a recent blog post: “you need to See It to Be It.” This saying has become a pillar of the Cisco Global Partner & Route to Market Sales Organization in an effort to showcase our women leaders and inspire others.
These catch phrases make for great campaigns, posters and bumper stickers, but they also call for us to go deeper. After all, it’s not at all simple for most women to navigate the murky waters of personal, professional, societal and cultural challenges in search of fulfillment and success.
Creating a successful life as a woman–however we each define that–requires countless moments of decision-making, risk-taking, priority-weighing, boundary-breaking, and–what I want to explore with you now–resilience. You’ve heard the term before; The Harvard Business Review even called 2022 “The year of resilience.” I want to talk about what resilience really means, what it really takes, in the glorious and messy realities of our daily lives as women in the tech world.
Before we go further, I want to clarify that resilience cuts across all demographics–I know of plenty of wonderfully resilient men (I’ll talk about one below). And yet women across the globe still face a range of gender-specific obstacles. So let’s take the opportunity, on International Women’s Day and Cisco’s annual Women of Impact day, to explore women’s resilience together.
What is resilience, really? Needless to say, it involves more than the late ‘90s song “Tubthumping” and its earworm “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” I like the way one professional woman defined resilience last year, in the wake of the pandemic, as “more than just the ability to bounce back quickly. It’s the ability to recover healthily…coming back in a healthier way with a better perspective.” As we say at Cisco, resilience means you “grow stronger as life changes.”
At its core, resilience is a mindset, made up of a range of attitudes and behaviors. The specifics are different for each woman, but here’s my take on four attitudes that are central to women’s resilience:
Purpose. Resilience starts with purpose—it’s the foundation. Your ability to come back after a setback, smarter and stronger, is always strengthened by passion and purpose. When you have a purpose higher than yourself, you can weather any storm. My dedication to Cisco’s purpose, to empower an inclusive future for all, guides me through many a jet-lagged meeting and tough decision.
I recently read a moving story about Jason Arday, who just became the youngest Black person ever to gain a professorship at the University of Cambridge. As a boy, he was diagnosed with autism and global development delay. He didn’t speak until the age of 11, couldn’t read or write until 18. But he had an unfailing sense of purpose! After watching Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on television, he says, “I remember thinking if I don’t make it as a football player or a professional snooker player, then I want to save the world.” Professor Arday’s work today focuses on democratizing higher education, opening the doors to more ethnic minorities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Discernment. Most resilience pieces talk about self-awareness. Discernment is a step up from that: it’s where self-awareness turns into action. It helps you determine when and how (and whether) to do certain things. It’s about a good sense of judgment, the ability to see through the mess and identify what’s important and true.
Discernment is so important to me, it inspired my first daughter’s name. I still remember how hard it was to choose her name when she was born—she didn’t have a name for two weeks! And then it came to me: Viveka. In Sanskrit, Vivek means judgment, discretion, discernment. In Hinduism, it’s the first requirement on a spiritual journey. We felt it was a perfect name to help our daughter begin her own life’s journey.
For many of us, discernment grows out of experience, mistakes, and hard knocks. Arianna Huffington is a classic example. Her wakeup call came in 2007 when she collapsed from “exhaustion, burnout, sleep deprivation, basically, having bought into the collective delusion that in order to be the super-founder of the Huffington Post and super-mom of two teenage daughters, I didn‘t have time to take care of myself.” She fainted on her desk, broke her cheekbone and needed four stitches on her eye.
Huffington now makes wellbeing and resilience her central focus. Here’s her take on discernment (she calls it wisdom): “Wherever we look around the world right now, we see leaders … making terrible decisions. What they’re lacking is not IQ, but wisdom. Yes, data is very important. But ultimately wisdom, judgment, insight, creativity and innovation are needed to address a crisis.”
Fearlessness, when faced with any kind of adversity. Hard things happen in the world–all of us have experienced hardship these past few years, if not before. And they happen not just to nameless thousands in the news, but to individuals, in painfully personal ways: to you, to me, to our aunties across town and our sisters across the sea. There’s plenty to wear us down and make us fearful. But fearlessness is about getting to a place beyond fear, able to function in the presence of adversity, perhaps even letting hardship give you energy and focus.
I can’t help but think of Malala Yousafzai when it comes to fearlessness. An activist for Pakistani women’s educational rights since the age of 11, she was just 15 when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she rode home from taking an exam. After a harrowing recovery, Malala only gained in resolve and influence. At 17, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And she’s still going, stronger than ever.
Elasticity. AI struggles to attain elasticity, but we humans are wired for it! Resilient women adapt to continual change: big changes like a global pandemic, and small ones like comforting a stressed-out colleague or talking with our child’s teacher. Elasticity means being sensitive, versatile, flexible. It means responding to context and tone and nuance, able to operate in a range of modes. As Huffington says, resilience requires us to “adapt not just to any one change or to a new situation, but to the idea of constant change itself.” Because life—professional, personal, individual and global—is about change.
At the end of the day, here’s what I know for sure: behind every successful woman is a well-worn path of resilience. That path is unique, a record of the daily decisions we’ve had to make, risks we’ve taken and obstacles we’ve overcome. Our paths aren’t easily forged, but the effort makes us wise, strong, and aware. As resilient women, we navigate by the unwavering light of our purpose. We proceed with discernment, fearlessness and elasticity. Even one of us can make a tremendous impact. Together, we can change the world.
Stay tuned for more #Seeit2Beit Blogs!
The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama
She Persisted: 13 Women Who Changed the World, Chelsea Clinton
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