To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain



Eight years ago, while working as an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland, Gayle Williams-Byers was in the throes of a serial killer case when she decided to take horseback-riding lessons.

This summer, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Williams-Byers, 46, now a South Euclid Municipal Court judge, started free online classes in American Sign Language offered by Gallaudet University in Washington. She also took a webinar in labor trafficking. In recent years, she has enrolled in a variety of classes and workshops, including one on how to get a commercial driver’s license — not something she plans to act on any time soon.

“I don’t have a reason to use these things in my professional life, but learning helps me to focus better,” Ms. Williams-Byers said. “It’s also something that I have some control over. I take classes in subjects I am just wildly interested in learning about it. When I expand my brain, my wingspan is greater. It lets you get a little higher, to get above the headwinds.”

Ms. Williams-Byers’ quest to understand something new is an example of what many career coaches, authors and experts view as a key factor to building the resilience necessary to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility.

The theory: To deal effectively with change, it helps to be engaged in changing yourself. “One of the things that makes us resilient is that when we see a challenge, and when we face a struggle, we engage with it, rather than shut down,” said Simon Sinek, author of “The Infinite Game” and “Start With Why.”

“What I have learned from my career is that something I learned over here helps me over there,” he said. “Even if I don’t know that is happening, any kind of learning benefits all aspects of life.”


Embrace Your Passions

Mr. Sinek, for instance, is a dance lover. “My dancer friends kept telling me I should take classes, and it would help me and my love of the medium. I begrudgingly agreed, and I took some basic ballet classes.”

Even though it was for personal enrichment, those classes helped his developing work as a public speaker. “My posture is much better,” he said. “I move more effortlessly across the stage from my hips, instead of my shoulders.”

When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before. “Resilience is about being adaptable in a variety of different circumstances,” said Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Reinventing You.”

“It is a combination of being able to pick yourself up when there are setbacks, but also it is about having the kind of cross-training necessary to be flexible in an uncertain world where we don’t know what is around the corner,” Ms. Clark said.


Learning Requires Determination

This all may require pushing yourself — not the easiest of tasks in times of crisis. “If they are relatively senior professionals, it has been years, or decades, since they have not been good at something, and it can be enormously psychologically stressful to have to face that,” Ms. Clark said. “Inevitably, when you are in the early stages of learning something you haven’t done before, you are probably going to be bad at it — at least not very good.”

Two years ago, Ms. Clark entered a program to train as a musical theater lyricist. “People in this program have master’s degrees in musical theater writing,” she said. “At first, having to surround myself with people who truly had exponentially more expertise was humiliating on a regular basis, but it was invigorating and inspiring.”


Stay Curious

Being resilient has a lot to do with perspective. “People who commit themselves to a life of learning show up with curiosity,” Mr. Sinek said. “They show up with interest. They show up with a student’s mind-set. You don’t have to be curious about everything. You have to be curious about some things.”

Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits, according to Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like A CEO.” “Each time they hit a bump, they spend less time lamenting and quickly turn to determining what they must learn in order to climb out of the hole,” she said.




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