A Resiliency Journey

by Glen Fahs, PhD

Glen Fahs, PhD, ASRC Lead Resiliency Facilitator
Glen Fahs, PhD
Lead Resiliency Facilitator

Choosing Resiliency as a Life Lesson

Not all of us are tested by trauma and crisis. But all of us are faced with major life hurdles.

As a boy, I felt loved and successful in my first dozen years, but getting glasses, moving, gaining weight and losing athletic status made me more of a nerd than I had been.

There was a lot of tension around being an adolescent. More challenging was the growing visibility of my mother's alcoholism and fear of my grandmother (who once held a knife to my mom's throat). This was disturbing in ways I could only cope with by withdrawing. My friendly bully of a brother was five years older. He didn't seem to let it bother him, but I was the more sensitive soul. When my mother was leaving for alcohol in-patient treatment, she hugged me and said, "You are too much like me." My back stiffened. I thought, "No, I am not! I will not run from my problems or be a victim." I never did.

My public speaking skills were evident from elementary school when I was the lead actor in plays which led to competitive speech tournaments in middle school, high school and college. My first high school speech early in the 60s required me to break free from the attitude of my police lieutenant father. My topic was Civil Rights. After winning first place in a San Francisco city-wide tournament, I learned that my shyness could be overcome with passion and a way to express it.

My mother died of internal bleeding related to alcoholism when I was still a teenager. Her condition and death weren't openly discussed but it was no longer a secret. The only girl with whom I shared my pain was the girl I was planning to marry.

After meeting a different girl, who had lived near me for six years without me noticing her, I set a goal to meet someone my own type. Within a week, getting off the streetcar I said, "Hi neighbor" and talked with yet another girl who two months later I started dating. But she tested me, dating others for several years until I won her over. That endurance test reinforced my belief in the power of setting a goal and being determined to achieve it. She shared that none of her other beaus had my optimism, determination or sense of humor. Our marriage has stood the test of time.

Bringing Life Lessons Forward

How have I handled the five levels of resiliency?

5 Levels of Resiliency
  • Level One: Health. Despite getting most of the common childhood diseases (measles, German measles, chicken pox, mumps, etc.), my health has been good and became better the older I've gotten. Exercise - especially sports, nutrition and a good night's sleep were always priorities.

  • Level Two: Problem solving came naturally in school, work and social relationships. When Dr. Mort Gordon, the Dean of UC Berkeley Extension, gave his opening night lecture in my first graduate school class, my risk-taking style led me to say that same night, "I have decided what my career is going to be. It's Lifelong Learning. Can you help me get a job?" He tried to deflect me, but was a high achiever, and couldn't let me down. He arranged a student assistant job for me at his San Francisco Center. That job led to another at San Francisco State University with a wild lady who was a recovering Skid Row alcoholic (and by coincidence, later Dr. Gordon's protogé). She trained me and then delegated much of the responsibility for planning ten conferences in 14 weeks. Despite being paid only $2.90 an hour, I rose to the occasion, got hired on as Assistant Director, replaced her a year later and my career thrived. Creative risk taking appealed to me, leading to teaching community college classes for 18 years on "Problem Solving and Decision Making."

  • Level Three: Self-concept. Achieving measurable goals in ethical ways always kept my self-esteem in tact. I took on the role of campaign manager for an inexperienced parole officer who was the first black Republican in SF to run for state office. It appealed to me. I didn't have to worry about failure since running against a popular incumbent ensured we would lose. We surprised everyone by making it a close race, but the dirty side of politics became shockingly evident. Dealing with people who thought you should do anything to win was too negative for my blood. That was one war I couldn't win.

    I went into Continuing Education, a very positive field. My bosses were often the kind who complained about others, tearing down our confidence. I learned to: 1) give reinforcement even to people I resented, 2) find humor even during tough times, and 3) turn "enemies" into allies. My commitment was to being principled and courageous even when it led to my losing two jobs. One involved a massive layoff, a ruse by the new provost to replace 15 of the 18 administrators before she arrived. Despite my anger and anxiety about being pushed out despite a great track record of success, my focus was on new career opportunities. After the energizing strain of a semester of teaching five courses for the first time at five different colleges, my successor at a previos job told me about the opening for the State of Oregon's chief training officer, a wonderful job for a networker like me. (Helping others is good for the karma.) Still, a full-time job on top of five classes was a killer. But I survived. And then thrived because I gave and asked for help from a robust network.

  • Level Four: Balance and moderation always were natural for me. I once took an androgyny assessment of my male and female characteristics and ended up right in the center. Instead of choosing one side or the other, I cultivated gentleness and toughness, pessimism (acknowledging worst case scenarios) to complement my optimism, being lazy as a break from high intensity effort. These and other contrasting attitudes made me stronger.

    When I became the head of statewide training for Oregon state government at age 40, my approach was to pull the movers and shakers together and facilitate. Countering the State's culture of agency silos, we formed a close group, shared the issues that most mattered, and committed to joint projects. Despite having no budget and a Division Director who wanted to eliminate statewide training, I found ways to design the State's first Management Core Curriculum, a five-day program that attracted our goal of 1500 participants in its first two years. My expertise was minimal, but my collaborative leadership worked. Each of us had strengths and we enjoyed using them.

  • Level Five: Serendipity - turning the worst into something valuable. Losing two great jobs led to better ones. Having an alcoholic mother led to me working on addiction education, including designing a very popular certificate program titled Counseling on Alcohol, Addictions and Related Disorders (CAARD). Having a racist policeman for a father (who was a wonderful parent and leader in most ways) led to my lifelong struggle against discrimination.

My Relationship with Al Siebert

So how did I come to this leadership role with the Al Siebert Resiliency Center?

In 1979, my first conference planning role as Director of University Extension at Portland State University was for the Oregon Fire Chiefs. They made it clear that they wanted the previous year's keynoter, Al Siebert, to return even though he was their keynote speaker the year before. What made him so special?

Hearing Al was captivating. My masters thesis 15 years before was on the topic on developing stronger confidence in internal control rather than feeling externally controlled by luck and powerful others. Al spoke to that belief as he showed our setbacks can make us bitter or better - that refusing to stay the victim leads us to see the upside of every disappointment. He spoke about the experiences and role models that led to his book, The Survivor Personality.

When I left Higher Continuing Education to head up the State of Oregon's Training and Development function, state government faced a recession and a major layoff coming the next year. Al was my choice to offer people a vision of how to cope. His training topics included "Surviving and Thriving Amid Change." His classes were always filled and highly rated. He also trained for my next employer, Cascade Employers Association, relating his expertise of resiliency and emotional intelligence. We became friends and I invited him to join my social group we simply call the Men's Group. We met monthly for over 20 years. We heard his exciting journey translating his survivor orientation to the more accessible focus described in his book, The Resiliency Advantage. Al appeared on Oprah!, developed ongoing relationships with the federal government in the US and Botswana, and was the only professional the survivors of 9-11 at the World Trade Center trusted to attend their reunions. He taught them to share their stories and work through their traumas.

A strength can become a weakness when it is out of balance. Al's optimism led him to deny the cancer growing in him until it was too late. Knowing his life was ending, he continued training and resting, hugging and struggling, until one day he couldn't get up. He called me and asked me to give his conference presentation. It went great. Just before he died, he asked his wife, Molly, to have me take over Resiliency public presentations, training, coaching certifying resiliency trainers and consultants for his Center. That work was allowed me to certify insightful coaches from Asia to Europe, and to give major conference presentations and training in the US, Canada and Botswana.

Al was an inspiration to many thousands in his books and presentations. I have been the lucky one to continue his work at the Resiliency Center, helping people make the most of life.

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If you would like a resiliency coach, speaker or trainer, call Glen at 971-570-0159. To become certified for resiliency work, please see the guidelines on the Al Siebert Resiliency Center website: ResiliencyCenter.com.

Glen Fahs, PhD, has been a coach and leader for decades in the fields of training, resiliency, continuing education, change and transition. He has high-level training experience in government, nonprofit and the private sector and has taught for 12 colleges and universities. He has served on several boards, including currently on the Al Siebert Resiliency Center board.

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