Resilience and the Power of Surprise

By Martha Johnson, Special for  USDR

My two children are now adults but they still remind me of something insufferable I would do to them back when. In the event that they fell down, ran into a door, or otherwise hit a little calamity, my starting question when they came crying to me was:  “Are you hurt or  surprised?”

“Get a grip, Mom. I’m  bleeding.”

At times they were genuinely in pain. Of course we addressed that. However, my other goal was to equip them with a way of responding to life’s bumps – and yes, there are certainly going to be bumps. The point is that while they usually cause pain, bumps also serve up an element of surprise and this is often a good thing. If children can be taught to recognize the difference between hurt and surprise, they have a larger emotional vocabulary for failure and another strategy for handling  it.

I had a “life happens” event in April 2012 and it was not of the order of a scraped knee. I abruptly resigned my job working for President Obama as the Administrator of the General Services Administration in the wake of a scandal regarding an employee training conference in Las Vegas. Congressional hearings immediately followed. There were also jokes cracked at my expense on political comedy shows, not to mention media people climbing my front porch steps and knocking.  Yuck.

Was I hurt? It sure felt like hurt. It stung like hurt. I had no income. I fought feelings of shame. I missed my colleagues, some I had known for 15 years. I worried about the cost of my legal support. I found anger in corners I didn’t know existed. I wanted to hide. I cancelled newspapers. Hurt animals whimper and I  whimpered.

At the same time, I was surprised. And the surprises were great. Suddenly I had free time, no tedious commute to DC, and no need to dress up in power suits. I could have lunch with my husband. I could sleep without an alarm. I could quietly drink a cup of coffee in a coffee shop and read a book.  Wow.

As a first step in resilience, it was important to know what was hurt and what was surprise. Both happen but it is in the surprise that you begin to knit resilience. Hurt is a bruise that takes a long time to heal, an injustice that does not always get righted. Surprise is a finger snap, a startle, or a wake-up nudge. It is a quick shake to a person’s system. It’s not always jokes and fun but it is not ultimately  destructive.

I believe it is vastly important to understand the difference, which I lay out in my book, On My Watch: Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience. When a person is surprised, they might feel embarrassed, perhaps disoriented and unsettled. But, it isn’t a disembowelment. Instead, it is a quick – perhaps abrupt – change in perspective, allowing us to re-examine the world around us. I call this the first order of surprise. We are invited to see the world in new ways, to sort things differently before settling down again. It invites us to turn a  corner.

However, that is not all. Let me tell you a bit more of my resignation story. As I began to pick myself up, send out resumes, and start the process of recreating my career, I was also able to return to a writing project that I had started years before. While in office I had put it away in a file, unable within the pressures of the schedule to attend to it. Surprise! Now I had some free  time.

The project was a novel and it was ready for finishing and polishing. So, that is what I did. Within a couple months I had a manuscript which I self-published. Soon after that, a reporter called. “I heard that since you left your Administration position, you have written a novel. How did that  happen?”

I happily answered her questions about self-publishing and the focus and discipline that writing requires. Then she asked what the novel was about. I took a breath and told her that it was set in a small Midwestern town in 1990 and was about a gay boy who is struggling with revealing his sexual orientation to his friends, church, and  family.

The phone line went silent. The reporter clearly hadn’t expected that topic. I immediately realized something special. I had surprised her. I had moved from finding little surprises myself to throwing out a surprise to the world. That is what I call the second order of surprise and it feels great. It is a point in the journey of resilience when a person is not absorbing the shock and change but is turning it back on the world. And, in a good  way.

Surprise ’em back. That is the point at which real mending happens. A person need no longer feel under a rock, lower than dirt. Instead, by surprising others, you are reinserting yourself into the world. It is about reclaiming voice, creativity, and impact. It’s not about what you do back to those that hurt you but what you do back to their view of the world and of you. This is a point of genuine and joyful  resilience.

It’s not specific just to me. Think of all the others who surprised ’em back: George W. Bush left the White House and began to paint. After his professional football career, Rosey Grier published a book, Needlepoint for Men. Upon her divorce, Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York, embarked on a career as a writer of children’s books. There are many such stories of people who moved through a tough transition, and emerged in creative, inspiring, and surprising  ways.

Let surprise be your partner in resilience. Yes, we bump into walls. We cannot avoid the hurt and pain. But we can claim the  surprise.

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About Martha  Johnson

Martha Johnson is an author, speaker, and consultant with a 35-year career in public and private organizations. She served President Obama as the Administrator of the General Services Administration. She also served eight years with the Clinton  Administration.

She published On My Watch: Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience, an Amazon best seller. Johnson has been featured recently in the Washington Post, Politico, C-SPAN BookTV. She has contributed to the Op Ed page of CNN Digital. Yale School of Management has written a business case about her and her tenure at  GSA.

Johnson was graduated with a BA from Oberlin College and an MBA from the Yale  University.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.