“You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try, try and try
You’ll succeed at last” – Lyrics from the song, You Can Get It If You Really Want, by Jimmy Cliff

Overcoming challenges in life, no matter how hard or how long it takes, is the way we develop resilience. The trials and tribulations can vary from person to person depending on our circumstances. I’ll start with my own “late bloomer” self: in high school I excelled in sports but struggled academically with an undiagnosed learning disability, putting off going to college. In my early 20s I pursued a career in photography, aspiring to become a photojournalist. After years of developing my photography skills and countless hours working as a darkroom technician, I finally landed a job as a newspaper photographer. At age 40, I overcame my learning challenges and became the first person in my family to graduate from college. At 50 I made a career change to become a health and fitness instructor, overcoming my fears of speaking in public. Again, I had to put countless hours into developing my coaching skills, earning credentials and learning from my mistakes along the way.

Today, I continue to develop my coaching skills while encouraging older adults, many with physical and neurological impairments, to keep trying to do their best no matter their limitations. Their successes are not measured by amazing athletic feats, but by having the courage to wake up each morning and do the best they can under their circumstances. Those who attend our Rock Steady Boxing classes have adapted the mindset of “fighting” each day against their Parkinson’s disease. They know that vigorous boxing training that challenges their body and mind is essential to counteract the symptoms of their disease. Each week they push themselves, with conscious effort, through the debilitating pain, stiffness and fatigue of their symptoms to accomplish getting through class. They also understand that through repeated practice, they will improve, make new mistakes, learn from them, and come back the next day just a little bit better. Adam Grant, a psychologist and author of the new book, Hidden Potential, argues that “success is about growth over time more than it’s about notching victories”. And one of the best ways to build skills is to challenge yourself and not be afraid of failure or making mistakes.

It took long-distance swimmer, Diana Nyad, 35 years and many failed attempts to finally achieve her dream of becoming the first person to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida. Nyad’s first attempt was in 1978 at the age of 28; then she tried again in 2011 at the age of 61. She tried two more times before successfully crossing the channel in 2013 at the age of 64. During her previous attempts, she failed to finish due to bad weather, multiple jellyfish stings that almost killed her, asthma attacks, and respiratory distress. But instead of being discouraged, Nyad used her experience of failed attempts to help improve her efforts. When she finally made it successfully to shore on her fifth attempt, Nyad noticed her fans on the beach weeping, not so much for the amazing feat of swimming 110 miles from Cuba to Florida, but as Nyad said “they were weeping because they saw someone (at the age of 64) who refused to give up!”

During the early months of the pandemic, when we had to shelter in place and utilize Zoom to continue our group fitness practice and stay connected, I started using a saying from Stoicism philosophy: “try to do the best you can, with what you have, where you’re at in your moment in life”. From my perspective, the most resilient people are generally those who don’t dwell on the negative, who look for opportunities to keep their mind and body engaged, and who remain hopeful even in the darkest times. Instead of worrying about things we have no control over, resilient people view the world “blossoming with possibilities”. That’s exactly the attitude of writer Richard Morgan’s British grandmother.

In a recent New York Times article, Morgan interviewed his 93 year old grandmother, who had her own trials and tribulations throughout her long life. She was bombed into homelessness three times during the war. At 20, she walked through heavy snow to birth twins, on Christmas Day. In her 70s, she survived the death of her only daughter, and in her 80s, she lost her husband of 67 years. Though today she is partially deaf and blind and has debilitating arthritis, she still keeps her mind and body engaged by knitting blankets for premature babies at a local hospital. During his interview, Richard asked his grandmother: what is the secret to being successful in your 90s?

“Just try, dear. So many people are old at 60. They just want to sit all day. You won’t make it to 90 like that. You have to try.”

“Try what?”

“Try walking,” she said. “Try gardening. Try cooking. Trying doesn’t require a lot of trying. Just try a little. Like, with this coffee you’ve made us. I know you tried!”

Depending on what stage in life we are at, or if we have a personal challenge with a degenerative disease or disability, our accomplishments will take on different meanings. One thing is for certain though: whether it’s our determination to eventually graduate from college, or to get through the adversity of a 3 year pandemic, or to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida, or at a later stage in life, struggle to put our shoes on and go for a walk, we must wake up each morning and keep trying to do our best!