How to Become More Resilient During the Pandemic

Between comfort and freedom lies personal growth.

Posted Jan 24, 2021

Christian Lue / Unsplash
Source: Christian Lue / Unsplash

If you expect 2021 to be easier than 2020, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The pandemic is going nowhere anytime soon. Social distancing, stores closing, mask mandates, and other inconveniences are here to stay. 

Despite what most people say, 2020 was a good year. Crises happen for a reason: they test our ability to adapt to the test. Before you react, hear me out. Historical challenges have always helped us grow and become a better society.

Back in 1939, England was preparing for its worst nightmare. The Blitz—the German word for lightning—was around the corner. London was about to experience daily air attacks from German bombers that would last two years. 

Operation Pied Piper was put in place to protect children from the bombs and psychological scars of war. More than 3 million children were removed from London and other cities and sent to the countryside. 

Imagine being a parent and having to send your children away to live with a remote family member or, even worse, with a stranger. Would you be able to do that today?

The sound of an air siren would force everyone to find protection in an underground shelter. Would you turn off your home lights and all your electronic devices? Would you join a bunch of strangers and seek safety in an underground shelter? Would you feel OK with not being able to watch your favorite Netflix show or check your Instagram or Twitter feed while you wait in the dark for hours?

Sounds tough, right? 

Resilience Is a Skill That Requires Effort

It wasn’t easy for British people, either. However, their desire to survive was bigger than complaining about the discomfort—that’s how resilience is built. They understood that everyone had to make sacrifices together for the country to survive the multiple, unexpected attacks. 

In this Atlantic article, David Brooks identified four main reasons that Brits overcame the challenge of the Blitz:

1. Citizens were driven by a sense of agency—rather than feeling helpless, they thought they were taking positive action by protecting themselves and others. Morale was actually highest in the most badly hit places because staying alive had become a collective moral victory. 

2. British resilience was built through social connection. Everyone was forced together in packed shelters and coped with hardship as one. Shelter newspapers were created to record the news of those who slept there. Singers offered free concerts to keep everyone’s spirits high.

3. Laughter was a vital ingredient. Rather than resisting the cruel reality, people turned disaster into inspiration for jokes and lift the mood into humor.

4. Moral purpose played a key role in helping Brits build resilience. Fighting a moral war against the evil Hitler gave them a sense of purpose; this gave them agency rather than assigning them the victim role.

5. Equality, the feeling that everyone was treated the same, brought people together. During a crisis, we usually feel mistreated and become more susceptible to inequality. However, during the Blitz, people were equally exposed to the devastating air attacks regardless of their socioeconomic power.

Fast forward to the future. It’s the year 2021. We're living in a different society; we can’t deal with discomfort. Whether it’s keeping social distance, wearing a mask, or staying isolated, the small sacrifices required of us feel painful. 

I understand that the disruptions caused by the pandemic were upsetting and painful for all of us—myself included. However, there’s a point where we need to stop fighting resistance and adapt to what we can’t control. Once I realized it was the right thing to do, wearing a mask became a habit for my own safety—and to protect others, too.

So, why is it still so hard for many people to adapt? The issue isn't about wearing a mask or social distancing, but our difficulty to let go of comfort. Fighting reality won’t make the virus go away. However, changing our collective behavior will help us control it much faster. 

I’m not here to judge you. However, as someone who makes a living helping organizations thrive in change, I can tell you that the only way out is to adapt, not resist. 

Adapting to external events require the rewiring of our brain. Resistance is a signal; what does it say about ourselves?  

When it comes to COVID-19, I see two factors that we need to rethink:

  • Our distorted idea of freedom
  • Living in a comfortable society

Our Idea of Freedom Is Broken

A few years ago, that went viral on Medium, receiving both praise and backlash. I discussed how in the U.S., freedom had become an ideology and turned into an individual statement. 

Our individual freedom ends where someone else’s starts. In other words, freedom is a collective thing, not an individual thing. If your freedom is at someone else’s expense, then you are not really free.

Nelson Mandela felt free despite spending 27 years as a political prisoner in South Africa. He famously joked about it, “In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.” 

Mandela would end decades of separatism and apartheid in South Africa. He never blamed his captors for his years in prison, but actually pardoned them. Nelson Mandela realized that his quest wasn’t about his freedom but for everyone in South Africa to feel free. 

The idea of approaching freedom as an individual right promotes selfish behaviors—people wrongly believe that freedom means they can do whatever they want whenever they want. 

Take this Trader Joe’s video that went viral last week. No matter how hard the store manager tried to convince a couple to wear masks, they kept fighting back. They believed that their individual right (to shop wherever they want) was more important than protecting others (wearing a mask while shopping).

If you compare this with London in the 1940s, it’s like people refusing to turn off their lights because they have the right to do whatever they want at home. 

Our obsession with individualism and the misinterpretation of constitutional freedom makes it more difficult to fight a collective threat like a pandemic. 

Going back to the previous example, putting our own freedom above that of others will also backfire. If none of the customers wear a mask, their right to shop whenever they want will be useless as no employee will be working at the store if they all catch COVID-19 simultaneously. 

Freedom doesn’t come cheap—it has consequences. This takes me to the second reason why we fight reality: we avoid discomfort. 

Living in a Material World

Dealing with major disruptions requires sacrifice. We need to leave our comfort zone to achieve learning and personal growth. You can’t adapt and overcome external problems without letting go of usual behaviors.

Traveling, dining out, and moving around freely have become part of our lives. We don’t appreciate all we have because it’s there—until we're asked to stop doing some of those things. 

I know it’s not easy. It bothers me, too. In March, I was about to start a roadshow to take my Culture Design Masterclass to Canada, London, Spain, France, Australia, Mexico, and many more countries. What was supposed to be both a beautiful travel experience—mixing leisure and work—and a source of revenue, suddenly disappeared. 

After a weekend feeling frustrated, cursing, and resisting, I decided to regain control of my life. The pandemic was becoming more and more disruptive, so I had to adapt. 

I turned my programs into a live, virtual format. I then reached out to people who already bought the tickets to persuade them to switch from an in-person to a digital experience. Luckily, everyone said yes. 

The critical thing was recognizing that staying in my comfort zone would get me nowhere. 

Transforming the programs took a lot of time and effort. I’m not trying to impress you, but merely inviting you to reflect on your own life.  Whenever you face new hurdles, it’s your choice to stay in your comfort zone or cross the line.

Staying comfortable harms us in the long run. It’s better to suffer once and adapt than drag out the suffering (and lose more in the long run) because we can't let go of our comfort or our broken idea of freedom. 

There’s nothing wrong with living a comfortable life or enjoying the benefits of a more comfortable era. However, every crisis happens for a reason. Not only do they shake our lives up and keep us on our toes—they're also a great reminder to appreciate all the things and relationships that we usually take for granted. 
Are we less socially healthy or resilient than the British under the Blitz? I don’t think so. We're stronger than we believe when we work together. 

Let’s stop fighting reality and start adapting. Rather than complaining about what we might lose, let’s connect with a deeper sense of purpose, regain agency, and focus on what we can control. This is the perfect moment to build resilience—if we fight the battle together, everyone wins.