Earlier this month I attended a women’s leadership conference sponsored by The George Washington University (GWU) in DC. I didn’t go to the conference with the intention of writing a Positive Psychology News Daily article – I went simply to recharge my batteries, learn something new, and of course support my daughter who helped organize the event. However, I was so inspired by the keynote speaker, Barbara Hillary, I just had to share her story.Barbara’s speech was called Finding Your Own North Pole. My first thought was maybe it was a metaphor for what we call in business BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.¹ In the end, setting goals and living a fulfilling life was indeed her message. However, Hillary really did trek to the North Pole last year on skis no less – a true BHAG. But what made this goal even more amazing? Hillary is not only a lung cancer survivor; she was also 75 years old when she did it!
To achieve your goals Hillary says you need perseverance. From Positive Psychology’s classification system we know that perseverance falls under the persistence strength and is defined as “a voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement.”²
“My dream was to stand on top of the world and unfurl the red, white and blue,” Hillary proclaimed, a goal fraught with obstacles: her age, her health, the harsh weather, and of course the $22,000 she needed to raise just to get to the North Pole.
When I returned home from DC I decided to email Barbara Hillary to see if we could arrange a brief interview. Before the day was over Hillary replied to my email with an enthusiastic “yes”. What follows are highlights from our conversation as well as from the speech she gave at GWU’s Women’s Leadership Conference “Challenging Limits, Reaching New Frontiers”:
Greenberg: “Did you ever want to give up?”
Hillary: “Of course. I’m human just like everyone else. But it’s not all about the self. It’s how I was raised.”
Barbara was born in Harlem and grew up during the Depression. I remember from her speech she had emphasized that although her family was poor there was no such thing as mental poverty. “We never heard woe is me. My mother taught us if you want something in your life you get up off your ass and do something – take the stuff you’re born with and do something with it.”
Greenberg: “Besides the obvious perseverance it took to ski to the North Pole, can you give me another example of how perseverance came into play?”
Hillary: “How about calling a company 25 times until I finally got to talk to someone about helping me fund my trip!”
From Positive Psychology research on optimism we know that when bad events happen (in Hillary’s case being rejected 24 times), optimists: do not personalize the failure, believe it is only a temporary set-back, and do not let the disappointment permeate the rest of their life. Barbara Hillary is a paragon of this virtue.
In Positive Psychology we talk about Contagion Theory and protecting yourself from corrosive people (see Kathryn Britton’s article Social Contagion: Spiral Up or Spiral Down?). Hillary has her own version of this theory: “Avoid doomers and gloomers. They are deadly. I had people tell me you’re going to die up there, you’re going to freeze to death, you’re recovering from lung cancer, and even, the polar bears are going to eat you.”
Another character strength that Barbara Hillary didn’t mention, but she so obviously possesses is humor, defined in Positive Psychology as a playfulness, “liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes.”³ Throughout her presentation Hillary had the audience in hysterics. For example, when asked by a woman in the audience why she chose the North Pole to celebrate her retirement from the nursing profession, she quipped, “Well I certainly didn’t want to be stuck on a cruise with a whole bunch of miserable married people.”
Greenberg: “Although your speech had a serious message you brought a lot of humor and playfulness to it. Although you didn’t cite humor as essential to reaching your goal, do you have any thoughts about what role it might have played?”
Hillary: “I used humor to turn around a lot of dismal days – both at the pole and before the adventure even began when I was trying to raise funds. Going to the North Pole is like Heaven and Hell and the Hell starts well before you leave. I guess I’ve been practicing positive psychology on a crude level for a long time.”
Lastly, Barbara Hillary applied another Positive Psychology principle: reframing. At the end of her speech she said, “I’m not a little old lady. But I am an older adventurer and I am an older athlete.”
Greenberg: “In Positive Psychology we study resilience and a technique called reframing. When else have you reframed situations?”
Hillary: “Reframing. Thank you for that term. After I found out I had lung cancer people would ask me what changes I wanted to make in my life or what realizations about life did I have. I didn’t make any changes. I didn’t have any realizations. I’ve always taken the best of life forward and have left the worst behind. I visit nursing homes and I see some women who are so depressed. And it’s not because of the physical limitations of aging. They’re incarcerated now and I know that’s a harsh word, but they’re looking in the mirror and there’s nothing behind or in front of them. I’ve tried to live a fun life, a fulfilling life.”
What’s Hillary up to now? Sitting on her porch in a rocking chair? Reserving her spot in a nursing home? Are you kidding! She’s planning to ski to the South Pole later this year! To learn more about this amazing woman visit her site, Prepare to be Inspired! So what’s your North Pole goal?
Collins, J. & Porras, J. (2004). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. HarperBusiness.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Quotations from page 229 and page 30).
Perseverance. I’ve always been curious to know why some people have ample grit and others don’t. Why is it something is motivational for one and for another is not?
I’d like to see what Dr. Angela Duckworth at UPenn has to say about grit these days. There were two articles about the subject in Psychology Today that were of interest.
Jeff, I agree with you – I find that topic extremely interesting – why do some people keeping pushing toward their goals and others stop?
In doing career coaching, I’ve found that perseverance is strongly tied to self-discipline. I.e. those people who have self-discipline tend to be more persevering. They will try harder. I think it’s no surprise that Angela studies both Grit and Self-Regulation in her research interests.
If this is the case, why could it be? Why could it be that people who are more self-disciplined about their lives and daily habits – that these people will fight harder and longer to get to their goals? Is that really the case across the board? Thanks for bringing up the questions.
Hope theory is necessary but, to me it seems, insufficient to explain grit. You must have hope that you’ll succeed ultimately. It is hard to imagine someone who is hopeless persevering & self-regulating extremely well. Yes, there’s probably someone, somewhere who is so depressed that getting out of bed feels impossible, but outwardly functions like an optimist. That’s a low probability occurance, I think.
I think the psychology of interest and also of imagery play key roles. Interest selects the goals to pursue, imagery makes them real and immediate for pursuit. Habit & its cousin habituation might allow goal-seekers to select more goals and to follow those dreams with less perception of effort. Some GOOD constraints (self-discipline in action) keep the motivated on track.
What’s your grand theory of perseverance? I love these chats about grit.