No way back from here?

Recently I was reading about a leader who I deeply admire (or is that secretly begrudge…..I can’t decide). He’s had an amazingly successful and seemingly effortless 20 year career in two game changing global enterprises. He’s worked across industries in a series of leadership roles and indulges passion projects alongside his day job. He has an indefatigable energy that draws some of the heaviest hitters you can think of to collaborate with him and to top it all he is happily married with two healthy little girls. Wondering who this bastion of fabulousness is? Sir Terry Leahy, Rich Zannino, Bill Gates? All good guesses, but no. His name is Dave Grohl. For those of you unfamiliar, let me introduce you to the leadership force that is Dave Grohl: That game changing, stunningly successful global career spans the music and film industry (if you haven’t seen the documentary Sound City, run to Netflix and download it now). Those heavy hitters? Sir Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Stevie Nicks. Those roles? Band leader, documentarian, singer-songwriter, activist, father and husband.

Everything seems to have come so easily and early to Dave Grohl. He first found international acclaim at the age of 23. He’s performed in two critically acclaimed and commercially successful bands and if you happen to come across an interview with him, you’d likely conclude that he’s one of the most well adjusted rock stars around, never easy in the fickle world of music or glare of the public eye. He seems exceptionally happy in what he does and here’s the rub- he seems to be having an awful lot of fun doing it.

Like most people, I assumed that Grohl is having the time of his life because, well- he is. He is a successful rock star, has the ability to reach to some of the biggest names in his field for mentorship, he has a sound marriage and stay at home wife in addition to a 1% level of financial stability. Any of us with that amount of resource would find life dead easy, right? And that’s about as deeply as I had thought about things until I read a Rolling Stone interview with Grohl and subsequently had the blinding epiphany that his road has been anything but. Dave Grohl has rebounded from the kind of bone shattering tragedy that would leave most of us running for the hills… or at least our duvets. It seems, in the words of Martin Seligman, that Grohl has experienced post-traumatic growth. Most of us have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD- a type of  psychological injury caused by exposure to extreme stress and trauma. Fewer of us are aware of Post Traumatic Growth, defined by Seligman and his positive psych colleagues as the ability to turn exposure to difficult events into catalysts for positive change and improved performance- a process that Dave Grohl seems to have mastered.

According to researchers, the most important components in our ability to do this are optimism and resilience and Dave Grohl apparently has optimism and resilience in spades. Firstly, despite becoming famous overnight with Nirvana, he kept perspective. He was able to stay away from the coping mechanisms of drugs and alcohol that most artists struggle with when launched into the public eye; Grohl quit drugs at 20 despite working with bandmates with heavy drug habits. He was able to stay confident and grounded despite the extreme personalities that surrounded him during his time in the band and most importantly he was able to rebound from that tragedy- the suicide of his friend and bandmate, Kurt Cobain, the subsequent disbanding of Nirvana and the professional loss that went alongside his personal loss. All of this before the age of 25. Not only did Grohl navigate through, he went on to build a second career with the commercially and critically successful Foo Fighters, and the happy home life and passion projects I mentioned earlier. Lightening can strike twice if Grohl’s experience is anything to go by and it seems we can have more of a hand than we realize in positioning the rod for that double strike if we have optimism and resilience. Luckily- those are two traits we can build with a little practice.  Let’s look at what we can learn from Dave:

1. Cultivate your own passions- Dave Grohl was the drummer not lead singer or songwriter for Nirvana, but this didn’t stop him from recording his own tracks and writing music between tours and studio sessions with band. When the remaining members of Nirvana decided to disband after Cobain’s suicide, Grohl had his passion project to fall back on.

2. Maintain your network- When we think about networking we often think about it in terms of our careers, but our network of non-work friends matters most when our livelihood changes as it did for Grohl. He talks about the importance of friendships he’s had since age 13 for staying grounded, and research tells us that those long terms bonds act as anchors in challenging times.

3. Retain perspective: “There are a few ways you can look at it,” Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone of the last studio album he made with Nirvana. “You can describe it as a remarkable achievement [and you] can also remember it as a really fucked-up time.” At times it will feel like life is throwing everything including the kitchen sink at our heads; it’s up to us to figure out how hard those blows will land- keeping perspective is a good way to manage those unexpected challenges and traumas.

Finally, a trick I recommend to my coachees and you’ll find me doing in the office on a twice weekly basis; taking note of success. I recommend capturing at least three things that went well for you each week and the reason why you think those successes occurred- not only does this help with perspective setting, it’ll help you understand how you can affect positive and negative change in your own life- a key to building resilience and optimism.

As we role into the New Year, you can think about how these anchors can help you ride the waves you’ll find yourself on 2014, and if you are a not so closeted grunge rock fan like me, here’s a little Nirvana to keep that teen spirit alive and well in yourself: