I first met André Van Hall when I moved to Denver two decades ago. At the time he was the general manager of a major downtown hotel, but soon after he became CEO of the prestigious Denver Athletic Club. André was a legend in the hospitality industry and a dear friend and mentor to me as I grew my nonprofit youth leadership program. Anytime I needed something, whether it was supporting a scholarship student or donating event space, André was there, and the answer was always “yes.”
Then, on August 15, 2011, André woke up partially blind, unable to see anything below his chest. He was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease called ischemic optic neuropathy. It would only be a matter of time before he lost what little sight remained. At first André was angry. Why me? he fumed. He was in great shape, an avid skier and cyclist who routinely biked fifty miles at a time. He ran one of the most prestigious athletic clubs in the country. How could he manage such an important job when he could barely see? A lot of people would call it quits at that point. Living as a blind person isn’t easy in this country. Very few facilities and cities are properly equipped. André could retire, go on disability, and simply learn to accept a more limited life. Except that’s not what he did.
André gave himself a few days to feel depressed, then he got to work. He refitted his office with high-tech equipment like text magnifiers and voice-command software that allowed him to excel at his job even with deteriorating vision. He and his wife, Nancy, moved to a house closer to the light-rail station so he would no longer have to drive to work. He found a capable and loyal guide dog named Pelham. He joined a sight-impaired cycling team. He even took up skiing once again. André taught himself braille and learned to use a sight cane. Then, a few years after André went completely blind, life threw him another curveball: He was diagnosed with cancer, and it was quickly metastasizing into his lymphatic system. André didn’t bat an eye. He endured immunotherapy for a year and has been cancer-free ever since.
Today, André is retired from the hospitality industry and has embarked on a new career as a professional speaker. He doesn’t just teach people resiliency, but to be curious in the face of overwhelming obstacles. To be inspired by the opportunity to discover new answers to old problems and to embrace the thrill of change. His words have helped me get through some of the hardest moments of my life.
People like André are a rare breed. They are knocked down by life and spring back up. They are energized by the kinds of obstacles that demoralize and defeat others. Psychologists have tried to figure out precisely what that character trait is—what you and I call resiliency or grit—and whether it can be learned. In one famous set of studies, a research team followed nearly seven hundred children in Hawaii, including kids who had experienced emotional turmoil like poverty, the death of a parent, domestic abuse, and so on. Decades later, the children who succeeded despite all the odds tended to exhibit the same traits: autonomy, independence, a curiosity to seek out new experiences, and a drive to “meet the world on their own terms.” In other words, they were able to get back up when life knocked them down by believing they controlled their own destiny, and by remaining fiercely positive no matter what came their way.
As a country, we could all learn to be a little more resilient. In the face of a global pandemic, surging prices, and a terrible war unfolding overseas, we need to re-learn skills like autonomy, independence, and curiosity in the face of the unknown. We need to be better at adapting when we come up against an obstacle instead of succumbing to it. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
The other day I was driving along Broadway in Denver. It’s a major artery, and cars routinely zip by at over 45 MPH. I drive it all the time, and over the years I’ve recognized the same man walking along the sidewalk. He’s blind and relies on a cane to find his way. He must have walked that route hundreds of times. Today, however, Denver was digging out from a major snowstorm. Just ahead of the man was the branch of a large evergreen tree, weighed down by two feet of wet snow. From my car, I watched helplessly as the man slammed into the branch and collapsed to the sidewalk as an avalanche of snow tumbled onto him.
I veered across the lane, ready to stop my car and sprint across traffic to help him. But then something beautiful happened. The man sat up, found his cane, and pulled himself up. He methodically brushed the snow off his jacket, kicked the slush off his boots, and continued walking like nothing had happened. Like it was just one more obstacle to conquer over the course of his day. As I watched the man fade away in my rearview mirror, I would have given almost anything to have even a fraction of his grit.
Be grateful for all the blessings in your life and be mindful of all the challenges you’ve never had to surmount because you can see, hear, walk, and talk. Remember that resilience is a muscle that needs to be worked out regularly or else it weakens and turns into apathy. When you’re dealt a bad hand, when you’re pushed to the ground, when Mother Nature lets you run into a branch for no good reason, just get back up, wipe off the snow, and keep moving forward.