HRM speaks to the inspirational Gill Hicks about the problem with “resilience”, and the unique perspective people who have lived through adversity can bring.
When Gill Hicks moved from Adelaide to London at the age of 19, she built a successful career and reached the heights as an internationally recognised design consultant. On the 7 July 2005, all that changed. Hicks was severely injured on the London bombing attacks, emerging from the experience a double amputee.
“The irony for me is that I worked for a UK Government body in the Design Council, and a part of my job was to look for solutions to make things more accessible, and universally design-centric for everyone,” says Hicks.
“It’s remarkable to look back and remember how I thought I knew about diversity and inclusion, but I didn’t really understand it until I was put in that position. It made me realise how far from understanding it I actually was.”
Everything that was once familiar suddenly became unfamiliar, says Hicks. Simple, mundane tasks like getting on a bus and doing the grocery shopping had to be re-learned. Hicks likens it to upskilling, and the process is continuous. “I’m in absolute awe about our capacity to be this adaptable to continuous change. Before the accident, I never have thought that I had the mental strength necessary to adapt.” says Hicks.
She puts it down to desire, and she doesn’t consider this quality personality specific. “Wanting and striving ahead is what keeps me going. There is always a way through and beyond, if you want it,” she says.
What about resilience?
Hicks has some interesting thoughts about the idea of resilience, and how our culture talks about it.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about resilience, and I don’t actually think it’s such a great thing,” she says.
“Let’s take a callous on your foot, for example. It’s a form of resilience your body will naturally produce if you’re wearing ill-fitting shoes. It does this to create a barrier for the pain, and it does this successfully,” she says.
“But after unpacking what that means, isn’t it better to say ‘I recognise there’s a pain, I’m going to go straight to that source, and removing it, so my body doesn’t have to become resilient to something that isn’t good for me’?”
Hicks thinks we should be confident enough to take that approach of finding a better solution, rather than building up our tolerance for harmful situations.
“If we look at resilience as a barrier, why are we trying to build it if it’s clearly not the right fit? Let’s look at the pain straight on and figure out what needs to be done so we can move forward, with confidence rather than resilience.”
Moving on, career wise
It was not only Hicks’ life and body that changed post-accident, but her career as well. She now works as a peacebuilder. Or, if that sounds too vague, call her a fighter for counter-extremism.
“I changed careers completely, which was something I felt absolutely necessary to do.”
Hicks works nationally and internationally with former extremists to find a way to produce an alternative to the destructive ideas that underpinned their extremism. A big part of her job is developing trust within various communities, such as schools and local police groups, to get people to open up about extremist behaviour.
“It’s a difficult field, as there is no measure for success. To keep motivated, in the game, and prove your effectiveness can be hard,” says Hicks. “At the same time however, I believe that I have found my purpose. Nothing else would have made sense. I don’t want anyone else to have to through what I have experienced.”
A lesson for employers
Experience is one thing, says Hicks, but lived experienced, such as going through a serious accident or illness, gives people a highly unique perspective. “You could create an amazing CV full of work experience but it’s the life experience, I think, that creates a better grounding for decision making, for judgements, and for making a call in a complicated situation.”
People that have experienced extreme adversity can bring with them a wealth of appreciation, understanding and wisdom, she says.
“Consider someone that has either had to face an incredible challenge and overcome it, or continues to face challenges and overcome them on a daily basis. Imagine that person as one of your employees. No matter what you’re faced with as an organisation, to these people it’s nothing compared to what they’ve been through. That’s a wealth of experience, that is underutilised.”