Finding Courage During Uncertainty: 4 Ways You Already Know (and Could Do More Of)

Recently, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Yves Doucet, an author, speaker and coach, where we had a great conversation on finding courage when faced with uncertainty. If you’re looking for some tips and tricks on staying motivated and resilient during uncertain times, read our interview below.

Yves Doucet: Today we’re going to talk with Sarah, the author of Flip Side of Failing, who I think also has a new book coming out soon. April 30th is the deadline first draft right, Sarah?

Sarah McVanel: You’re right! It’s very specific, supporting healthcare through these challenging times. I feel like it’s the right thing to do right now.

Y: So true. And related to the Flip Side I suspect because so many of them are finding courage. How do you define courage

S: Using a metaphor, it’s running into a burning building, as firefighters do. Some of us run right into it and other people need to run away and just observe it from behind. And we may woffle from being able to run toward and even on the same day we can’t. That’s the other aspect of courage. The ability to be okay with wherever you’re at. It takes courage to shirk off the “should” and just accept what is. I think that part of getting through this challenging time is being okay with whatever way you need to do it.

Y: I’m kind of curious about what courage looks like for you right now. You make your money, your revenue, from your books and public speaking?

S: Public speaking and training. It’s true.

Y: So now, your whole business has changed, right? No one can be together. You have had to pivot. Did you wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’m going to pivot..” or was it a struggle? What did you do?

S: My first thought was, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? How can I salvage this? That’s a lot of zeros. Don’t think about the zeros.” Honestly, I had two weeks of not being okay with it. First of all, I love my people. I love the meeting professionals I’ve been working with, some of them I’ve worked with for the last year to prepare for these conferences and association events. Not to mention the idea of not being with people for months! I’m an uber extrovert! Thank goodness I live with people – my husband and kids Justin who’s 17 and Simonne who’s 14 – and fortunately, I really like them as we’ve spent a lot more time with each other!

S: But honestly, when I took a step back to look at my business. I realized that I’m lucky in that I have other revenue streams I’ve built. I’m also a professional certified coach and I have existing clients that I can keep supporting. I’ve had more come on. I have a few clients who have also stepped back, those working in public health who have zero capacity. They’re not even sleeping right now, let alone coaching and developing. So we’ve put that on hold for now.

S: I also got creative. That book I’ve started writing, I decided to create a writing accountability group for anyone who bought a course I have (that pretty much no one but my coaching clients know about) called Write Your Great Book Now. We have a cohort of 12 rockstars who come together every morning from 8:30 until 10 for disciplined writing time, mutual support and live coaching and we have a waiting list for a second cohort. Seriously, Yves, it took courage to offer this (“Who am I to coach people about writing.”) You just have to try new things in uncertain times, and not get too hung up on rejection or ego or “what-ifs”. If it’s not life-threatening, what some folks are going through, then can take chances.

S: The other benefit of getting into action is it creates a sense of meaning and purpose through urgency at a time when there’s little many of us can do to stop COVID-19. We all need this. Many of us have our identity tied up in things that have changed or shifted right now – our jobs, our schooling, our friendships – and it gives us a courageous opportunity to evaluate if so much of that identity should be tied up in things that can change on a dime. To look inward about defining it in ways we have more control.

Y: How can people do this?

S: The coach in me says, get into action and work on the things you have control over that will create meaning and purpose. Do things that fill you up. Honour it. And remind yourself this is not the only tough thing you’ve been through, nor is it the only crisis the world has faced. Ask yourself, “When I’ve been through a tough time before and what has worked? What helped?” Because if it worked before, it could work now. It’s just a different situation that you’re applying those same things.

Y: I love this. I love this little gem here that you just laid on us. It’s like, it’s not necessarily what you would have done before, but how you reacted to what you needed to do before. It’s not the same fear because nobody’s experienced this before, unless you were born in 1918 or something, and you were part of the Spanish flu and even at that, very few people.

Y: What you’re saying is, if I’m getting it, is how did you behave when you were faced with challenges before? What was my behaviour? How did I take on something that requires courage and facing fears before? It could be action – I’m very action-oriented like you – but some people need to plan, some people need to just Zen out, and some people need something else.

Y: I was talking to my daughter the other night and she’s going through a tough time. She’s alone and she’s in her apartment, of course, working from home. They’re about to sell her apartment. So there are people coming into her apartment and she’s saying, “This is not right.” We did exactly that. We just said, “What did you do before when you were faced with a challenge?” She said, “Well, I did one thing.” I said, “Well, just do one thing. Do that thing, which is, okay, take care of people coming into your home. How can you do that?” She sent an email to the realtor and then they were nice about it and they kind of agreed to virtual tours instead.

S: Beautiful.

Y: I love that gem. We’re stuck on this thing that this has never been experienced before and it’s true, but really mentally it’s a challenge. And we’ve been through challenges. Every single human on this planet has been through a challenge. If we looked at ourselves and said, “What did I do? How did I behave when I was in the challenge position?” We just act. I think you could do this automatically because you’ve been focused so much on The Flip Side of Failing, then you just go into it, right? That’s what you do. Is that correct?

S: Yeah, absolutely. When I interviewed people for the book – which was not supposed to be about failing given I’m a Recognition Expert – it was supposed to be a book about greatness. But the most interesting thing I learned is that these people I had put on a pedestal – Olympians, Everest Climbers, 3M Scholars, World Record Holders – leaned into failure. They had so much courage. They ran into the burning building because they knew that was the only way to live into their seemingly impossible goal. Getting through a pandemic can seem impossible. We have to fearlessly believe we, collective, can get through this – our families and businesses and society will get through this – and maybe we’ll learn and grow as a result of it. But not unless we act.

S: One of the people I interviewed was Peter Mansbridge, who became Canada’s leading journalist despite not having a university degree and doors slammed in his face his whole career. He just kept going, pushing through unchartered territory and haters and obstacles. He became almost immune to rejection. 

S: I’ve been reading a lot lately, and Peter’s story makes me think of one I just finished called Rejection Proof. It’s written by a tech CEO who decided that to run a successful business, he was going to get over his fears of rejection and started manufacturing situations where he would be rejected every day for 100 days. He actually became rejection proof!

S: Now, fortunately, we won’t go through many of these world health crises, however, we will become more crisis-proof on the other side of it. Businesses are learning people can be productive at home. Educational systems can run without teachers at the front of the room. Teenagers can survive without being with their friends every day. Small businesses can innovate and adapt. Some won’t, but it is possible. 

S: Imagine how much more courageous we’ll all be after this? “I survived a pandemic, I can survive this.”

It’s just if we choose to use this moment in history to find wisdom or be the victim?

Y: That’s another little gem. I like that. I’m just going to go back for a second. It makes me think about when I felt the worst time in my life when I lost my court case and I owed all this money. I didn’t have any money. I had nothing left. I lost my job lost everything. I had no cars, nothing.

Y: What I was doing was waking up every morning and taking a bus or my bike over to the coffee shop and I would stand in front of the coffee shop and say, “Worst case scenario, I can actually probably apply for a job here. I know I could do a good job here.”

Y: What is the worst-case scenario for me, right? That if I had nothing, where do I start or do I start over again? And that question is interesting because we all are starters. Every single one of us started somewhere. We started with nothing. Every single one of us started with nothing. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how successful you are, we all started with nothing. This is the other thing, we all started with nothing and we all have a community.

Y: We all have people. Or we can access people. We didn’t get here alone. We didn’t get where we are today alone. Oh, this is beautiful. Somebody helped us get there. Right? I love that gem. Yes, we all started from nothing.

S: Those people who helped you get where you are, are still probably in your life. Even if it’s been a while, you can reach out. Physical distancing doesn’t mean socially disconnected. That’s the amazing thing about it. Difficult times like this may actually get us into action to reach back out to them. 

Y: My business mentor, who helped me form the idea of my business before I even knew that I needed or wanted to have a business, she and I have been connecting and she just sent me a reminder last week about, “Hey, you know you can just pick up the phone and call me anytime.” On the one hand, when I’m really busy it might be like, “I don’t really have time to do it,” or I might think I’m bothering her. But I have no guilt and I have more time now to connect with one of the coolest women I know. It’s up to me if I take action on it.

S: Even if those people aren’t in your life right now, you can still draw strength and courage from them. One of my biggest heroes in my life is my Auntie Mamie She passed away six years ago at 92 years old. Nobody ever would have thought that she would live that long because she was a very, very poor farm girl. So poor that they had one cow, but they milked it and sold the milk to the wealthier farmer down the street! I could never figure out as a kid why she always had broken bones! Was she clumsy and accident-prone? No, it’s because she had no calcium growing up. 

S: She inspires me to this day, through times of uncertainty like what we’re facing now, because of her life story. Just three weeks shy of her grade eight graduation, her mother passed away. Her dad said to her and my grandfather, just a year older, “Kids, you’re going to have to quit school and get a job in the city (Toronto) or else we’re going to lose the farm.”

S: Imagine! 13-years-old, never been farther than the local country store, and now she’s on a bus to get a job in a busy city. Taking a bus for the first time. No parent with her. No resume or work experience or idea what a “job” was. No education. Just a bag with a few belongings, wearing her best homemade dress, and ten cents to buy one night in a hostel, she and her brother got on that bus and then went factory to factory looking for work.

Y: Wow.

S: I know right?! She told me she held her head up high, marched into each business and said, “I’m Mamie McVanel, I’m 16 and I’m going to be the best worker that you’ve ever seen.” She got a job. She found herself a place to live. In her twenties, she talked her way into a sales job at this new thing called the Yellow Pages and ended up being the top-performing salesperson – at a time when women did not work outside the home of a few specific positions. She attributes it to have no fear because the alternative – being homeless, her father and younger siblings losing the farm, letting everyone down – was worse. 

S: Nothing she did in her life after that point was as hard as being a 13-year-old girl with skinny legs and a ratty dress, getting on a bus and going to the big city that you’ve never even heard of, let alone been to and walking in and getting yourself a job and then a place to stay that night. Any time I face a fearful time like, wow I’ve lost a lot of business and who knows for how long from this pandemic, I remind myself I have a home and an education and experience and savings. 

S: She has been my biggest hero. She had so little yet was grateful for everything. She was the happiest person I’ve ever known despite all of the obstacles she faced in her life and the unfairness. I never heard her complain about anything. Not one single solitary time.”

Y: Yes! Another little gem, gem number three. So for you, your hero was your Aunt. I just noted down my heroes when I actually was growing up, in the pit of my despair, who were my heroes? Who did I rely on? And then reach out to these people, go see them or if you can’t because they’re maybe not there, journal about them and think about them and see how they met.

Y: That’s a great way to get courage because these heroes gave you the courage to be where you are today.  These heroes did something to you physically, mentally to give you that courage, and you can find courage by seeing your life and yourself through their eyes. How do they see you? Imagine if you saw yourself the same way as they did. What might be possible for you?

Y: You sent me this, I just wanted to show you this. [Yves holds up a card] How many cards do you send a day?

S: Yesterday I sent 18.

Y: 18!

S: Yeah. So since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve sent 150 cards.

Y: It meant a lot to me. And I remember I was in Sedona not too long ago and I went for a hike. I met this elderly man, probably in his eighties or something, 77 I think he said. He just looked at me and he said, “Can I give you my heart?” And I said, “Sure.” And he had carved a little heart of stone out of a piece of rock from the Sedona Mountains there. Shortly, he gave me his mantra and I said, “How many times a day do you do this?” He said, “Well, I do it as many times as possible.” And we started continuing, he’s given over something like 300 hearts. He personally carves them.

Y: Every day he climbs up the mountain, he gives these hearts, he plays the flute so people can meditate there and in the afternoon he goes back home and he chisels out of rock these little hearts. He didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t do anything. This is what this card reminds me of.

Y: Becca Scofield, one of my heroes and she’s passed, right? She started a movement called #BeccaToldMeTo. I sure wish she was still around because I think she’d be a beacon today. Small acts of kindness. And this is what this says, right? Doing small acts of kindness is a way to find courage. To do the things you don’t dare to do. I truly believe that. And this is what that is to me. Do you find courage in writing notes of appreciation? Is that part of why you do it? How do you feel when you do these things? 

S: Well, that’s part of the action of doing isn’t it? If there’s nothing else I can do, I can recognize or I can appreciate somebody or I could empathize with what they’re going through, or I could sympathize if I’ve never been through it before. So I could send that note.

S: When COVID first came to Canada, our family was feeling like, Oh gosh, our healthcare system is going to get overwhelmed, and so will our providers. We wrote, as a family, a note acknowledgement. We talked at lunchtime about what life must be like for our healthcare practitioners and what life must be like in the hospital today. It’s Saturday and it’s beautiful today and people aren’t with their families, but they’re probably feeling overwhelmed and worried and stressed. So what do we wish that they knew that from our family to them? We turned that into a “A Note of Appreciation to Our Hospital”. We typed it out and printed it out then drove over to the hospital and left it under people’s windshields. Now that isn’t advised as we know more about COVID living on surfaces, but at the time we didn’t know. 

S: There’s about probably 250 cars in the staff and physician parking lot. I know because I printed 160 flyers and ran out, then had to pull out kudos cards from my purse and wrote words like caring, patient, resilient, dedicated, slipping them in their driver’s side door. 

S: It took virtually no tie – maybe half an hour at the table and another hour to write the note, print it off, and cut the. Then an hour to distribute them. An afternoon is all it took to show how much we appreciate our healthcare workers working on a busy Saturday at the front end of a pandemic. (I won’t lie. I also saw this as a workout getting my steps in!)

S: But the ripple effect, what from the CEO’s tweet and the Chief Nursing Officer sending me a lovely email, and the smiles from staff as they went and pulled the notes off their car was huge. I learned it was shared with colleagues, printed and hung up on bulletin boards, copied for other departments. Perhaps the most touching were staff who found me on Facebook to say, “You don’t know how much I needed that today.”

Y: I love that.

S: Whether you physically can give an acknowledgement to somebody or you have to do it in a letter form or in a text or on a Facebook post, the key is true human connection. What are they going through that you need them to feel like you get it?

S: A little message could be, “I can only imagine how hard it is to work full time at home with your kids at home. Please know you’re a great mom.” Send it. Don’t overthink it. It’s just because you’re probably doubting yourself or being afraid to insult the other person. 

S: So really, those acts of acknowledgement, and that’s why my core thing that I do as a recognition expert, people need to feel appreciated now more than ever. These small acts of kindness, when we all engage in them, will help us to stay resilient and resourceful and courageous during this pandemic

S: I talked about this recently in a newsletter and one of my loyal readers shared how she overheard a doctor and a nurse speaking and said,  “I wonder after all this is over if people will forget us and stop being grateful.”

S: It makes me think how when you lose a loved one, everybody brings the lasagna that first week and then when it really sinks in, when you are in the depths of your greatest dispair, you look around and wonder, where is everybody? I think this is what essential services are anticipating. 

S: Have we ever really appreciated grocery store clerks and bus drivers and the makers of toilet paper as much as we do now? In times of calm, we often undervalue people and companies and services because we assume payment or a paycheque is enough. It’s not. It’s not enough to justify the risk all of our essential services workers are taking to keep our society running during this pandemic, so why should we just expect them to be there when it’s times of calm and normalcy? 

S: I hope we all learn from this. Courage is not the same as bravery. It can be taking the time to say thanks when we have no idea if it will be received well or attended to or valued back. But do it anyway.

S: Show that gratitude, those small acts of kindness, whether it’s those little chiseled hearts, which I love, a little kudos cards, a friendly word, a smiling face, making eye contact if that’s socially acceptable in your community. Do it more and more now, and it will form a habit so it feels going on the long-term. We don’t want people to all of a sudden start yelling at grocery store clerks once this is over because they’re not appreciated anymore or demanding that call bell because you didn’t get here within 30 seconds!

S: This can create the new normal of humanity and connection and appreciation.

Y: I totally agree! So that’s gem number four: small acts of kindness. I love it. I got so many ideas from this. So many beautiful things. I’ll check back with you to make sure, just to tell you, I’m so excited.

Y: We’re going to wrap it up. So it was a short little thing today. I just want to just do a summary because I’m like that, I’m an engineer, so I think that way.

  • The first way to find courage is to do something
  • The second is remember we all started from nothing
  • The third is to go find the heroes in your life that got you where you are today
  • The last one is to practice small acts of kindness 

Y: Sarah, thank you so much for being here. We’ve all learned so much from you and will take these gems with us in the days and weeks to come.

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

Judy Kucharuk

Director, Marketing and Special Events, Encana Events Centre

"Funny, full of energy and incredibly motivating – all words to use when describing Sarah and her passionate stage presence. We were fortunate to have Sarah join us as a speaker for Spark Women’s Leadership Conferences and her presentations about leveraging greatness hit the core of our objective at SPARK: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. I would not hesitate to recommend Sarah to other organizations that are searching for a well-prepared, well-organized, thoughtful and passionate storyteller."
Shelley VanVeen

Learning & Development Manager, Libro Credit Union

"Sarah brought so much energy and enthusiasm to our International Women’s Day event at Libro! Her message was uplifting, thought-provoking and truly appreciated by our team. Dealing with Sarah was wonderful – she was open, professional and willing to work with us to customize her message to incorporate our culture and connect to our topic and participants. During the session, she was a pro with a powerful message and a fantastic delivery. We had wonderful feedback from all that attended and can’t wait to have Sarah back for another session in the future!"
Sylvia D’Intino

Executive Director, Community Living Hamilton

"THANK YOU so very much for leading the engagement activities today! You’re a constant professional, with an amazing attitude and always seeing the great in everyone. I am grateful for how you have helped us this year to transform our in-person staff recognition events into virtual and on-location events. Our staff feel more inspired, appreciated and motivated after they hear you speak, and I know our amazing in-house team here looks forward to designing engaging appreciation events with your support."
Melissa Chaulk

Manager of Professional Development

Canadian Dental Hygienists Association

"We work hard at CDHA to give our members a wonderful conference experience, so we were thrilled to have received resoundingly positive feedback on Sarah's opening plenary keynote. It was the highest attended of the entire conference for both dates!"
Jamie Campbell

Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

"Smart, challenging, innovative, committed, dependable, and reliable, I highly recommend her for all your recognition needs. I have brought Sarah into my last two organizations to help build a culture of recognition and celebration. The focus on appreciation is more important now than ever."

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