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Peaks & Valleys – Mark Gasparotto

About Peaks & Valleys

The Peaks & Valleys podcast is a series that looks at the unique challenges of running a seasonal business. Although interview guests run agribusinesses, the discussions are applicable to any seasonal business. Each episode ends with tips and best practices related to the given topic.

About the Episode

In this episode we welcome Mark Gasparotto to talk about resilience. As he says in the podcast: “We’re all going to get blown up in life. Thankfully, for most of us, that’s not a literal event, but we’re going to get blown up. Our dreams, our plans, our projects, and when we do, we have a choice about how we react. We have that choice. Resilience is a skill that can be taught, can be learned.” Listen in as Mark breaks down the components of resilience so we can learn and practice this critical of skills.

If after listening to this podcast you’d like to talk to Mark, you can reach him at

For more information on the podcast or to suggest a speaker or topic, contact


Lisa: Hello Mark. It’s nice to see you again.

Mark: Great to see you as well, Lisa.

Lisa: In a previous conversation we were talking about leadership and during that conversation you mentioned nine components that you feel are important to being an effective leader. Today, I’d like to focus in on one of those, that being resilience. To get us started in this conversation can you define resilience for us?

Mark: Of course.  And thank you for having me on your podcast.

There are many definitions of resilience. The one that that we use at the Gasparotto group is the ability to withstand, recover and even become stronger as a result of adversity and adversities.

A continuum. There could be a challenge, right through to something traumatic and adverse.

Resilience is not about being impervious to stress or hardship or suffering, rather in my experience and in the definition that we have developed, it’s about struggling well.

So success in life is really about struggling well and being grateful for what you have.

And it’s within that context that we talk about resilience.

Lisa Thank you. That is well said, struggling well and that can be a applied to work, home, personal -across the board.

Mark: Yeah, and struggle can have a negative connotation, right? If someone is struggling, they’re below the line. They’re drowning. Perhaps. But if you think of the great struggles of good versus evil, or just any challenge that is life, there’s always friction and struggling through that is just part of life.

So, I don’t look at it as a negative term. It’s just part of the fight. It’s part of the wrestling of issues and friction points. And so for me it’s a positive thing to be able to struggle through. The challenges that life throws at you.

Lisa: And so in your time thinking about this – living this – is there preparation? Is there something that you think through when you’re faced with a challenge?

Mark:  Before I get into preparation, let me throw two concepts or models out, with preparation being part of the second thing I’ll talk about.

Picture in your mind’s eye a four-legged table. The four legs are body, mind, heart, and soul: a person’s humanity.  The tabletop represents a person’s social network.

If you were to take a table for real, you could shorten or remove one of the legs and that table will still stand until the right amount of pressure is placed on the right location of the table, and then it will tip or fall.

Our resilience, our personal resilience, is no different. We can go a while without proper sleep or nutrition. We could go a while without reading deeply into our area of expertise, or to be well rounded. We could go a while bottling up our emotions.  Or a while disconnected from our purpose or from friends and family and our table will stand until the stresses of life build up and then we will trip. We will tip over and so I think that’s an app analogy for someone’s personal resilience. And what’s interesting about the tabletop — because that’s outside of us — but many studies have been done about resilience or longevity, and what they found is either the number one or a significant factor that contributes to the resilience and longevity is not always physical health, but it’s the strength of those people’s relationships.

You need all five of those things to be resilient. You need to work on all elements of your humanity.

Alright, so that’s the first concept and the second one: I think of a cycle of pre, during, and post. The preparation, the performance during an event and the recovery, So that applies to athletics, where clearly there’s game day, or it can apply to any stressful or traumatic event.

You asked me before what the things are you can do in preparation to be resilient.

I don’t know if you’ve read the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.

Lisa: Not yet, but it’s on my list.

Mark: (It’s his second book after Black Swan) In it he talked about things that gain from disorder or from stress. If you think of bones in the human body that they don’t fully develop, they don’t become stronger unless they’re put under pressure. Right. And that’s why when people have an injury and they’re laid up their bones actually weaken. That’s an example of something that requires stress to become stronger

Humans need that as well. If you have prevented your kids from ever failing, or being hurt, you bubble wrap them, you’ve actually have made them weaker.

OK, so this notion of antifragile where you need to be tough and flexible. So I’m going to throw out a lot of analogies and metaphor and hopefully I don’t mix them. Think of the palm tree versus the oak tree:  the oak tree is strong, but under a hurricane force wind that oak tree will snap because it is rigid. There’s no flexibility, whereas the palm tree will completely bend and survive that kind of gale force wind. So that’s another idea – you want to be like the palm tree in terms of your resilience:  tough and flexible. Some may think of that as a paradox, or an opposite, but when they go together you get that.

OK, so how do you become tough? You need to do hard things. You can’t click your way to resilience on an online course. You just can’t. Yeah, you can understand the theory, but you need to do hard things, and for most people — so go back to the four legs of the table – this starts by doing physical thing. That’s the gateway for them to then do hard things cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, etcetera.

And in fact, I was just introduced to this concept recently, but it’s called cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis. That’s just a fancy way of saying if you do something hard physically there are physiological and cognitive changes in the body that allow you to do hard things in these other domains.

So that could be like running a marathon or half marathon or maybe it’s 10K or 5K or climbing a mountain, or you know, like something that that pushes your limits physically. I do a lot of that just by virtue of the fact that I used to be a soldier and I really enjoy that stuff. So for me, the greatest growth is actually on the emotional side, and that was reconnecting with my kids after being deployed for years on end. So that’s where I’ve had to do a lot of the work. It’s going to look different for different people, but you’ve got to do those hard things. And part of that is embracing conflict… not starting it but embracing it. Conflict, tension, paradox these are all natural phenomena in life. These things are out there, and you can run away from them. You can run from that fight. But you’ll be forever running and there’s anxiety that comes with that as opposed to having a crucial conversation with someone, for example.

That’s what I mean by embracing conflict, getting to the root of the issue. And there is such a thing as good conflict, when the idea is debated, and not the person, or you don’t make it personal in terms of that fight.

Now two other things I think are important in preparation… (I’ve talked about what do you need to do to be tough) so let me give you some ideas around flexibility: Plans versus Planning.  General Eisenhower had a great quote and if I can get it correctly, he said, ‘In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable’. Because when you cross that line of departure the enemy has a vote, and the first casualty is the plan. Mike Tyson said it more concisely, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

So, the act of planning has you go through contingencies. It has you go through a mental agility; you understand different options when the situation changes. You don’t fight the plan; you fight whatever’s going on.  This is soldierly talk now. OK, but having a plan is important to get you there, at least to the start.

And the last one is about training hard, fighting easy. Most people do not rise to the challenge in stress. They sink to the level of their training. So what does that look like for someone who’s not in a tactical scenario? Well, this is about the plan. What contingencies, what business continuity planning have you gone through? Do you know what happens when a cyber attack hits? Do you know what happens if there’s a fire? Do you know what happens if a principle in the organization and is no longer able to come to work? Have you worked through those things. And, that’s the training. Have you prepared for a presentation? Have you rehearsed to the point where the muscle memory kicks in? So that’s what I mean by training hard, fighting easy.

What’s the expression around luck. Luck is really just being prepared for an eventuality.

Lisa: The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Mark: Yeah, all of those.

So those are my thoughts around preparation. If you’ve got any questions or read back.

Lisa: So you’re talking about the table and all the aspects of … the whole or being the whole and then you talked about the physical. Do you have to lead with the physical? You mentioned that the physical is something that is easier for you and it’s the emotional that you work on. Could you do it in reverse?

Mark: Yes, you could, and I can’t remember the paper, but most people start with physical and that’s the gateway to the other ones. But by no means is that the only way to do hard things and take advantage of what’s called this cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis.

Lisa: So if I were to use another analogy, then — and you had hinted at it when you talked about your bone — when you’re working out, you’re putting a stress on your muscle, let’s say, and then there’s a tiny, not a fracture, but a bit of a tear that happens and it becomes stronger. So is that the analogy to the person?

Well, that’s the analogy during the recovery.

Lisa: I’m jumping ahead.

Mark: So yes, when you’re working out, you’re tearing your muscle. You know at the micro level and it’s when it’s the healing of that muscle that produces, amongst other things, when you provide proper nutrition, it builds muscle mass. So absolutely the training is prior to an event.

But also, training is an event when it comes to what you’re doing with your body, right? So, the nutrition may be the pre to a working out.  These concepts are all nested and without a doubt there’s overlap.

Lisa: So, you had mentioned there is a preparation and then there’s during the event.

Mark: It’s during the event or during the performance stage and I’ll share 4 macro points.

We’re talking about under stress now, this is not a normal situation, (now you may be a firefighter and going into a fire is a normal situation, even though it’s stressful), it’s something above the baseline.

You need to control what you can control. You’ve got to run your race. If you’re training for a marathon, they’ll say that. You have to pick a particular pace person to follow, but in the end, you have to run your race. You’re not competing against everyone else. You’re competing against yourself.

So what does that mean? Well, it means focusing your energies where you actually have influence. When I go back to my definition of leadership, it’s the influences to direct, motivate and enable others to achieve a common goal in line with the group’s values. So influence is key. Where do you actually have impact? Because if you focus your energies outside of that area of influence, you are wasting them and in a crisis situation, that could mean the difference. That’s about impulse control, but that’s an emotional intelligence component to that, and it’s about that focus.

The second point and it’s linked to the first, is do the easy things easily so you can save that energy to figure out the novel. So even after the pandemic hit there were still things that were unchanged. There was no need to apply your energies to the things that could remain the same. Those should have run in the background almost semi-autonomously from an organizational perspective, so you can figure out the novel.

And so it’s about that focus now. You’ve got influence over both, but now it’s autopilot for one or cruise control and expending your energy on the other stuff. So what does that look like? Because in crisis, you have to stop the bleeding. It’s about the alligator closest to the boat. You have to shorten your time horizon.

When COVID hit, people weren’t thinking 10 years out. They were thinking a day, a week. You have to bring things in tight, even from a communications network perspective, but certainly from a time horizon perspective.

And then it’s about eating the elephant one bite at a time.

Lisa:  OK that I get.

Mark: Not every problem is linear, I get it, but many problems can be broken down.  And I know systems theory says it’s greater than the sum of its parts; if you break a mirror, you just can’t put all the pieces back together and the mirror works again. So I know there are some, contrary, or there are some caveats to all of this, but (ask yourself) what do you have influence over? Probably start with the low hanging fruit or where there’s the greatest leverage and just work your way through the problem that way.

From a physiological perspective — so now we’re talking about you — it’s about controlling your breathing. It is incredible what happens when we control our breathing. There’s a reason why it is a fundamental part of yoga, martial arts, as a soldier, marksmanship, or shooting. When we control our breathing, we can actually alter our mental and emotional state. We can alter our physiological state.

There’s a great study, well there are many of them, but the one I’m familiar with, (and it’s not just about a tactical situation as a soldier in a gunfight) they have shown that when you control your breathing, you will make better decisions in a business setting because you are opening up pathways. It’s not about calming down so much. It’s about getting to an optimal state of cognition and of emotions, and so much of that is physiological, so the Vagus nerve, which runs from your brain right down to your stomach, and how much that is influenced by breathing and therefore it influences the other parts. I’m not qualified to get anymore scientific than that, but the breathing is a semi autonomous physiological function, meaning it’ll run in the background, or you can take control of it and that has the highest leverage over self regulation.

Okay so I got very tactical with that one, I’ll now get the philosophical with the last point around performance and this one bleeds into the post or recovery.

Three stages as well.

This one is about purpose, meaning and I’m a big fan of Viktor Frankl’s work. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Jew imprisoned by the Nazis in several concentration camps, and he went on to write a book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, and he quotes Nietzsche a lot in there, and Nietzsche said, people who have a strong why can endure almost any how.

So, if you think of Viktor Frankl’s experiences in, I believe, four different concentration camps where he lost his parents and his wife and saw all sorts of horrors. That’s what got him through. (I just actually rewatched an interview with Viktor Frankl on YouTube before this podcast, just to refresh myself on what he said.) For him, meaning had had three elements to it.

There was a creative element of meaning where you were achieving something, which for him was his life’s work. He had a book that he wanted to write and it was confiscated by the Nazis and destroyed. So what drove him to survive was the ability to tell the world about his life’s work: his theory, logotherapy.

The next is experiential, and so that could just be standing and taking in nature. There was a story in “Man’s Search for Meaning” where prisoners of a concentration camp they went for a walk just to watch a sunset and marvelled in the beauty. Despite their horrendous situations, but also it’s about love and how you self actualize by loving someone else.  And so for that, it was his wife. So that’s the experience part of it. You don’t necessarily have to do anything, but you just need to be present in the moment and be part of the moment.

And the last one is about attitude.  And so if you’re not allowed any control over the first two, and certainly you weren’t in a concentration camp, and this is a famous quote that comes from the book, and he says, ‘Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of human freedoms and that’s to own one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances and if you’re unable to change the situation, you’re forced to change yourself.’  So here he talks about finding meaning in the suffering and not that you impose suffering on yourself because that is ludicrous, but if you have no choice, this is my connection to struggling, you can find meaning in that suffering.

In terms of performance: control what you can control, do the easy things easily, breathing, and then being very clear and in tune with your purpose and what gives your life meaning.

Lisa: Yeah, it’s interesting. To me when you’re talking, you’re reminding me of phrases I’ve seen, things I’ve learned, like you said, through yoga, plaques I’ve read and you’re pulling it together in a way that it is connected. It is something that if we think about it, and we’re intentional, we are equipped with it.

Mark: Resilience is a skill that can be learned. It can be strengthened. There are some personality traits that lend themselves to greater resilience than others, without a doubt. But you can train yourself to be more resilient without a doubt.

Well, and hopefully I don’t turn into a walking cliché.

Lisa: No, no. You’re taking something I’ve read, or whatever – a cliché, but you’re putting it into context of real meaning of life. And to me, it’s amazing to hear this in the context of resilience because resilience is so incredibly important always, but I would say certainly in my lifetime, just what’s been, what we’re facing and to know that we can be resilient and you’re breaking it down and saying and here’s how you can prepare, here’s the different aspects of it, here’s what you want to think about, and then coming out the other side, hopefully stronger, smarter, feeling good.  It’s important. It’s when you talk about leadership, it’s not something that often comes up in conversation. But I know that with you’ve said, to be able to lead others, you have to be a good leader of yourself, and this is critically important.

Mark: Yes. Yeah, it is. All of that flows into the recovery part. There’s this third part of the cycle and very clearly the attitude that Frankl was talking about from a cognitive and emotional perspective and maybe even spiritual, I would say, it flows into what you need to do to recover. So for me, ownership, and ownership belongs in in all three of the stages, but I’ll talk about it here in recovery. So for me ownership is about accountability and it’s about agency. Owning a situation, owning a problem even though you didn’t cause it, especially if you didn’t cause it, and if you think of Viktor Frankl’s experience or Covid, none of us caused that, but you clearly had to own it. And you had to own the solution, this is where agency comes in, the willingness to do something about it, not just be a victim of circumstance, although sometimes not making a choice, is a deliberate choice and we’ll put that caveat aside, and lastly, owning the results, both good and bad, because you can do everything right based on the information you have in the moment and still not get the outcome you’re looking for.

So you have to own all of those things and I’ll tell people I’ve learned this the hard way. Strong leaders own their experiences and they become better people for them. So much of that is a mindset. And for me, that’s the link to gratitude. I wake up every morning and my daily act of gratitude is to say good morning to the sun. (A bit Pagan.) Because in Kandahar there were days that I didn’t know if I’d see the next sunrise. And so for me that is my active gratitude. That is how I own my experience and do my best to become better for it. Because in the end, that’s all we can do. You can’t change the past. You can’t change either what was done to you or what you decided to do. You just need to own it. So gratitude and realism for me is connected to that.

I think you can be overly optimistic as well. I’m not a big fan of the word balance because it implies these equal things, but to me, gratitude and realism, there is tension sometimes, but they’re in a healthy tension.

Lisa: Is it a bit like acceptance? Is that a word that you would use here when you’re saying ownership and gratitude? Is it acceptance of being on the other side and having gratitude for the place where you’re at? Is that what you’re saying?

Mark: Yeah, I would use that as a synonymous term. And in fact, when I hear acceptance, you know, I hear the Serenity Prayer. Having the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference. So yeah, I would. I would have no issue with the word acceptance.  I’m going into that word cloud again.

Then the last point in terms of recovery is actually rest and recovery. So there’s this healing that needs to occur and the analogy used earlier was around working out, especially weights, the tearing of muscle and then there’s a deliberate healing that needs to go on. And after a traumatic event, there is individual healing, and there’s also group healing because, you know, you may have been on the same team, but you may have hurt someone on that team as a result of these stressors or the team may have been hurt, in the heat of the moment, kind of stuff. So, seeking help — and I’m not talking about embracing a victimhood mentality, I have a lot of fear for our society because that is so prevalent; that victimhood mentality, so that’s not what I’m talking about — but there is help out there. I lost more soldiers to suicide than I did enemy fire. And I’ve had more soldiers suffer from PTSD than were wounded in action. Not every case, but some of those numbers is because they wouldn’t seek help. Or they didn’t do the things that I’ve talked about in terms of that acceptance, that ownership, there was a lot of blame and therefore toxicity. My understanding of resilience is deeper and stronger and more nuanced now than it was almost 20 years ago when I came back from Kandahar, but many of the things that I’ve talked about I either did intuitively, or I learned about, or as a result of seeking help, I was taught. And so it’s a practice that we can all do to become stronger.

Lisa:  That’s a very good, that’s a very good word for it. It’s a practice.

Mark: Those are the three areas, the pre, during and the post and what I think are most important activities that belong to each.

Lisa: Well, thank you. It’s a lot, but it’s understandable and I’m going come back to that word, practice. It is worth while thinking about, breaking it down into components as you have so that, I don’t know if it ever becomes automatic, but I assume it becomes more fluid when you think about it. When you are faced with conflict, with challenge, that it becomes more fluid in what you’re going to do to work through it.

Mark: Well, so let me let me pull on that string. Let’s think of a staircase now. And what was once difficult, after practice is no longer difficult. So this is the train, train hard, fight easy bit but to train for a marathon, you have to run a marathon. So these things do need to be applied in the real world.

But after enough practice a certain amount of this will become automatic for certain scenarios that you’re in tune with, but when you’re faced with something harder or different, then it’s novel again, and then it may not be as automatic, but hopefully the plans versus planning  — you’re fluid enough to deal with that with those adaptations to both the environment and your reaction to the environment.

Lisa: Yes, I can see that for sure. Any last words?

Mark: Well, I could tell you a story about how I’ve put some of this into practice. I need to take you back in time to 2006, to Kandahar and it was in the aftermath of Operation Medusa, which was Canada’s largest combat operation since the Korean War. And at the time, it was NATO’s largest combat operation in its history, and my combat Engineer Squadron was tasked to build a road about 5 kilometers between two forward operating bases. And during the construction of that road, we were attacked every couple of days by the Taliban and on one of those days, my vehicle struck an improvised explosive device and I was blown up. That detonation, it’s so loud I don’t hear it and I’m not knocked out, but I am concussed, and I feel the shockwave travel up through my body and then the physiological effects of stress sit in, so tunnel vision, loss of fine motor control, elevated heart rate, breathing rate, my mouth is dry and time slows down. And I can’t translate my thoughts into words or actions, I’m stunned. But I know I can’t get on the radio in that state. And I’m the senior guy on the ground in that location, and I can’t get on the radio like that because that would mean spreading panic and fear is contagious. So to lead others effectively, it starts with leading yourself. And as mentioned earlier, resilience is one of nine components of that leadership of self.  So this is where my training kicks in. And as I mentioned earlier, we don’t rise often to the challenge, we sink to the level of our training, and we are trained to do box breathing. So in for four, hold for four, out for four and hold for four.  What happens when you consciously control your breath, especially the pauses, it allows your mind to switch from the limbic system — or that fight flight, freeze posture, submit those animal instincts to fear — back into the cortex or the thinking part of the brain. And that’s what allowed me to regain control of my senses, my emotions, and my thoughts.

We’re all going to get blown up in life. Thankfully, for most of us, that’s not a literal event, but we’re going to get blown up. Our dreams, our plans, our projects, and when we do, we have a choice about how we react. We have that choice. Resilience is a skill that can be taught, can be learned. We can learn to struggle well and when you learn to struggle well the next time you are blown up, you won’t be gripped by fear and panic, but you’ll be able to breathe through it and therefore think through it to get you to the other side.

Lisa: Well said. Thank you and thank you for sharing the personal story with us to wrap up what has been a very thought provoking and encouraging podcast. Thank you.

Mark:  You’re very welcome, Lisa. It’s been my pleasure.

Throughout the discussion, references were made to the following:

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder: Taleb, Nassim Nicholas: 9780812979688: Books –

Viktor Frankl and his book: Man’s Search for Meaning: Man’s Search for Meaning: Frankl, Viktor E., Kushner, Harold S., Winslade, William J.: 8580001069371: Books –