Beyond resilience: Navigating your career blindfolded

Blast explosion at time 5:55 pm (initial explosion) and at 6:08 pm (orange and mushroom cloud) at the port of Beirut (Source online).

About the Author: Fida Afiouni is an Associate Professor of HRM at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon and currently serves as Associate Provost. You can check her work on this page and contact her at her email address.

The prevalence of wars, acts of domestic terrorism, pandemics, and natural and manmade disasters, raise important questions around how individuals, organizations, and society might go about preparing for their impact. Perhaps, it is the heightened awareness of today’s political, economic, and ecological uncertainties that explains a surging interest in understanding resilience in extreme contexts. Defined as the ability of people to overcome adversity and to cope effectively with obstacles in life and work, resilience has become one of the leading ideas to deal with uncertainty and change in our times and has recently occupied much scholarly debate in the management, HRM, and career literatures.

The last three years have not been easy on anyone due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, but for people living and working in Lebanon, the situation has been beyond extreme.  Since October 17, 2019, Lebanon has been witnessing a series of disruptions starting with the October 17th Revolution in 2019. The protestors denounced the political corruption that left Lebanese struggling with electricity cutouts, water shortage, decaying infrastructure, ramping unemployment, waste management problems, and increased national debt. Amidst this ongoing unrest, and topped by the Covid-19 Pandemic, and the collapse of the Lebanese Pound against the dollar, the economic situation in the country has become increasingly precarious and uncertain. The situation in itself can be characterized as extreme.

Adding to this socio-economic and political duress, the Beirut Port Blast on the 4th of August 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions worldwide, had devastating effects. The Beirut port explosion killed 218 people, wounded 7,000 people, of whom at least 150 acquired a physical disability; caused untold psychological harm; and damaged 77,000 apartments, displacing over 300,000 people. The explosion caused major damage to my own business school, shattered glass in my home, and left deep psychological scars that are yet to heal.

Reading about career resilience in extreme contexts is very different from experiencing it firsthand. Having been born at the beginning of the civil war, extreme context was my normal, and all people of my generation pride ourselves for being resilient. So here I was, building my career block by block, showing resilience to all the duress of living in this country, but then there was the Beirut Port Blast, which took duress to a whole new level. Suddenly we were thrown into the unknown, into the dark. How are we supposed to navigate our careers blindfolded? how do we overcome the overwhelming feeling of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)?  How do we navigate our careers when we are scared, not knowing if we would survive until the next day?  We did not know what lied ahead and we still don’t. So how did we continue navigating our careers blindfolded?

First there was fear, then there was anger, followed by rage. This lasted about a year, and during that time, we were recovering, we spent our time volunteering to clean up the mess caused by the blast, helping the displaced, and healing our wounds. There was a beautiful sense of solidarity and collective action that gave us hope, and then a desire to rebuild, not just our city, but ourselves, our careers, and our communities. But in our minds, a shift had happened. My career was not individual anymore, it was not just about me and my successes, it was not just about the race for publications, but it was also about helping others build resilience, and working together on building a resilient workplace, community, and country.

My experience echoes that of women interviewed in one of my publications in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, co-authored with my colleague and dear friend Dr. Charlotte Karam, and published in 2019. The paper is entitled “The formative role of contextual hardships in women’s career calling”. I simply love this article and the message of hope it sends. This paper explores the relationship between contextual hardships and women’s career calling. Our findings show that women’s career narratives are constructed in close relation to perceptions of oppression experienced across the political, financial, education and labor, and culture subsystems. Taken together, our main findings demonstrate that experiences of negative and external contextual hardship elicit affective responses that foster a career calling drive. The women interviewed are truly inspirational, and they developed their callings not despite of hardships, but because of them.

Legend has it that the Lebanese capital of Beirut was rebuilt from the ashes seven times, making it an urban phoenix in mythology. The Phoenix, a mythical creature that is reborn from its own ashes, was adopted as the national emblem of Lebanon in 1932. It is a symbol of rebirth, renewal and immortality, it is a symbol of resilience in extreme contexts. I will leave you with the below song: the phoenix shall rise, wishing that it will send a message of hope to all individuals trying to navigate their careers in extreme contexts.

The Phoenix Shall Rise – The Song, by Antoine George Faddoul

For thousands of years,

the firebird flew over the ring;

with feathers of gold and fire,

and a heavenly voice to sing;

its life and death was a legend,

with sorrow and glory to bring

For as it goes through fire,

passioned with a rebirth desire;

it burns to ashes,

and a new life dashes;

for the Phoenix shall rise

Over the mountains of Lebanon,

the Phoenix never slept;

the Cedars covered with snow,

mourned its people and wept;

for the living cities are ruined,

and their inhabitants are swept

And as it goes through fire,

passioned with a rebirth desire;

it burns to ashes,

and a new life dashes;

for the Phoenix shall rise

Over and over wars ruled,

and the land never had rest;

glorious civilizations perished,

yet rebuilt to their best;

with a living nation’s will

answering a divine request

 For as it goes through fire,

passioned with a rebirth desire;

it burns to ashes,

and a new life dashes;

for the Phoenix shall rise

Recommended Readings

Afiouni, F., & Karam, C. M. (2019). The formative role of contextual hardships in women’s career calling. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 114, 69-87.

Al-Hajj, S., Dhaini, H. R., Mondello, S., Kaafarani, H., Kobeissy, F., & DePalma, R. G. (2021). Beirut ammonium nitrate blast: analysis, review, and recommendations. Frontiers in Public Health, 9, 657996.

The phoenix Shal Rise song

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