Kristin Smedley and Mary Fran Bontempo of Brilliantly Resilient: Rising Through Resilience; Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient
Don’t be married to outcomes. Action is essential to resilience, but we can’t be married to the outcome we want. How many times do plans work out exactly as we want anyway? Be prepared for the situation to evolve and act based upon the facts, not magical thinking.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Smedley and Mary Fran Bontempo.
Kristin Smedley and Mary Fran Bontempo are the dynamic duo behind Brilliantly Resilient, the powerful program to help others come through crisis Brilliant, not Broken. As a young mother, Kristin found herself raising two blind sons, with no idea of how to help them to live vital, successful lives. Mary Fran discovered one Mother’s Day that her son was a heroin addict when he overdosed and was rushed to a hospital, marking years of addiction. Utterly unprepared to manage either crisis, Kristin and Mary Fran knew only that they would not allow themselves or their children to be defined by the challenges — determined to not only survive but thrive.
Now they are award winning TEDx speakers, Best-Selling authors, and co-hosts of a popular online show and podcast. Kristin is known around the world for her work in empowering the blindness community and Mary Fran has impacted thousands of people affected by addiction. Together, they founded Brilliantly Resilient, the life-changing program that teaches others how to Reset with Resilience, Rise, and Reveal their Brilliance to the world, no matter the “sucker punches” life throws at you. Visit Brilliantly Resilient at www.brilliantlyresilient.net.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Both of us came from rather traditional backgrounds growing up in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. Our families were supportive and taught us the value of hard work, respect, and doing the right thing. We both thought that if we stuck to our Catholic school girl roots and rules, everything would be okay, which it was — until it wasn’t. Despite “doing the right thing,” we’ve both had to navigate what we call major sucker punches or train wrecks in our lives. Two of Kristin’s three children were born blind, and Mary Fran’s son suffered from heroin addiction and substance abuse for many years.
As Kristin says, when you’re a mother, you have dreams for your kids. What happened with our children was not part of the plan, and we both found ourselves adrift, with no idea of how to help our kids — in Kristin’s case, to live vital, productive lives, and in Mary Fran’s case, to survive addiction and build a life.
When we met each other — through the introduction of a mutual friend, and we still don’t know what she was thinking! — we realized that we handled our crises, different as they were, with a similar process that helped us not only survive, but thrive (eventually, of course — it wasn’t magic!). We wanted to help others navigate crisis and be the resource we never had, so we created Brilliantly Resilient. It’s a passion project for both of us.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The most interesting story is the fact that we were brought together to do this work. We are as unlikely a pair as you’ll ever find. People who know us are constantly amazed that we love working together and get along so well, despite our different personalities. We hear, “Wait, you work with her?” all the time! But we share many things, mainly a value system that aligns us. The lesson we learned from this serendipitous pairing is one we repeat over and over as part of the Brilliantly Resilient process — DO NOT BE MARRIED TO OUTCOMES. If we had stubbornly plowed ahead with our own plans and not been open to the evolution of what could be, none of this would have happened, and we LOVE what we do!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When we created Brilliantly Resilient, we knew that as much as Resilience was a part of our story, it was essential to us that we go further and factor in the Brilliance piece. We knew that navigating great challenges by uncovering our inherent Resilience and then using our talents and skills to rise after those challenges to turn life into something more, was the gift crisis can give if you act on it.
When you experience crisis and you rely on your personal gifts, skills and talents to work through that crisis, you’ll find that you’ve used your skills in a way that you may not have before. Those transferrable skills can become the basis for building something new — something you may never have thought of creating. What we’re doing now was never a part of the life plan for either of us. But after seeing how our skill sets allowed us to do things — really hard things — we never dreamed we’d have to do, we also realized those skills and talents could be the building blocks for doing amazing things we’d never dreamed of doing before.
The beauty of crisis is that once it passes (and it always does), you can look around you and say, “I did it.” It may have been ugly, and not the result you wanted, but surviving crisis, when you thought you’d never get out of “the pit,” shows you what you’re capable of. And it’s usually way more than you thought. It’s about uncovering resilience AND discovering and using your brilliance.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
We are huge believers in the power of the tribe. The very idea of having your own particular Brilliance implies that there are things that are NOT your Brilliance. That’s when you have the opportunity — and it is an opportunity for growth — to raise your hand, ask for help and expand your tribe. Also, it’s not always your first level contacts who are the most helpful. Those closest to us may have emotional bias that prohibits them from seeing us or our challenges clearly. When you seek help by exploring second and third level contacts (think LinkedIn and other social media), you can exponentially increase your knowledge and success. We proudly call ourselves Doctors of Nothing, and we’ve learned so much from guests on our shows and others whom we’ve sought out for help and advice. We’re so grateful to people like John Lee Dumas, host of EOFire, Bob Burg, author of the Go-Giver series of books, our buddy Rob Angel, who created Pictionary, Violette de Ayala, founder of FemCity, and so many others who have shared their brilliance with us.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
We like the definition we found in Psychology Today: Resilience is about getting through pain and disappointment without letting them crush your spirit. So much of resilience is a mindset. It’s about building mental fortitude. Resilient people aren’t delusional — they don’t think, “I’m resilient; I can beat this.” Rather, they know that they have a skill set that can help them, and what they don’t have, they’ll seek out in others. In Brilliantly Resilient, we talk about three things when resetting with resilience: values, perspective, and controlling the control-ables.
Challenges can take away many things from us. But they also give us an opportunity to refocus on what’s really important. We encourage people to get clear on their value system and build on those things that truly matter to them, like integrity, trust, hard work, even humor. Then we suggest taking a hard look at the challenge and checking perspective. Is there a different way of looking at the situation that may help you through? And finally, it’s about controlling the control-ables. What can you actually do to make the situation better? Avoid the land of magical thinking and focus on what’s real and what you can do about it.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
We always think of each other when we think of resilience, but our Brilliantly Resilient show has given us the opportunity to meet so many amazing people who embody resilience. Dr. David Fajgenbaum comes to mind. David found a cure for his own terminal disease after doctors told him there was nothing more they could do. He focused on his value of hope, created a new perspective on how to look at his illness, and then acted on what he could control with that new perspective, discovering a different way to use a drug that wasn’t traditionally used for his illness and finding it effective. It’s not only resilient, it highlights the brilliance we know is a hidden gift in every situation where resilience is called for.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Both of our personal stories are filled with people telling us things were impossible. Kristin was told her kids would be mediocre in school and in life, while Mary Fran was told that beating an addiction as severe as her son’s was nearly impossible. Neither of us was willing to accept those decisions about our kids. We simply refused to let our kids’ challenges define them or us. The fact that these crises affected our kids was certainly influential. Don’t tell a momma bear her kid is doomed! We simply decided we weren’t going to sit back and let our kids be statistics. That’s when we tapped into our inherent resilience, although we didn’t know we were doing so at the time. It was instinctive — protect our kids. That’s the beauty of resilience: it’s already in all of us. We just have to access it.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Do blindness and heroin count? Seriously, those were obviously our biggest challenges, but life is full of them. What we learned from refusing to give in to blindness or heroin taught us both so much about our inner strengths and our ability to rise above those challenges to create things we’d never dreamed of.
When we began Brilliantly Resilient last March, our plan was to take the program live to groups and organizations. Then the COVID sucker punch hit. We had no idea what to do, so we decided to do a live show, every day, and bring on people who could help us and our audience learn about resilience and the brilliance they could create. In the year since, we’ve done over 200 shows, put out over 50 podcasts, created a Masterclass Series of self-guided programs, ran a Discover Your Brilliance Challenge, created a Small Group Coaching Program and written a book, in addition to presenting the Brilliantly Resilient program virtually to numerous groups and conferences. When you aren’t married to outcomes, you allow space for your brilliance to rise. None of this was planned, but we came back stronger than we could have imagined by living and acting based on the Brilliantly Resilient process we created.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Both of us grew up in middle class homes in and near Philadelphia. Kristin has four brothers and Mary Fran has a sister and two brothers. Neither of our families had much money; we had what we needed, but spoiled we were not! Seeing our parents work hard to take care of that many kids, and not getting the latest everything, taught both of us to be creative, to work with what we had, and to find ways to work around what we didn’t have. There’s no better way to learn resilience than hard work coupled with creativity.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Resilience begins with a decision. Are you just visiting your crisis, or are you going to live there? Decide. Once you decide you’re just visiting, your brain immediately begins to work on ways to navigate the challenges.
- Clarify your values. Use the crisis to decide what’s really important to you and what you can eliminate from your life. Examples of values are trust, respect, hard work, kindness. Use your values to act based only on what truly matters.
- Check your perspective. Is the situation as bad as you think? Can you tweak your perspective to find a course of action you hadn’t thought of? Kristin often tells the story of how her then 3-year-old son, Michael, changed her perspective on blindness when he came into her room as she was crying and said, “Mommy, isn’t this the best day ever? The sun is shining, I have my toys and I’m so happy!” Kristin realized that it was her perspective on blindness that was holding Michael back. Michael didn’t “see” blindness the way she was seeing it.
- Control the control-ables. Don’t waste time on coulda-woulda-shoulda’s. When Mary Fran’s son was in the hospital from an overdose, she realized that replaying the “If only I had…” reel in her head was a waste of time. Instead, she dove into finding a facility and experts to help her son and she got him into treatment.
- Don’t be married to outcomes. Action is essential to resilience, but we can’t be married to the outcome we want. How many times do plans work out exactly as we want anyway? Be prepared for the situation to evolve and act based upon the facts, not magical thinking.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We’d LOVE to see Brilliantly Resilient become a worldwide movement where we could teach everyone to Reset with Resilience, Rise, and Reveal their Brilliance to the world — Reset, Rise, and Reveal! When we uncover our inherent resilience to rise after crisis and then share our brilliance and what we’ve learned, all boats rise. The world becomes a better, more joyful place when we all share our gifts. It’s a teachable process, and we want to teach the world!
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
We’d LOVE to share a meal with Ellen DeGeneres! Ellen’s story epitomizes the Brilliantly Resilient process on so many levels. She has had to call upon her resilience multiple times in her career, beginning (at least publicly) with the cancellation of her first show after coming out as gay. But she relied on her value system, with kindness being at the core, to rebuild and teach others based on taking action that remains true to who she is. She lives by her values, works hard, and is passionate about lifting others, as are we. And she dances! We love to dance; it’s an expression of joy. There’s so much joy and fun to be had when you’re secure in your ability to be resilient and you’re working your brilliance. We spend a lot of time laughing! We know the origin story of how we founded Brilliantly Resilient would resonate with her and we’d love to share it with her audience! Call us, Ellen! (We also love to use exclamation points!!!!!)
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you for asking! Our website link and social outlets are listed below. And don’t forget to check out our book, Brilliantly Resilient, which landed on Amazon’s Best Seller list right next to Deepak Chopra — who is still scratching his head!
Check out our website at www.brilliantlyresilient.net
Brilliantly Resilient Facebook Community: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BrilliantlyResilient
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Kristin Smedley and Mary Fran Bontempo of Brilliantly Resilient: Rising Through Resilience; Five… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.