Want to make young people more resilient? Here is how!

When I grew up many things were fine in my family and some things were not, just like for many others. As a child, I had always somehow felt that I was wanted and loved. However, for many years there was just too much alcohol and other drugs like tranquilizers being used at home. This created an environment of addiction and co-addiction at home of which I became a part. It created a secret behind the facade which we were displaying to the outside world as a family. It also created an environment where the really important things like emotions were not spoken about. As a child, you adjust to your environment and since you hardly have any comparison you just plod along, at least this is what I did. When everything at home is somehow fragile you are probably not very likely to become a rebel because you feel that your parents have just no capacity left to cope with any sort of trouble. Some weeks were worse than others. I recall that my mum was hospitalized at least three times because of acute intoxication. Once even during the exam period when I was finishing high school. Even when you get somehow used to it, events like these stick with you. Any attempts to talk about addiction and find an ally in my dad led nowhere.

A little nudge in the right direction

Not surprisingly, this climate of silence in the face of traumatic events had a lasting impact on me. It probably would have been easy for me to take some wrong turns in life. However, there were a couple of important events that have helped to find a good course. However, you often only realize this in hindsight. Through a school friend I had been told about zis, a non-profit organization founded meanwhile more than 60 years ago, which gives study grants to young people. The idea was that once you are being accepted with a topic which you want to do research on you were given about 325€ (650DM at that time) as a scholarship. You were not allowed to take own money with you and you had to travel internationally. Also, you had to do your trip alone and stay abroad for at least 4 weeks. Furthermore, you were expected to write a thesis on your subject and keep a diary to capture your thoughts and emotions. The entire idea dates back to the French architect Jean Walter. In 1899 he cycled 6,000 km from Paris to Istanbul and back because he just wanted to see the Hagia Sophia. Since he did not have much money he earned his living by playing the trumpet in the streets. He had experienced this as a very difficult but also utterly exciting endeavor which had changed his perspective on life. About forty years later, meanwhile he had become successful and wealthy, Walter founded an organization which would give study grants to young people to give them the opportunity to experience similar autonomy and that would promote their success both in their profession but also in live overall. He gave this organization the name “Zellidja”, in reference to the lead and zinc mines which he had discovered in 1924 and which his company exploited in the village of Zellidja Sidi Boubker in Morocco. About 10 years after the end of World War II the idea of Zillidja inspired the foundation of what is called ZIS today in Castle Salem, Germany. Marina Ewald, a teacher at this prestigious private school close to Lake Constance, was the driving force behind this. The organization still exists today. The only difference being that a study grant today is worth the luxurious amount of 600€.

Lifechanging experiences

About 30 years ago, two study grants from zis helped me to widen my horizon, stretch my understanding of what was possible and develop way more self-confidence. In hindsight, the experiences I made on these trips to Scotland and Iceland were priceless for my development. I learned that I could cycle 1.700km alone and stand to get wet every single day without giving up. I learned that you can live 4 weeks from just 325€ and still have a good time. I learned how it is to be threatened with deportation and how you can turn this around into getting an interview with the state president. Today the word we use for this is resilience – and I have made it my profession to help leaders all over the world to develop more of this inner strength.

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