Resilient people are builders and understand they have the potential to be more than they are – that was the message from Jahan Kalantar, the self-proclaimed “Little Guy Lawyer”, at the 2022 Rise conference.
In his keynote address, It Starts From the Inside, Jahan shared his perception of resilience, breaking it down into three “practical skills”: vision, gratitude and mindfulness.
Vision was an understanding that “you are a work in progress”, said Jahan, a founder and partner in the legal firm Executive Legal, where he leads the serious crime and mental health practice.
We all had “a reason to be grateful for everything”, he said.
And mindfulness required an acceptance that “in the universe, there are forces at play that are so much more than we can comprehend, and we should focus on what we can control”.
This three-pillar philosophy had led Jahan to take up the causes of those in their darkest hour.
“I help people on the worst day of their life,” he explained. “I help refugees, people who will lose their farm. I’m not here as an expert but someone who gets what it’s like to feel the world is going to end.
“I don’t get what it’s like to be Superman, but I know what it’s like to be Clark Kent.”
Jahan told more than 1,000 delegates: “Five years ago, I wrote that I wanted to stand in front of people and tell the stories of those I worked with.
“If you write down your passion and what you want, it can be yours. We are lucky to live where these things are possible.”
Jahan enthralled his Melbourne audience with three examples that matched his belief of what constitutes resilience, saying he was “focusing on practical skills because you are an industry that likes to see results”.
But he started with a story of finding his own resilience.
It was 2013, and Jahan was a young lawyer. He’d been asked to go to a prison ward for the criminally insane to interview an inmate.
“I was told my client was a career criminal, paranoid and tended to put people he disliked into his fantasies. I get to a door, and I suddenly feel trepidation. I walked into the room – it was so hot, but I felt so cold. I saw the man – 6ft 3in covered in terrifying tattoos that made no sense.
“I’d have been worried, except next to him was a bear of a guard 7-feet tall. I’m about to speak, and the unthinkable happens. The guard gets a call on his walkie-talkie, grunts and leaves.”
Jahan recalls how the inmate balled his fists and said, “I know who you are, who sent you, and you’re not going to get me because I’m going to get you first”.
Rules governed how to behave in this situation. “First,” Jahan said, “never show you’re scared. And talk with a calm, polite tone – and you must not lie. They’re always on edge and looking for a reason to strike.
“In our anxiety, in our scariest moments, that’s when we find our superpower – and that’s called resilience.”
As he continued, Jahan celebrated the skill of vision by lauding the Spaniard Antoni Gaudi, widely regarded as the greatest architect who designed the Barcelona cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, infamous for remaining unfinished. Its completion is scheduled for 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
“As a young man, he was unimpressive,” Jahan said. “He struggled in complete ambiguity until he was discovered. Some city leaders said his vision was disrespectful to God. He knew there was a masterwork in him. All of us know the same. If you believe in what you can achieve, you make art like this.”
Jahan’s inspiration for gratitude was Ali, a Kurdish refugee and client who was “impossible to dislike”.
“He had no money but always had a small gift and would always end an email with a thank you that was half a page long. I’d tell him he didn’t need to thank me, but he said he did.
“Ali had been tortured. His crime was he loved to read. Never formally educated, he’d successfully secured knowledge of English, Arabic and Farsi. He wanted to put together a group for better (democratic) representation. He was jailed, suffered deprivation – no food, no fresh air, no sleep – and was tortured.
“They moved him to the night cell … you don’t come back from the night cell. His family paid to smuggle him out and, from Indonesia, he attempted to get to Australia.”
Ali said he was always amazed at how you could have “unlimited water at whatever temperature you want”. And Jahan asked rhetorically, “how lucky are we, knowing the doors won’t swing open and secret police will take us for our ideas”.
For mindfulness – Jalan’s third pillar of resilience – he used a 35-year-old indigenous woman called Tabatha for his inspiration. He’d taken her case pro bono. While most people in this situation were grateful for such help, she remained angry, complaining she’d been “bounced from lawyer to lawyer”.
“I said that’s not the case this time,” continued Jahan. “I said I’d be there to the end. She asked for a pinky promise. I thought it would take five months, but it was five and a half years.”
Assured by the pinky promise, Tabatha stayed calm throughout the rest of her ordeal. “The state is an incredibly cruel system,” Jahan said. “It changes the goalposts all the time, but she never showed that anger again.”
Jahan invited the audience to take inspiration from Gaudi, Ali and Tabatha.
“We are so obsessed with getting to where we are going next, we forget why,” he said. “If we just appreciated how hard it was to get where we are.
“Each of you has more than you can imagine. It is not easy to show up every day, but that’s how you change your world.
“In your darkest moment, ask yourself, ‘what can I learn and how does it help me be the person I need to be’.”