Photo credit: Glenn Carstens Peters via Unsplash
Mind the gap
How many times have you read an article on resilience or overcoming adversity and thought: “That’s great, but now what??”
Or, have you had a friend say: “You HAVE to try mindfulness!!” only to try it and find out that it’s not for you?
If you feel like there’s a gap between recognizing the importance of resilience and understanding where to get started, this article is for you.
I’ll make the case for why resilience matters, explain the factors that drive resilience, and present a range of tools that you can use to change your life.
This article will help you take a big, messy, non-linear experience – your life! – and apply a structured, analytical approach to becoming more resilient.
If that sounds like what you’ve been missing, let’s get started.
Expecting the unexpected
Let’s start with the obvious: COVID-19 has upended our economy, politics, family life, education, travel, and just about everything else. No one has been spared from these impacts.
As a result, it’s not surprising that interest in resilience has nearly doubled in recent months.
Take a look:
But won’t the world eventually return to normal?
Maybe, but I’m not sure that it really matters.
Here’s why: Resilience was essential long before COVID-19 and it will still be critical whenever the current pandemic fades into the background.
Take a look at the data:
You’re almost certain to experience significant, unwanted adversity – negative shocks, if you will – at some point in your future.
In fact, there’s a strong argument that the frequency and severity of these events will go up in the future. Climate change is driving the rate and impact of natural disasters. A polluted food supply is linked to growing rates of cancer and other illnesses. Automation and AI are expected to create massive job displacement. The list goes on and on.
Plus, the same logic applies to everyone else.
As a result, someone you care about – a family member, friend, co-worker, etc. – may be experiencing their own negative shocks at any given moment.
The case for change
If you accept the premise that negative shocks are part of life, there are three reasons why you should care about becoming more resilient:
- Resilience makes life easier. This is the most obvious and straightforward reason. Negative shocks are painful. Preparing makes it possible to maintain your wellbeing – or at least take the edge off – along the way
- Resilience is a performance imperative. Professionally, it’s incredibly valuable if you can manage stressful situations well, bounce-back from failure, and otherwise minimize disruptions. Whatever you do for work – entrepreneur, customer service rep, stay-at-home parent – resilience makes you better at your job
- Resilience allows you to be useful to others. As I mentioned a moment ago, your family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors will eventually need help. Investing in resilience makes you better prepared to offer support and guidance during others’ times of need
The case for change is clear: Investing in resilience makes your life better, allows you to be more successful at work, and puts you in a position to help others.
So what exactly is resilience? I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s talk about how shocks unfold.
Variations on a theme
Life tends to unfold in an unpredictably predictable way.
That’s not as confusing as it sounds.
For long periods of time, life is pretty normal. You show up to work, you spend time with friends and family, watch your favorite shows, check social media, and so on.
Then one day, or perhaps over a period of time, something unexpected and undesirable happens.
During this period, you’re dealing with some level of crisis. In the most acute cases, you’re simply focused on surviving – just making it from one moment to another. Perhaps you’re tended-to by loved ones or professionals. The non-essential falls away, for better and for worse.
At some point, you begin to see daylight again. Things slow down. You can breathe a bit easier. And in the aftermath, in the time that follows, you have a choice to climb back to where you were, to rebuild what you had, or to grow and change and reinvent yourself for the future.
The process looks roughly like this:
Now, you don’t know when a negative shock will occur, what it will be, or how it will impact you – i.e. the shape of the curve varies dramatically – but there is a recognizable and repeated pattern.
The Steady State is followed by The Shock, The Shock transitions into The Aftermath, and then The Aftermath brings you back to Steady State and the loop continues.
In other words, it’s an unpredictably predictable process.
Here are three big three takeaways from this framework:
- Each phase of the cycle has a different priority. For example, becoming more resilient when times are good versus keeping your head above water in the throes of a crisis. Note that the reverse isn’t true: It’s extremely difficult to invest in resilience when you’re already trying to survive a crisis!
- At any given time, you should have a sense for where you are in this cycle
- If you know roughly where you are, your priorities for the near term should also be clear
I’ll talk more about surviving The Shock and navigating The Aftermath in future articles.
For now, I’ll focus on how to become more resilient when things are relatively normal.
A working definition of resilience
Great, so what is resilience?
Here’s one of my favorite definitions:
I like this definition because it’s simple and works for both individuals and organizations.
What I most like, however, is the idea that resilience allows us to carry out a purpose.
As you become grittier, more robust, more elastic, you become more useful. This is powerful stuff.
Getting your head around the concept
Let’s start with a few basic insights regarding resilience.
First, resilience is multi-faceted. You will experience countless, different types of challenges in life. As you saw, some shocks are more predictable, others are less so. Further, what’s hard for you may be easy for me. Therefore, we need to think about becoming stronger, more prepared, and more useful when faced with a wide range of circumstances.
Second, you already have resilience. No matter where you are today, you’re never starting from zero. As Michelle Palmer, Executive Director at the Wendt Center for Loss & Healing said, her work as a clinical social worker is “about exploring and excavating people’s resilience and coping skills because when we are struggling, we forget that we have them.”
–> Learn more from Michelle Palmer in Episode #4: Unearthing resilience
Third, greater resilience can be trained. Like a muscle, a skill, or a habit, resilience can be built over time. For example, the U.S. Army, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, has spent millions of dollars training soldiers to become more resilient. The reason? Because it’s worth investing in things that work.
Fourth, change takes time. Like most things in life, there’s rarely a silver bullet. There’s no book you can read, no one habit you can practice, and no high ropes course that will inoculate you against life. But you absolutely can transform your capacity to endure and respond if you make it a priority.
So in short, start where you are, commit to becoming more resilient, and put in the work. In time, you’ll increase your capacity to overcome challenges and obstacles.
Keep reading to find out how.
Essentially, there are a handful of factors – protective factors, if you will – that allow you to maintain your purpose when faced with adversity.
They roughly look like this:
In general, I think it’s helpful to think of these factors as distinct. Note, however, that they aren’t actually mutually exclusive. For example, your faith may be deeply linked to your sense of purpose or your relationships could be a resource in some circumstances.
Either way, let’s keep it simple for now.
Also I should point out that how much of these you have today – and therefore how resilient you are – is the result of three things: Your genes, your upbringing, and your life events to date.
Since there’s nothing you can do to change these things, let’s focus on what you can control: Building your protective factors.
I’ll explain each of five factors in greater detail.
Zach’s story: As a 23 year old Army Ranger, Zach Osborne was deployed to Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, he stepped on an IED and was gravely wounded. Zach went on to have 35 surgeries, battle serious infections, and ultimately lose his leg. By any measure, he faced tremendous adversity.
But Zach was also able to survive the experience and is thriving today. One reason why: Because he was able to find purpose in the experience.
When I interviewed him, this is what he said: “What really connected the dots for me was when I realized, oh wait, this is my life, it was like this before I went to Afghanistan… I am grateful for that experience because it forced me to connect the dots between the two… this idea of ‘I could die at any moment.'”
In other words, Zach was able to reframe a brutal, negative shock into a learning experience that’s helped him to live a better life.
How it works: There’s the things that happen in life and then there’s the way you interpret and make sense of them. As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Ground zero in the battle for mental resilience is the space between what happens in life and how you respond.
For example, imagine you just lost your job. For many people, this is an upsetting and life-altering experience.
One powerful mental model you could use is the Three Ps, which refers to pervasiveness, permanence, and personalization. So for example:
- When you get fired, do you immediately think that the world is ending? Or do you recognize that while you’ve lost your job, your health, your family, your values, and many other things are untouched? That’s pervasiveness.
- Similarly, do you think “I’m ruined – I’ll never be able to get a job again!”? Or do you view the loss as a temporary setback? That’s permanence.
- And finally, do you blame yourself for losing your job – “If only I hadn’t made that mistake last year!” – or do you recognize the circumstances beyond your control? That’s personalization.
The Three P’s are a powerful tool to limit the psychological damage of a shock and help you bounce back more quickly.
Another tool is to reframe negative experiences. This is what Zach did above. In our example, you could re-frame job loss as an opportunity to grow. Perhaps you could see it as an opportunity to explore your values, nurture a budding hobby, or reconnect with family. Either way, you control the narrative in your life.
And finally, it’s empowering to recognize that you’re not helpless when facing adversity. You have a unique set of strengths – perhaps your sense or humor, gratitude, bravery, and so on – that you can draw upon when faced with adversity. These strengths have gotten you this far in life, and they can certainly serve you well in the future.
What to try: Consider mindfulness training to learn how to be present without judgment. Or perhaps explore cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to challenge harmful thought patterns. Or maybe Stoicism speaks to you. No? How about keeping a gratitude journal, completing the VIA Character Strengths Assessment, or coming up with something different altogether? There are lots of options!
Sense of purpose
Allison’s story: Two years ago, Allison Pullins’ 3-year-old son was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects his connective tissue and has serious implications for his heart, eyes, and skeletal system. As she told me “Whenever I look my kid in the face, I know he is sick, and I know this could kill him.”
But Allison is a remarkable example of strength. When I asked her how she’s been able to deal with every parent’s worst fear, she said “One of the interesting repercussions of James’ diagnosis was I really questioned my purposed in life… suddenly I knew my purpose in life was to be the head of this family.” She went on to talk about the importance of teaching her children to be kind, to be resilient, and to enjoy their time together.
How it works: As Viktor Frankl tragically observed during the Holocaust, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Frankl also went on to say, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.” You have to figure out what it is that will keep you going.
Your answer is deeply personal, but it’s powerful to know that you’re needed and your work remains unfinished.
I’d also add that purpose can evolve and change over time. Flexibility, and the openness to a new calling, is a another source of strength.
What to try: Read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Study one of the great religious texts. Create a list of shared values with your family. Find new ways to volunteer and give back. And so on.
Faith and hope
Rudy’s story: As a younger man, Rudy Corpuz, Jr. was a high school drop-out, gang member, and drug dealer. After 10 years of being in and out of trouble with the law, Rudy decided to go back to school and start helping felons and troubled youth. Today, he is the Executive Director of United Playaz, a youth-focused violence prevention program.
As Rudy reflected on his transformation, he said: “That’s what God is in the business of. Doing amazing and miraculous things. That’s what he does. And that’s all this is. Something that God planted way back then and turned something negative into something positive.” For Rudy, God who got him through the worst days and showed him a path to help others.
How it works: When adversity strikes, people quickly find that they have more questions than answers. This is the time faith is most powerful.
Whether you’re seeking direction or searching for meaning, it’s comforting to look beyond your situation to something bigger than yourself.
Zach Osborne and I shared a laugh about this. He observed: “There’s a point where you start to realize you’ve come to the edge of medical knowledge and you stare off into the abyss.” Those were the times when we both leaned on our faith above all else.
In these dark of moments, it’s empowering to feel supported and full of hope. I believe this is true regardless of what religion, philosophy, or practices you choose to follow.
What to try: If you’re already spiritual, return to or deepen your existing practices. If you haven’t found something that resonates with you, explore new spiritual practices or communities. Or, if that doesn’t speak to you, create a practice around connecting with nature. Faith and hope can be found in many places!
Relationships and support
Dan’s story: Dan Berschinski is another former Army Ranger who was severely wounded while serving in Afghanistan. Dan is, by all accounts, extremely lucky to be alive.
As Dan recounted during our interview: “I woke up in the ICU, seven days later, after stepping on that bomb… as my eyes open and adjust, there’s really bright light everywhere, and then I see my dad. And he’s standing over me with a cup of coffee in his hand.”
With the constant support of his family, friends, hometown, and other soldiers (not to mention incredibly skilled medical professionals), Dan slowly returned to health. Miraculously, after three-and-a-half years of rehab, he became the military’s first above-the-knee and hip-disarticulation amputee to walk on a daily basis.
In an interesting coda to this story, Dan’s father, Bob, told me this about his son, “Within a couple of months, almost as soon as he was out of the ICU, he was counseling other soldiers… he very quickly became an older brother figure for these younger soldiers.”
In other words, Dan was building relationships and supporting others even when faced with his own challenges.
How it works: As Woodrow Wilson said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.” Relationships are also a major driver of satisfaction and a significant determinant of health and longevity.
Yet for as much as we know relationships to be important, we often allow them to languish and fail to make new ones. Case in point: The average American hasn’t made a new friend in five years.
The key is to recognize that relationships require work and actively invest in developing deeper and more diverse connections.
Why depth and diversity? Depth increases the likelihood that someone will be there for you when you need them. Diversity, by contrast, is about drawing from the collective wisdom and strength of disparate groups.
When faced with unexpected challenges, there’s a time and a place for both.
What to try: Commit to a weekly date night with your partner. Call an old friend each week. Send someone an unsolicited compliment or let them know that you’re thinking of them. Try a new hobby, particularly if it could be a way to meet people. And just show up for others whenever you can.
Richard’s story: Richard Atkins is an extremely fit, 62-year old executive at a healthcare software company. One year ago, Richard was 10 minutes into a 122 kilometer cycling race when he went into sudden cardiac arrest. After collapsing on the side of the road, he received CPR from a bystander and was resuscitated twice by EMTs. Despite a less than 10% chance of surviving, Richard was back on his bike within a few weeks.
How did Richard beat the odds? In his own words: “Without a doubt I believe that my fitness was responsible for my survival.”
How it works: I’ve yet to see a book or article mention resourcing – health, time, money – as a source of resilience. I find this both odd and exciting, because I think there’s much benefit that’s been overlooked.
While Richard drew on his physical health, mental health is equally important. It’s also closely related to many of the factors discussed previously.
Spare time, or even just the ability to focus, is also critical. In challenging situations, extra capacity can allow you to catch your breath, formulate a plan, and execute it. But judging by how many of us live our lives – running from work to a kid’s soccer game to spin class and beyond – we haven’t left much spare capacity for the times when things go wrong.
I’m not against making commitments and taking on new responsibilities. But we do need to shift our mindset to recognize the costs of eliminating spare capacity. Incidentally, this is one of the big lessons for companies during COVID-19: They made their supply chains more efficient by eliminating excess capacity and redundancy, but in the process they made them exponentially more fragile.
And finally, financial resources, right or wrong, can make problems easier to solve. For example, roughly one-third of cancer survivors went into debt as a result of getting sick, which is the last thing anyone should have to worry about when fighting for their life. To be clear, U.S. policy makers must take bold steps to rebuild the social safety net, create an equitable healthcare system, and expand economic opportunity. But in the meantime, if everyone took an honest look at their personal balance sheet and income statement, it could make the next shock a bit easier to manage.
What to try: There’s no shortage of ways to explore healthy eating, exercise, and sleeping. Try whatever approach speaks to you. Socially, practice saying “no” without guilt. For financial wellbeing, “The Millionaire Next Door” is a classic and this document has some great insights, but there are really countless tools for budgeting and living within your means.
Whew! That’s a lot of ground to cover.
To summarize, here’s everything in one picture. Remember, though, these are just ideas and examples.
A repeatable process for becoming more resilient
So how do you actually become more resilient?
I like to think about the process in terms of five steps:
First, get clear on why you want to become more resilient. What will keep you going when something comes up at work or you haven’t seen any tangible results? What about when becoming more resilient starts to get uncomfortable? Better to sort this out before you invest any more time.
Second, make an honest assessment of where you are today. A baseline, if you will. There’s no right or wrong, but you should know where you are today to understand where to go next and track your progress over time.
Third, craft a plan to activate and engage the protective factors. This is deeply personal. Some people like to build on their strengths while others prefer to fill in the biggest gaps. Some want to focus on a specific area while others want to work on many things. Again, there’s no right or wrong approach.
Fourth, start exploring the interventions and life changes that can make you more resilient. When something feels right, deliberately practice that skill or behavior until you’re proficient. Moreover, think about how you’ll integrate it into your life: What are the commitment devices and lifestyle choices that you can implement to build new habits? Behavior change is hard, so don’t underestimate the importance of this! More to come in future articles.
Fifth, when you try something new, reflect on what happened, why it did or didn’t work well, and what you learned about yourself. As the saying goes, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. With that in mind, update your plans often, revisit your aspirations and baseline from time-to-time, and don’t stop moving forward!
To recap, your process will look something like this:
As I mentioned before, there’s no article, book, conversation, or class that will make you resilient overnight.
In fact, resilience isn’t something that can ever be reached. It’s not something to be achieved or attained. Rather, resilience is a state of being that you pursue despite knowing that it will always elude your grasp.
In that pursuit, however, lies the prospect of greater wellbeing.
In that pursuit exists the opportunity to better serve others, to carry out your vocation, and to savor more of your life.
I hope reading this is the first step in your own pursuit of greater resilience.
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