So what is resilience?

What is resilience? Have you found yourself in a difficult situation, and people tell you,  “you got to be resilient, or you got to cultivate resilience, etc.?”   I have, and that was a question I asked myself when I was in the process of dealing with a brain tumor a few years ago. The American Psychological Association definition of resilience is “Resilience is a process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.”   What I have learned is that resilience is not just about bouncing back.  The difference between resilient individuals is not only how they handle loss, but how they prepare to win.

The keyword in the definition is adapting; adapting is the process that leads to resilience.  Interestingly, adapting is something we humans have done for thousands of years. In fact, humans may be the most adaptive species in the face of the earth.   The most significant two adaptations humans underwent were the ability to sweat and run long distances.   Those two adaptations, in response to “stressors,” took place over long periods, but they were vital for humans to grow into the dominant species in the world.  So let’s start there,  here are a few facts about resilience.

Resilience requires an adaptive capacity.

Often our response to stress is to look for the next gadget that will take the issue away; we look for technological solutions.  In response to stress, we tend to look for the outside for the answer. Resilience is to face a threat and make small changes, methodical, adaptive, and strategical that will allow us to overcome the threat and thrive.   Rather than look for “technological” fixes, we must work on adaptive solutions.  For example, taking medication to lower blood pressure is a technological solution. A change of lifestyle to eat healthily, get more exercise, and lower stress is an adaptive solution.  Adaptive capacity requires a shift in mindset as Kegan and Lahey explain in their book “Immunity to change.” To build resilience, we have to have an adapting capacity, and sometimes it means changing our behavior, being open to alternate options

Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary

Humans have shown to be incredibly resilient,  as a result of our adapting capacity.  We adapted into great long-distance runners to “run our pray to death” because most species cannot sweat as a means to cool down.  We became apt to persistence hunting; in such practice,  our ancestors showed the commitment to the goal of securing the next meal.  I am mentioning this because this indicates that resilience is interlaced with normal life, even from way back. We can see it in our children; they are incredibly resilient; a great example is Meghan, a 10-year-old who shows resilience in coping with the loss of her father.

Resilience requires grit

Cadets at West Point are able to reach their goals based on grit, more than other characteristics. Grit is defined as trait-level of perseverance and passion for long-term goals, the willingness to suffer.   It is grit what usually predicts achievement in under challenging conditions; grit is the ability to endure yet persevere.    However, the purpose is not to endure forever, but to overcome, and eventually thrive, to bloom where we are planted.   At West Point, it was found that it was GRIT and hardiness, not cognitive factors,  predicts the success in military officer candidates.  This brings back the concept that the capacity for ‘ordinary magic’ and the opportunities for adaptation is an option and a choice for everyone. But the critical component is that we have to be able to do the hard work,  to be uncomfortable, to suffer as part of the process.

Resilience is not surviving

Being a survivor has heroic connotations; the survivor stands firm and resolute to endure.  A resilient individual does more than just getting thru a challenging experience; he survives AND thrives.  A survivor makes it. Barely. Every day they get by, always hanging on by a thread. A fighter takes destiny on their own hands. They don’t make it, they fight every day, every step of the way.

In America, 75% of employees consider their direct line manager the worst part of their job. In fact,  65% of them would take a pay cut if they could replace their boss with someone else. Moreover, some people seem to stay in relationships in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances; they resemble a superhero character that runs through a brick wall: unemotional, fearless.  And some are overly persistent with impossible goals; a phenomenon called the “false hope syndrome.”  Resilience, however, allows individuals to improve the condition over time,  not to endure the situation forever.   Resilience is about how you take action and adapt, and eventually, overcome and thrive.

Resilience requires deliberate practice.

One of my biggest passions is running long distances; at one point, I was running a marathon a week sometimes more. I have even run ultra-marathons at the 100-mile range.  However getting to that level didn’t happen overnight, we all know how to run,  but to run a marathon or more we need to train and practice.  Like running, resilience is a skill that gets better and better over time; and we all want to be ready when the time comes to use that muscle. Life is long enough that at one point or another, we all will be challenged.  If you want to get good at running, go running and run a lot.

However, what is most written about deliberate practice focuses on the technical aspects of learning a new skill. For example, gymnasts develop their fantastic body control, or pianists practicing hours on end.  People naturally respond emotionally in stressful situations, and this can hurt their performance. So the focus shole be developing the psychological skills necessary to handle the stresses, the mindset.

To begin the shift the way we deal with stressful situations and cultivate resilience to adapt and thrive, we need to understand what is reslience first, and then find ways to cultivate it which is the subject of an upcoming post.