“Resilience” is a new buzzword I’m seeing these days in a many different contexts. We need to develop “systems resilience” to deal with potential cyber attacks. We need more “resilient communities” to prepare for tragedy and the unexpected. The government is creating programs to help develop “family resilience” to better cope with the stresses of military life. And the military seeks to develop “resilient soldiers,” less susceptible to traumatic stress disorder, better prepared to positively respond to stress and change.
Resilience is clearly a good thing. So what exactly is it, and how do we get some?
Like many things, resilience is both simple and complex. In essence, it seems to come down to an ability to cope and to respond well to adversity and stress. The opposite of resilient might be ‘fragile’, ‘rigid’, ‘delicate’, or even ‘sensitive’. Persistence is usually, but not always, associated with resilience.
When we talk about people being resilient, we really have to define the context, since resilience manifests itself differently in different contexts. Different contexts may demand physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or other types of resilience – or some of each – to respond to different types of adversity. Being resilient in one context does not assume resilience in another. We’ve all seen people who may be mentally and physically very resilient in combat or high-stress environments (physical/mental resilience), but who emotionally over-react or are unbending with their families and friends (emotional/social resilience). My graduate students are very successful in their personal and professional lives, but sometimes have views of the world that are quite rigid. Graduate school seeks to develop ‘intellectual resilience’ by forcing students out of comfortable mental models, to try on different viewpoints and different ways of thinking.
So how does one become more ‘resilient’?
Aristotle said that if you want to become courageous, you need to do things that require courage. He would say the same thing about resilience. One must be willing to get out of one’s comfort-zone and stretch one’s ability to adapt to a different environment, if one wants to develop greater resilience under stress or adversity. In other words, one must subject oneself to the stress of not being comfortable. In today’s culture, there is a temptation to find a comfortable niche, settle into a ‘comfort-zone’ and fight never to leave it. We commit to career, marriage, family, community, mortgage – what one young friend of mine called ‘the whole catastrophe’. We seek stability, predictability, and… we get comfortable.
To stay nimble and resilient, we must occasionally force ourselves into endeavors and environments where we are not in complete control – and force ourselves to adapt. We must be willing to at least consider, and accept with some equanimity, the possibility that the things we count on can be taken away – our job, our money, lifestyle, health, friends, loved ones, our title, and our reputation. And we must be willing to ask ourselves that ‘existential’ question: What is left, and who are we without those things?
To step out of our comfort-zone, we risk failure. Only by trying and failing, and trying again, do we develop the resilience to deal with things happening in a way that does not suit us. Without learning to deal with failure, there can be no resilience. Not getting what we want means to suffer, and, as the Greeks believed, wisdom only comes through suffering.
In dealing with difficulties and discomfort, we frequently use something called ‘self talk’ as a psychological tool to help ourselves deal with difficult circumstances. Self-talk has been shown to actually change the way we think, behave, and perceive our environment. “I can do this.” “This too shall pass.” “This is my opportunity.” “This is God’s will (or this is my fate). I must deal with this as best I can.” “I am strong.” “I am confident.” Prayer is a form of self talk. A wise person once warned against asking God to give us the result we want, recommending instead that we pray for the strength (resilience) to deal with what He gives us.
My old friend Master Chief Will Guild suggested two essentials to resilience: a sense of humor and love. A sense of humor gets us outside of ourselves and our own ego-driven self absorption. It can deflate the pressures of fear, anger, panic, and resentment. Love likewise gets us outside of the immediacy of our personal anxiety– loving others, in spite of their failings, and loving ourselves, in spite of our failings. Indeed, Aristotle saw self-love, or ‘proper pride’ as a fundamental virtue. Maintaining our self-respect and personal sense of dignity, when all is going wrong, is essential to a resilient response to challenge and adversity. Without self respect and ‘proper pride,’ collapse in the face of adversity is predictable.
SEAL training is very much about developing physical and mental resilience to respond to adversity in battle or special operations. SEAL basic training creates a somewhat artificial adversity in a controlled training environment that serves as a crucible to develop the resilience needed to respond well to the real fear and adversity of combat. Master Chief Guild used to teach SEAL trainees four key techniques for developing the resilience necessary to succeed at their basic training, and by extension, in combat. These are variations on what sports psychologists teach to professional athletes to help them perform their best under stress and pressure.
Maintain a positive attitude
Believe in yourself, keep your sense of humor, and use self-talk to stay positive.
Learn positive visualization
Visualize and believe in your own success, whatever that looks like. Positive visualization prepares us mentally for the challenge at hand, and for what it feels like to succeed.
Break the challenge you are facing into bite-size goals -– this event, this day. Set simple, achievable, short term goals. Don’t look beyond getting through the challenge of the moment, the event, or the day.
Learn arousal control
Learn techniques to calm yourself when fear, panic, and anxiety seem ready to overwhelm you. These techniques include meditation, deep breathing, heart-rate management. And again, self talk.
The best literature I’ve read on resilience is from the Roman Stoics and from Viktor Frankl in his classic short book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Vadm Stockdale wrote extensively about how Stoicism helped him survive seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Stoicism divides the world into two spheres – things we can control, and things we can’t. The Stoic believes that we develop psychic resilience (and serenity) by learning to accept fate’s dictates, assuming full responsibility for our actions and attitudes, and developing the “wisdom to know the difference” between what we have to accept and what we can affect. Viktor Frankl’s book is about the resilience that comes from having a purpose for living – a goal for one’s life. This greater sense of purpose provides the strength and motivation to overcome life’s challenges. Man’s Search for Meaning is about how Frankl found meaning in his suffering in a German concentration camp and how his belief in his own life’s purpose was key to his survival. Both Stockdale and Frankl would argue that a strong will to adapt, survive, and prevail is essential.
In conclusion, there is much that can be said and written about resilience. It is key to success and survival in dynamic, stressful, and rapidly changing environments. As with leadership and character, resilience seems to be at least partly innate – some people are naturally more resilient and adaptable than others, and some people seem to be born with a stronger will to succeed. But as with character and leadership, resilience and strength of will can be improved through experience, training, and education. We can intentionally develop more flexible mental models, a broader perspective, and we can learn to imagine things as different than they are. It can help a lot to have a resilient and inspiring teacher, leader, or mentor who believes in us.
It is useful to remember that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection put a very high premium on resilience.