“On Resilience: Swim don’t sink, bend don’t break”
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I wasn’t taught to be resilient. I don’t remember someone sitting me down and telling me that tribulation and turmoil would be an inevitable part of my life. That I was going to have face some really tough times, even though I had done everything by the book. That disappointment, fear, and the occasional ‘carpet-pull’ (that’s when life pulls the ground from underneath your feet) are going to happen. I was brought up thinking life was all rosy and that staying safe (or within the boundaries of the normal) was the best survival strategy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have become much more resilient by exploring the limits of my coping mechanisms, facing my fears, and enduring through my perceived limitations. Only after I had survived 4 near-death experiences, did I start to take more risks in my life?
So, why do some people suffer setbacks and not get smashed, squashed, or destroyed? What exactly is this quality of resilience that pushes people through life?
The key to resilience is trying hard, then stopping, then failing, then recovering, then trying again, then failing, then trying again… It’s about endurance. It’s about stamina. It’s about a high degree of self-belief, hope, and optimism. It’s about understanding that stress is an internal process and an emotional reaction to the meaning we make of external events.
Dr. Martin Seligman (commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology, and a leading authority in the field of Positive Psychology) gave us some solid advice in the Harvard Business Review article Building Resilience, April 2022. He said: “Talk to yourself. Give yourself a cognitive intervention and counter defeatist thinking with an optimistic attitude. Challenge your downbeat thinking. And replace it with a positive outlook.”
Daniel Goldman, best-seller author of Emotional Intelligence echoes the claim that changing our self-talk is vital to becoming more resilient. That the neural key to resilience is how quickly we recover from our internal states of self-induced stress. We have all heard of the fight-or-flight response and how our amygdala can hijack our more rational and calm states. So, how do we fight back? How do we regain control? We learn to talk to ourselves in a more gentle and self-compassionate way. We use mindfulness to become aware of our internal states and transcend them to become more positive, more generative, and more pragmatic.
So, step 1 is to empower yourself by using some powerful techniques from coaching and positive psychology. In their excellent 2013 book, Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business, Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin dedicate an entire chapter to sharing powerful tools that help leaders build resilience. As Greenberg and Maymin state, we tend to ruminate on the little details of something that went well. We also tend to get paralyzed thinking and dissecting everything that went wrong and getting tunnel vision, instead of shifting into a generative and creative mindset. To help manage this negative self-talk and stress, Greenberg and Maymin suggest that we make an effort to win debates against ourselves by using a tool called ‘disputing’. This can be useful when we find ourselves going down in a downward spiral and being plagued by toxic and destructive self-talk. Disputing is used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients find evidence in their past to dispute their current negative beliefs. It helps us to build resilience by helping us reframe personal setbacks as temporary situations in our journey.
So, the first step is to practice becoming mindful of your fight-or-flight response and to learn to win the debate against yourself, providing yourself evidence that proves contrary to your current personal assault. Mine your past for evidence that proves you have the courage, confidence, and competence to overcome and come back even better. Empower yourself and change that toxic self-talk!
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”
Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
After 20 years of experience in the media industry, I decided to pivot and change my career. I found meaning in the path of empowering creative and positive change and accordingly, did what I needed to do to shift my career completely. Looking back, I would say that the values that supported me through this transition were accepting my reality with a pragmatic and honest outlook, having a deep belief in something bigger than myself, and being open and passionate to learn something new.
What is interesting is that this idea of having a beginner’s mindset and being open to learning new things is echoed in various books and articles as a key component of resilience.
Carol Dweck, in her ground-breaking book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success first introduced the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the innate beliefs people have about their abilities, whether physical or mental. A person with a fixed mindset assumes that things such as character and ability, are fixed, and cannot be changed. On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset believes that human qualities are more fluid and can be improved with effort. They believe that a character trait can be changed. They also support the concept of neuroplasticity which is ‘the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life’. Due to this perspective, challenges and obstacles are viewed as a natural part of learning. It has been found that people with growth mindsets are much more likely to succeed because they are much more motivated to learn, have a desire for challenging work, and are less discouraged by hardship.
A simple coaching exercise can help us shift to a growth mindset. It asks us to become more aware by journaling what the dominant thoughts and self-talk is in a specific situation, becoming aware of whether this represents a fixed or growth mindset, then validating and affirming our power to choose and shifting our mindset to a more empowering one.
Greenberg and Maymin suggest that we ‘don’t quit, (we) just quit being an expert.’ They advise us to frame any new assignment as an opportunity to learn and automatically generate more enthusiasm and resilience. Some questions to promote a learning mindset you can ask yourself are:
- How can your past experience help you with the current situation?
- What are some mistakes you might make? How might you persuade yourself that it’s OK to make these mistakes?
- What do you hope to learn?
Asking these questions is a very effective way to shift into a learner (growth) mindset. Some of the most innovative companies in the world set up an internal ritual wall of failure where they celebrate mistakes because this creates a culture of learning.
So, stop being an expert, and start embracing the idea of becoming a learner. Adopt an acceptance of reality and ask the difficult questions that enable you to generate new ways of not only coping but also solving the issues you encounter in new and innovative ways. Cultivate a growth mindset.
“If your heart is broken, make art with the pieces.”
Then, get some perspective. I know that sounds simple, but optimism can be learned. And, resilience is a skill that you can develop. You can boost your ability to bounce back. Imagine how difficult life would be if you were gravely affected by every negative mishap. You would spend a lot of time being angry. You would hold grudges against others. You would have a compromised immune system. And, you would neglect the unearned good that we have in our life, and focus only on the undeserved bad. If you think about it, there is so much more unearned good in our lives than there is undeserved bad. Even if we wanted to count up all of our blessings, we would not be able to. So, how do we get some perspective?
The most important emotion there is gratitude. You can create a gratitude journal and write down 5 things that you are grateful for in your life before you fall asleep every night. If you keep this up for 40 days, it will slowly diffuse your unconscious negativity bias and bring your focus on the positive things in your life.
Remember it’s all about self-awareness. And one very powerful framework is called the Me-Always-Everything framework, introduced by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, in their book The Resilience Factor. In this framework, you analyze failure from three different perspectives:
Me: Ask, did I cause this failure? Or did external events cause it? Was it a combination of both?
Always: Does this situation always happen to me? Or is this a one-off setback?
Everything: Will this event spill over into other domains in my life? Or is this an isolated situation?
As you can probably guess, optimistic and resilient people don’t attribute failure as a personal attack. They would never think that ‘this’ always happens to them. They would tend to see these events as isolated examples and not a common pattern. They have a healthy perspective and self-awareness.
Greenberg and Maymin also share with us some very powerful coaching questions that use with their clients to help them shift their perspective:
Future: what would you say about this situation 20 years from now?
Past: looking back, when have you conquered a similar situation?
Severity: how bad is this compared with other situations you’ve faced?
Distance: what would this look like from up in the sky? What’s the big picture here…?
Extremes: (my favorite for diffusing any panic attack) What’s the worst thing that could go wrong? What’s the best thing that could possibly happen? And then really, what’s the most likely thing that will happen?
The real goal in trying out different perspectives is not to create excuses or get us into a state of denial, but to allow us to explore other more positive perspectives.
So, practice gratitude, adopt a positive explanatory style, and shift your perspective. Don’t make everything about yourself. Become your own source of validation.
“On the other side of a storm is the strength that comes from having navigated through it. Raise your sail and begin.”
Gregory S. Williams
I did not know how tough I was until I was thrown into the eye of the storm and forced to figure things out. If I had been given the choice, I would have probably cowered in fear. I did not know what was out there. I knew there was uncertainty and stress. But I asked myself: “how do you know what you’re capable of if you haven’t tried?” You are tougher than you think. And failure is required to promote resilience. We fail and bounce back, learn from our mistakes, and rebound from setbacks. I’ve also understood that it’s the power of purpose and meaning that gives me the stamina to endure. Dr. Martin Seligman considers ‘meaning’ to be one of the 5 pillars of the PERMA model, which is an excellent framework for creating wellbeing in individuals and organizations. So how can we modify what we do to pursue more meaning in our lives? How can we create small and gradual changes that allow us to explore the limits of our capability? This is another way to build resilience.
I did not know that I was a prolific songwriter. I did not that I was a natural musician either. But, I did know that my identity was that of a ‘creative’ person and my ‘ikigai’, my purpose, was to empower creative and positive change. Whether it was through music, writing, coaching, or being, I would always align with that larger-than-life purpose to keep me going. When I first picked up a classical guitar 25 years ago, I was very disappointed. My fingers bled, my neighbors complained, and my output was terrible. A full year passed and all I had to show for were a few amateur melodies and a cover track composed of 3 chords. But I kept going. I kept pushing. I was resilient and did not take the comments of my friends or family personally. I kept pushing. And each time I broke through a new perceived limit, I was rewarded with more progress, more challenge, and more applause.
We all know that setbacks are a natural part of the rhythm of life. But what matters is how you quickly bounce back from adversity, setbacks, and negative events. If you want to become more resilient then acquire mindful self-awareness, change your self-talk, replace your negative chatter with evidence to the contrary, focus on what you can learn, try on other perspectives and reframe fear, explore the limits of your potential and hold on to a meaning that is much bigger than you. Find the things in your life that give you hope, make you brave, and provide with a perpetual sense of gratitude.
“As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
External links & resources:
Sharif Maghraby is the Lead Coach at SAP Innovate to Win. SAP Innovate to Win is an innovation enablement and coaching service that blends proven frameworks like Design Thinking and Business Modeling, powerful technology and a global network of expert coaches to help organizations and their teams solve complex problems and get the confidence to innovate. Get in touch and start your innovation journey email@example.com