A Guide to Building Resilience
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Some people are made of sturdy stuff. They seem to take life in their stride. Nothing ruffles them, nothing diverts them from their path.
Others (most?) are not like that. When things go wrong, they freeze. They stop. They ask, “why me?”. They blame circumstances or others for their situation. They get discouraged. They give up. They stay down.
No-one said life is easy. It is a fact that life is often hard. Sometimes we get dealt bad cards and there is nothing we can do in that moment to change things. However, we always have control over what we think and do next.
“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that truly matters”
Other times it is down to us. We try to do things outside of our comfort zone. We put ourselves at risk, we risk failing ….and we fail. Yet this is just proof that we are on the right track, that we are putting ourselves out there. We are alive.
“If you haven´t tried then you haven’t really lived”
Anthony Hopkins in “Meet Joe Black”
The difference in how we react to unfortunate events and failures is key to whether we are able to live a good life or not.
Of the list of virtues needed to live well, the one I always put top of my list is courage. Without this virtue, all philosophy, all ideas about how to live well come to nothing. They are just thoughts and words. Only with the courage to act when times are tough can we show our best selves and take action.
However, there is another virtue, or perhaps better thought of as a characteristic, that goes hand in hand with courage and is almost as important. It is….
We need resilience to take on life, to put ourselves at risk, to take on failure. We need resilience to take the blows that life hands out. To hit the canvas and rise again.
A few years back I hit the canvas.
I had taken a gamble. I changed job and left the city I was living in to work over 700km away, leaving my wife and two children behind. Nor was it just a physical change. The new job was in a new sector for me, Real Estate. I had been courageous. At that time in my life, I needed a new experience to reboot my career. However, I hadn´t done my due diligence thoroughly enough. I had been reckless.
I wasn´t sure that the role was the right thing for me, but the prospects looked good and the salary was attractive.
However, it didn´t take long to realize that I wasn´t in the right place for me. The culture was very much command and control, hierarchical and stifling. People jostled to tread on those around them and there was little in the way of collaboration and teamwork. At times it felt like being in a shark pool. It was pretty toxic.
Even though I was a Senior Manager and was given leeway to implement my own way of doing things and my own philosophy to my management style with my team, it jarred with the way the company was run and I clashed constantly with my peers and boss.
Not only was I not passionate about the culture, but I also didn´t really align with the objectives of the company and the way they did business either. It all felt pretty hopeless and I knew there was only one outcome. I had taken a risk and it had not paid off. I left after just under a year, with the sensation that I had failed hard, for the first time in my career. My self-esteem was hit, and I felt frustrated and despondent.
I was also out of work with a family to support. I was feeling sorry for myself and spent some time licking my wounds. I looked up from the canvas and took strength from my love of philosophy and the wisdom I had learned.
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”
And one of my favorite sayings from Japan
“Nana korobi, ya oki”
"Fall down seven times, stand up eight"
When you fall, you have to get back up. However, what I learned from that experience was that it wasn´t really a case of “bouncing back” because there was no “back” to go to. Things had moved on. The situation had changed. The project had failed.
I learned that it is more a case of moving through. Pushing onwards and upwards. Resisting the temptation to stay down and give up. Learning from the experience, whatever it may be, a professional failure like mine, a personal hardship or even tragedy, a global pandemic…. Accepting it and getting on with the next step on the path of life. The important thing is to have a mindset that allows you to come to terms with what has happened and to stand back up.
As Eric Grietens says in his book “Resilience”
“You will fail. Especially in the beginning. You will fail. And that’s not just OK, it’s essential.
Without resilience, the first failure is also the last—because it’s final.”
So, resilience is important…very important. How then can you build more of it? How can we make sure we are ready for when we will fail?
There are four key strategies to build resilience
1) Taking care of your physical state
To take life´s blows we need to be in condition, in the most optimal physical state possible. Everything begins with getting enough sleep (those of you who know me will know that this is my first health hygiene recommendation for everyone I coach to prioritise if they want to improve their life and performance).
Then the list continues with good exercise, a balanced, healthy diet, avoiding excess alcohol or drugs. Just looking after yourself in a sensible manner. No excess.
There is nothing new here, but feeling physically well and rested is absolutely key to being resilient when difficult moments arise.
2) Building relationships
Research has shown that the level of people´s happiness is directly correlated to the number of friends they have. The more meaningful human connections we build, the better our lives are. This is true in the good times, but even more so in the bad ones. We lean on our family and friends, our coaches and allies. The people that stand in our corner when times are tough, have our back, show us how to move forward.
Like the eager parent that encourages a child to get back on her bike after falling, our friends, our family will be those who help us back into the saddle.
In conclusion, it is vital to prioritise making real connections with people and to nurture the friends you already have in order to build resilience.
3) Embracing a healthy mind
Who has not heard of mindfulness? It has become a trending topic over the last 10 years and yet has been a technique that has been used by humans for thousands of years.
“Living in the present” is a way to prevent dwelling on past problems (regret and sadness) or thinking of future ones (anxiety).
Building a mindfulness technique is far from easy. Some would argue few are capable of achieving a true mindful state for anything more than a few seconds. Research has shown that even this is enough to break a negative state of mind and bring relief. Meditation is the that even these few seconds can make a massive difference, snapping us out of obsessive thinking or mental rumination.
Meditation is the base for building a mindfulness practice and preventing our thoughts running our lives. Even 10 minutes of meditation as a daily practice has been shown to make people far more resilient to the inevitable obstacles and challenges, we face in life. Building such a practice spending just a few minutes a day observing the workings of our mind can make a huge difference.
The ancient Stoics had their own meditation practices that were more active than the traditional practices taught in the East. These practices involved techniques that have now become used in modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Here are two of the most useful Stoic techniques:
a) Negative Visualization or Premeditatio Malorum
You may have heard of positive visualization, but what about the opposite – negative visualization? Sound a bit gloomy?
The Stoics suggested that sometimes thinking about would go wrong in any situation has some really positive effects on our psychology. Firstly, when we see that things actually turn out better than they could have, we build a feeling of gratitude, which is a huge anecdote to feeling down. Secondly, the thought process of working through the worst possible scenario provides us with a means of seeing that the world wouldn´t end. It reduces the feeling that we are trapped and of catastrophizing likely events.
Finally, we actually get to think of an action plan and what we would do should things not go our way.
The idea isn’t to dwell on this, but to run through this “Premeditatio Malorum” technique as a short drill. It makes us grateful, prepared and builds our resilience muscle to be ready for any outcome.
b) Distancing – “A view from above”
The founders of CBT, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis took this ancient Stoic technique and built it as a foundation of CBT applicable to recovering from setbacks and becoming resilient. The emperor of Rome and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius spoke about viewing life from above, from outer space, to put things back into perspective.
This is a powerful technique to get us to see that our troubles are not so important in the big scheme of things. See my earlier blog post for a full explanation as to how to perform this practice.
A closely related technique is to distance through time. To basically think how you will see the same events that have just occurred in one month, one year or five years from now. This also puts the events and our response into perspective and allows us to see that life will continue. We are always able to overcome the effects of whatever life throws at us in time and what seems like a tragedy today may almost seem trivial years from now.
By practicing these techniques when the events are not so significant, but when we do get annoyed or frustrated, we are able to see how they work and be ready for when bigger misfortunes occur. They help us get back off the floor. Ryan Holiday, the author of “The Daily Stoic” says it brilliantly:
“Devastation – that feeling that we’re absolutely crushed and shocked by an event – is a factor of how unlikely we considered that event in the first place.”
4) Following your purpose
My coach, Brian Johnson calls this “knowing the game you are playing”.
Life is a game, but we need to be in the right game, the one that we truly want to play.
Finding our purpose is a subject in itself, so I won´t go into that here, but knowing that you are on a path and living by your ideals makes all of the difference when life´s difficulties strike. When we are heading somewhere, it is easier to get back on the path. On top of that, if we are passionate about where we are heading, we can always find the energy to step back up once more.
Resilience is the ability to overcome and adapt to adversity, tragedy and hardship. The ability to MOVE, to keep going is much, much easier if you know where you are moving to. If you have a goal in life.
When we have a destination in mind, we also have hope that we can get there. This flickering flame of hope is the light that pulls us out of and leads us through the darkest times back onto life´s path.
Building resilience is key to a healthy life. The art is to build the resilience muscle over time, step by step when times are not so bad. This way we are prepared for the inevitable knocks that life will give us. All of us will fall, sooner or later. The difference between failing or succeeding is whether we stay down or get back up. The difference is called Resilience.