How to Acquire Resilience

How to Acquire ResiliencePeople really admire Jim.  His integrity is impeccable.  His spirit is boundless.  His intellect is keen.  But the one thing people comment on over and over again is Jim’s resilience.  After losing his wife, the treasure he spoke about endlessly.  After staring down cancer.  After almost-crippling other health problems.  After the business he started faced near-bankruptcy.  Jim just never seemed to bow under the pressure of life events, springing back stronger after each one.

Why is it that people like Jim exude resilience, while others collapse under the strain of even minor setbacks?

In today’s world, both in and outside of work, resilience is a necessary trait.  We need it not only to deal with misfortune, as Jim did, but with stress, which is rampant, and with change, which is ever-present.  The good news is that resilience can be built.  And, if we are attentive to small every day opportunities, we don’t need to build it the hard way on the back of grave life circumstances.  Resilience is developed by practicing it as we make our way through even minor obstacles in our lives.

What is resilience?  It is not just one characteristic, but a suppleness in several human capacities.  It’s an elasticity in our ability to flex beyond a rigid set of expectations about ourselves and our world.  Resilience is built by practicing several qualities in how we view what we experience, and how we respond to it.

Resilient people cultivate a perspective that fosters a wider picture of the adversity in their lives:

Belief in self-impact.  From a 32-year longitudinal study published in 1989 and building on earlier research, one of the identifying factors of resilience was shown to be an ability to believe in your own ability to impact events, rather than attributing your situation to circumstances.  When faced with obstacles, check your viewpoint.  Do you believe you could overcome them – that they are not insurmountable?  Practice identifying the small things that would make even a limited impact.

Optimism.  People who are resilient do three things especially well on the optimism spectrum:

They normalize adversity, understanding that everyone experiences it.  They don’t see it as traumatic.

They make choices about what they take from tough times. You can choose to reframe events as opportunities to learn, and to be selective about what you choose to learn from difficulty – not what to fear and avoid, but what you can accomplish even when things are tough.  Actress Brooke Shields said, “You can make the choice to take the good.”

They see the potential in adversity.  Rather than shun it, they invite the chance to build their character and to become more impactful than they are before adversity.  Environmental futurist Jamais Cascio speaks of resilience in nature, saying “The goal of resilience is to thrive (not to survive).”

Ability to take the long view.  People who are resilient are able to contextualize current circumstances into a broader picture.  A failed project can be recouped with extra investment and more information than was known going into the failure.  A stressful public relations gaffe is not likely to be memorialized in the Harvard Business Review or even a Facebook post.  Practice not only laying out the worst case scenario, but also the best case, and a couple in between.


Resilient people also have a toolbox of actions ready to be applied every single time they face the difficult in their lives:

Self-management.  Resiliency is aided by the ability to stop the hijacks that occur for all of us – those uncomfortable times when our visceral emotional reactions take charge and leave us unable to react rationally.   Several practiced habits build the physical resiliency needed during difficult times – taking good long breaths, focusing on something pleasant, refusing to do the first thing that comes to mind.  Coretta Scott King became a master at self-management during years of facing death threats for her family.  “When fear rushed in, I learned how to hear my heart racing but refused to allow my feelings to sway me.”

Action preference.  Resilient people learn not to dither in the face of difficulty.  While they give preference to action, they refrain from being impulsive.  They set goals and make decisions.  Action helps to overcome the feelings of helplessness.  It may not be a perfect action, but they take the attitude that 80% gets them well down the road.

Persistence.   Resilient people are perseverant; they don’t give up trying.  They know that stamina comes from addressing – and readdressing – problems.  They may get tired, but they seek ways to accomplish what is needed while preserving their own ability to keep performing.  Practicing resilience is in part simply keeping up the belief that a better outcome exists.

Resourcefulness.  Resilient people find ways to do more with limited resources.  They exercise their imaginations.  They try out all manner of ideas – and some hit home.  They’re not afraid to look naïve or stupid.  They ask for help without embarrassment.  They accept limitation not as a sticking point, but as a novel challenge.

Networked.  Resilient people have key people around them who help them to rebound; who help them to retain perspective.  They also lean into diversity of opinion to create more options, and seek out people who will work with them in idea generation and finding resources.


Resilience is a quality that not only helps you to rebound.  It is a set of qualities that build personal satisfaction with your world and make you stand out in your approach to life.  You can become the legend that Jim is, without quite the trauma he’s had to endure.  Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson, referring to then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, characterized the Secretary this way: “He’s a million rubber bands in his resilience.” That’s a great image for the elastic and adaptable person we’d all like to be.


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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