How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)

“So your blog is about resilience?”

“Well, not exactly. I mean, it’s about what lies behind resilience – about the nuts and bolts of resilience.”

I had this conversation a number of times before launching Plan B Nation, my personal chronicle-cum-user’s guide to life after the Great Recession. Yes, I was interested in the notion of bouncing back, but I wanted to unpack the idea. How do we stay optimistic  in the face of repeated setbacks? How do we keep going when our best efforts fall short?

These questions lie at the heart of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, a new book by journalist Rick Newman – which is why I raced to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard about it.

Like my own, Newman’s exploration began with personal challenges – in his case, a divorce and custody battle, financial stress, and dislocation (both geographic and professional). “As I crested the age of forty, I was falling behind instead of getting ahead, with a set of options that seemed to be narrowing and a deepening disillusionment that wasn’t supposed to afflict people like me,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Ultimately, Newman opted to widen his gaze, to bring his reporting skills to bear on the issue of failure. How is it that some people – Newman calls them rebounders – are able to emerge from setbacks even stronger than before? What are the skills they draw on? And how can the rest of cultivate these adaptive behaviors?

Delving into these questions, Newman profiles a number of thriving survivors ranging from Thomas Edison to military pilot Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq – their highs as well as their lows – and concludes with a series of nine attributes he sees as common to rebounders.

1. They accept failure.

It’s not that rebounders like failure, but they manage to “fail productively,” framing failure as a learning opportunity.

2.   They compartmentalize emotions.

While their emotions may run strong, rebounders nonetheless adopt a pragmatic stance and learn to maintain emotional equanimity in the face of disappointments.

3. They have a bias toward action.   

Taking purposeful action – even if you aren’t sure where it’s taking you – can be a first step to moving forward. (Newman opposes action to rumination, which can easily lead to immobilizing worry.)

4. They change their minds sometimes.

They make the best decisions they can at the time based on the information they have. When that information changes, they’re able to adjust their goals and thinking.

5. They prepare for things to go wrong.

For all the talk of optimism being linked to success, the rebounders Newman talked to tended to have a more measured perspective. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said one.

6. They’re comfortable with discomfort.

For rebounders, success equals fulfillment, not comfort, and they willingly accept significant hardships and inconveniences en route to their goals.

7. They’re willing to wait.

Rebounders are willing to work harder and wait longer than they expected. “Longcuts to success are more common than shortcuts,” Newman writes.

8. They have heroes.

Mentors and role models are often important sources of inspiration for rebounders.

9. They have more than passion.

Rebounders have sustained drive as well as passion.

Having personally field-tested many of these strategies, I can vouch for them. At the same time, let’s be clear: All adversity is not created equal. For all the talk about hardship making us stronger, research suggests that people who experience an undue number of stressful life events (definitely the case for many of us slogging through Plan B Nation) have a relatively high level of mental health problems, as Newman reports. In other words, some hardship is good, too much hardship is not. How much is the right amount? Researchers put the optimal number of adverse events at three.

In the same vein, all people are not created equal. For this reason, I would love to read more about resilience in the context of the so-called “Big Five” personality types identified by researchers as largely hardwired and enduring. It would make sense if those of us wired to be unusually sensitive to negative experiences have a harder time cultivating resilience than those of us who naturally trend to a positive outlook. Does research in fact bear this out? And if so, are there steps we can take to counteract or bolster our hardwired biases?  (For those interested in such things, personality types are explored in depth in Daniel Nettle’s highly readable Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, which also includes a short version of the Newcastle Personality Assessor.)

Still, while resilience doubtless comes more easily to some of us than others, there are always steps we can take to maximize our own potential. For this, Newman offers a starting place – as well as excellent reminders.