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.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)

  1. As always, Amy, your pieces on this issue — an issue all-too-near and dear to my heart — are always incred­i­bly help­ful. This is another great one, with use­ful infor­ma­tion about what traits/behaviors/thoughts are use­ful in mov­ing for­ward and which are not. But it’s the sen­si­tiv­ity with which you write about this topic that is the most help­ful. You’re one of us, truly, and you prove that with every post. Grate­ful for Plan B Nation!
    Laura Zig­man recently posted…Annoy­ing Con­ver­sa­tion #51: “SPF Math For Dummies!”My Profile

    • Thank you so much, Laura — that really means a lot. So reas­sur­ing to know that I seem to be cap­tur­ing the tone / approach I’ve been after. Every now & then — or rather, let’s say, often –, I have some con­cern about that. Very grate­ful to *you* for tak­ing the time to share this lovely response.
      amy gut­man recently posted…1 thing you should know about timeMy Profile

  2. Thanks very much for this true yet hard to fol­low advice. I offer a rec­om­men­da­tion of Self-Compassion by Kris­ten Neff ( That whole part about “main­tain equa­nim­ity” by com­part­men­tal­iz­ing emo­tions is very dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble. The emo­tions we face are designed to pull us to response — espe­cially anger in response to injus­tice. Self-compassion advice gives us great mind­set tools to honor (not ignore) the emo­tion, give our­selves com­pas­sion for hav­ing this emo­tion, and keep­ing it in per­spec­tive so we can address the sit­u­a­tion as it is, not as our emo­tions skew it.
    Alle­gra Jor­dan recently posted…The Loy­alty Test in InnovationMy Profile

    • Thanks for these thoughts, Alle­gra — I too am a big fan of Kristin Neff’s work and appre­ci­ate what you’re say­ing. The word “com­part­men­tal­ize” didn’t feel quite right to me either, though I hadn’t really focused on it until read­ing your com­ment. What did res­onate was Newman’s use of the word “equa­nim­ity.” In Bud­dhism, equa­nim­ity and com­pas­sion are both included in the four brahma viha­ras, or blessed abodes. (The oth­ers are lov­ingkind­ness and sym­pa­thetic joy.) Equa­nim­ity is viewed as a nec­es­sary com­ple­ment to com­pas­sion, essen­tial if we’re to avoid get­ting swamped by our feel­ings, which in turn would ren­der us unable to engage in skill­ful behav­iors. (Sharon Salzberg’s book Lov­ingkind­ness explores the brahma viha­ras in depth, along with Bud­dhist teach­ings on how to cul­ti­vate each of them.)
      amy gut­man recently posted…How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)My Profile

  3. Amy, you nailed all the impor­tant issues and asked the rel­e­vant ques­tions. You man­aged to con­vey that deal­ing with adver­sity is not easy yet we can all man­age to improve our poten­tial. My mantra: “Just because some­thing is hard doesn’t mean it’s impos­si­ble.” But these are really tough times and what has even­tu­ally worked for dogged indi­vid­u­als, isn’t nec­es­sar­ily work­ing these days. There­fore, glad to see that chang­ing one’s mind is part of the list. I think flex­i­bil­ity is so impor­tant. But that doesn’t mean being scat­tered. So there is an impor­tant place for focus. Maybe that’s sub­sumed under sus­tained drive. Well, glad I took the time to move away from some tasks to visit Plan B Nation.…an enlight­en­ing post, for sure!

  4. Awe­some blog! I am keep­ing this close at hand so I can remem­ber what helps as I make my own per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion. Boy howdy, the whole “unemployment/finding bet­ter and more mean­ing­ful work” has not been easy but it has been incred­i­bly reward­ing in ways I couldn’t pos­si­bly have dreamed!

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