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.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

11 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!

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.)

  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. I’m curious about the optimal three adverse events. How is this figured? And I’d guess that different sorts of adverse events are weighted differently?

    • I haven’t looked at the original research, but here’s a report from the NYT that gives a little more detail:

      The number three came from Newman’s book — this piece says 2 to 6. Whatever the formulation, the point is middling number of stressors can be productive; too many (or too few) can be a problem.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. 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!

    • So glad the post resonated! And I totally agree with you — not at all easy but rewarding in many unexpected ways.

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