When hard times come, do you want to be the type of person that makes it through the fire to the other side, refined by that fire?
Of course you do! Assuming anything else would be…silly. How does one become resilient through trials, though? What traits are evident in those who have not only survived hard times but thrived? That’s what the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges tries to answer.
Resilience is broken up into 12 chapters, with the first two defining and describing resilience, and the remaining 10 covering 10 keys themes the authors found consistent in resilient people. The authors wrap up with a word on how to become like the resilient people featured in the book.
Each of the chapters is full of stories about resilient people, from POWs in Vietnam, to survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to survivors of natural disasters. These stories were gathered through 20 years working with people recovering from trauma.
As we worked with traumatized individuals, we often wondered about survivors who seemed to somehow cope effectively with the negative effects of stress, those who did not develop stress-related symptoms, or who, if they developed symptoms, carried on successfully nevertheless.
Here are the 10 traits covered in the book that are consistent among resilient people.
The first key trait examined in Resilience is optimism. Not just blind optimism that says things will always be sunshine and roses and dancing fairies, but the realistic optimism that finds the good in any situation.
Optimists who are realists don’t deny the difficulties they face, but they do tend to look for a silver lining.
People with this type of optimism don’t just sit and wallow in a problem, they look at the problem and then come up with a plan to tackle it. They don’t wait to see where problems push them, they take control of the situation and work towards an outcome they can be happy with.
This is hard for some and easy for others and mostly likely some nature (the genes you’re born with) and nurture (how you were raised) involved in your reactions. Even if you are naturally more fatalistic instead of optimistic you can still start acting the part of the person who takes control, and thus bring out the optimism inside you.
2. The ability to face fear.
Fear is ubiquitous. No one escapes its grip. Fear even strikes individuals who are widely admired for their courage.
While much of society tries to avoid fear, there is a decent-sized segment that thrives on fear. Think of the extreme sports you see on TV. In some cases just watching what these thrill seekers do may make your heart race.
Being afraid is part of life. Being afraid all the time and letting that fear rule you is not something that resilient people do.
[Tweet “Resilient people don’t let fear rule.”]
When I taught whitewater kayaking, the hardest part to teach was the roll. Many people would feel terrified about flipping upside down in a boat. They figured they’d get stuck and drown. I felt that way as well when I started kayaking. It was only through lots of practice and many swims (where I didn’t roll but got out of the boat) that I was able to train my brain not to panic when upside down in the water. Even then it took many more experiences of missing rolls and getting them on the 3rd or 5th or 8th time to remain calm under the water even while getting shoved around by rocks and water.
This brain training is exactly what you should be doing with a situation that makes you fearful. Dig into the fear in safe places and desensitize yourself to the fear by programming safe experiences over the scary ones.
In the midst of the fearful experience you need to go back to the basics and start there again. When I missed my second roll attempt I’d hang out under water for an extra few seconds thinking about the proper roll technique before trying again. Most times this extra second pause helped me muster the courage to try again.
If facing your fear is something you can’t do, then enlist people around you to help. The support of people who care about you when facing an experience that is normally fear-inducing will help you relate positive memories to the fear and equip you to eventually program out the fear.
Fear is ubiquitous. No one escapes its grip. But what is the best way to deal with it? The bottom line: the best way around fear is through it. To conquer fear one must face fear. That’s what resilient people do.
3. A moral compass.
The most resilient people have a strong moral compass. It may not be of the same beliefs that you have, but it is a set of beliefs about what is right and wrong that they can cling to in times of trouble. This means that they do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing to do and easy ways out are all around them.
You see this in many superheros. Despite all the things that get thrown at Batman he chooses not to kill. He has no qualms about hurting people, but he does not give into any anger at the hurts caused him and lash out by killing.
This moral compass is also seen in the practice of altruism, which is the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. You see this when people by the thousands volunteer to help a community recover from a devastating fire or flood, and it helps the people that have suffered the tragedy as much as it helps the people providing the support in the midst of adversity. In fact, when you’re faced with a tragedy that affects those around you, one of the ways to help yourself recover is to serve others affected with you.
This is the person whose house is destroyed by a flood that organizes shelter for their neighbours. They stop thinking of themselves and start helping others.
We can become more faithful to our moral compass by taking an inventory of our most closely held beliefs and values, by learning from the writings and examples of ethical men and women, by discussing our beliefs with people whose values we respect, and then by practicing or values, particularly during times of adversity.
4. Religion and spirituality.
While the thought of religion and spiritually will put off many people, stop thinking of the regular ‘Christian’ religion you may be familiar with. Many spiritual practices fit here, like mindfulness or Thai Chi.
The thing is, joining a group of like-minded individuals helps promote altruism. When someone doesn’t show up for a while they get messages asking if they’re okay. They have a group of people happy to see them and concerned when they don’t.
Here is one of my critiques of the book. I think this point is really aspects of Moral Compass or Social Support and is worth noting in the context of those two items. By joining a group you get more social support and can be provided with a moral compass and altruism. I don’t see anything in this chapter that isn’t really an outcome you see in the other chapters.
5. Social support.
In order to thrive in this world, people need other people. We all benefit by knowing that someone cares about our welfare and will support us if we fall. Even better is having an entire network of family and close friends who will come to our aid at a moment’s notice.
On June 27, 2016 we welcomed our third child into the world. If you’ve had kids you know a new baby means a bunch of work, especially if you already have other children who need to be taken care of. In the midst of this our church rallied around us and brought us meals for two weeks. Friends at the church offered to take our two older kids for the day (on more than one occasion before we had the baby and after) so that we could get a break and some much needed extra sleep. Since our extended family doesn’t live close and can’t provide much support, I’m not sure how we’d survive the first few weeks of having a new child. Yes, we’d still be alive, but it would be much more work and we’d be on much shorter fuses.
The act of reaching out for support means taking the initiative to seek assistance from others. It does not mean passively waiting and hoping for someone to rescue us.
Social support doesn’t stop at just receiving though — you need to ask for it as well. It’s hard for many of us to say that we need help. We feel like a burden to those that we request help from. But stop and think for a second. Did you feel hugely put upon when a friend asked for help with moving or…something? No you didn’t. At the end, you felt better for having helped a friend and you strengthened the relationship with them.
Next time you need help, don’t just sit and try to be tough. Ask for the help you know you need and give someone the opportunity to have that same good feeling of helping their friend out.
Strong positive relationships are associated with better physical health, protection against depression and stress disorders such as PTSD, enhanced emotional well-being, and longer life.
6. Role models.
Role models can be both positive and negative. A number of the businesses I worked at in my late teens and early twenties showed me very much how I never wanted to run a business or how I never wanted to treat employees.
The problem today is often where to find role models since we don’t really have the apprenticeships of former generations.
Abundant research shows that parents, as well as coaches and non-parent adult mentors, play vital roles in a young person’s ability to handle trauma and overcome adversity.
Some mentors are going to come from within your family and some are in your larger family group. Some are going to be the teachers or coaches you encounter, but even then you may run out of awesome people that can put time into your life.
Jeff Goins, in his book The Art of Work, talks much about this change in the mentorship we have currently. He suggest that:
In modern times, the responsibility for reaching your potential is often left up to the individual. This is more than a challenge; it’s a cruel taunt. – The Art of Work
Goins calls the apprenticeships that do come along ‘accidental’ and we need to be on the lookout for them as they come along. We can do this by reading blogs and books of those that are further ahead of us in business. We take their life and try to apply what worked for them through the lens of our own life.
Of course, modelling continues to be an important form of learning well into adulthood and even old age. We are never too old to learn from the example of others.
If you want to be a resilient person, you need to stay on the lookout for people that you can model your life after. Pay attention to what they do and how they do it so that you can seize one of those ‘accidental’ mentorships when it comes by.
7. Physical fitness.
It is no secret that physical training is good for our health. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that becoming physically fit enhances general health and can help to prevent or reduce the debilitating effects of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and a variety of other chronic medical disorders.
Physical training and mastering physical challenges can also improve mood, cognition and emotional resilience.
Many people are ‘knowledge’ workers now. That usually means long periods of sitting during the day and long periods of inactivity. Couple this with sitting around watching TV at night, or even sitting reading, and we do a lot of sitting.
Compare this to a few generations ago when people had to hunt or farm for their food, and we’ve made a drastic change in our activity levels in a relatively short time.
Like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, modern humans are living with a genome, body, and brain that evolved with physical activity at its core and that is designed to respond rapidly to relatively short bursts of physical stress. However, over the past few centuries, with the advent of the industrial revolution and advances in technology, we have adopted a dangerously sedentary lifestyle, rarely engaging in physically demanding work and often sitting for long hours in front of a computer or television set.
If you want to improve your health and happiness and resilience you need to start a habit of some type of fitness. I work out five days a week at a local gym and commute to work by bike 99% of the time. I even take my kids out on hikes on the weekends. While you don’t need to be as active as that, you should be getting out for at least a brisk 30-minute walk each day if you want to get some benefits to your health and improve your resilience.
Look at fitness devices like a FitBit to help. For me a FitBit Charge HR helped me see how much sleep I was (actually was not) getting, and within a week of realizing I needed to sleep more I went to bed earlier to get over seven hours of sleep a night.
8. Brain fitness.
In our experience, resilient people tend to be lifelong learners, continually seeking opportunities to become more mentally fit.
Are you a lifelong learner? Do you read books that are not fiction or do you just consume the relatively short content found online? If you want to be a resilient person, you need to start the habit of learning.
Neurons that are actively used tend to make more connections with other cells and transmit their messages more efficiently. This “use-dependent” neuroplasticity has been observed in animals and humans.
Making a habit of challenging your intellect can’t hurt, and may boost your cognitive fitness and resilience. You are never too old to learn new information and develop new skills
Many programmers stop being programmers at some point. One day the newest language or technique is something they’re not interested in and they stop learning. You can often also tell the year that someone finished college, because the most recently published book on their shelf has a publish date a few years before they graduated.
If you want to be resilient, you need to not be that lazy person who decides they’ve learned enough and stop challenging their brain.
For any training, whether physical, cognitive or emotional, it is important to be disciplined and systematic in planning and executing your training sessions. If you want to improve your physical, cognitive, and emotional skills you need to strive for perfection.
9. Cognitive and emotional flexibility.
People who are resilient tend to be flexible — flexible in the way they think about challenges and flexible in the way they react emotionally to stress. They are not wedded to a specific style of coping. Instead, they shift from one coping strategy to another depending on the circumstances.
How many of us stick to what we know works, even when the current situation in no way fits the methods used before. When the soldiers in Vietnam became POWs they had to shed strategies they used as soldiers. No longer would brash confidence win the day and help them. That attitude that had earned them their current rank earned them punishment as a POW.
Instead they had to grow and learn new coping strategies. From working out while contained in what was essentially a coffin, to getting their social connections via the ‘tap code’ (including variations for instances when tapping on walls or pipes was not practical).
They had to accept their new reality and adapt with it so that they could come out on the other side of the ordeal with some semblance of sanity and strength.
…resilient individuals often find that trauma has forced them to learn something new or to grow as a person.
10. Meaning purpose and growth.
In psychological research, studies have found that having a clear and valued purpose, and committing fully to a mission, can dramatically strengthen one’s resilience.
Simon Sinek calls it your ‘why’ in his book Start with Why. Jeff Goins refers to it as your purpose which comes out of your story in The Art of Work. They both come down to the same thing — an answer to the question, “What am I on this earth to do?” Resilient people have a clear idea of what that mission is, which lets them adapt to ordeals by changing what they plan to do as they suffer, but still aim for the same target.
This is the business owner that loses many of his staff in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and defines the purpose of his business to provide salaries for the families left behind, and scholarships for children now missing a parent. Focusing on why he was still running the business gave everyone at the business that decided to stay a purpose that was greater than them (altruism at work) and a way to keep going forward in the light of such devastation.
We may not all have such lofty purposes, but you should have a purpose to the work you do. If you’re not sure how to find that purpose I wrote a whole series on defining and working towards your ideal life.
My purpose statements sit on Post-It notes over my desk so that I’m reminded daily why I do what I do. Who am I helping and what am I working towards. With this constant reminder I have a much easier time navigating the tough times that come my way.
If you’re looking to learn how to become a more resilient person, then Resilience is a good book for you to dig into. I feel that some of the principles don’t warrant their own chapter, but overall Resilience gives you a great look at what it means to overcome that which is hard in life, and a framework to dig further into becoming the resilient person you want to be.
After reading the book, you can dig more into the areas you don’t quite understand now that you’ve been provided with a framework for investigation.