by Jim Bruce
Over the last few days, “resilience” has appeared so many times that it has become the word of the week. I’ve seen it in leadership articles, it was discussed at recent MOR workshops, and of course, the trait was evident at the NFL’s Superbowl LI on February 5th. I was impressed by how Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick harnessed his mantra “Do your job!”, something he uses continuously, to draw the team back to the task ahead for the second half. Tom Brady did much the same in the huddle with his mantra, “One more play.” And, all this brought me to Lindsey McCaul’s 2014 song, “One more step.”
Resilience is about rolling with the punches. When stress, adversity, or trauma strikes, you experience anger, grief, and pain. Our resilience is what enables us to keep functioning – both physically and psychologically to take one more action forward. While it won’t make your problems go away, resilience can give you the ability to see past them, to find enjoyment in life and be better able to handle stress.
Resilience is something we all have. Andy Molinsky, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandis International Business School, argues that we can better leverage the resilience we have. He notes:
1. We are more flexible than we give our selves credit for. Life has taught us to adapt and adjust our behavior for different contexts. We each have a wide range of social contacts and certainly we don’t deal with our manager in the same way we deal with our colleagues. Simply remembering that we know how to interact with many different kinds of individuals can prepare us to go into an unfamiliar situation.
2. We’re braver than we think. Look back at your life and you’ll find a lot of things that required real “guts.” One of these things, for me, was coming to MIT for graduate school. Never lived away from home, never traveled, studied engineering at the local state college, and to study at the top engineering university of the world. Similiar experiences, together with other things that each of you have experienced, require a level of bravery that you can draw upon for your next situation that takes you outside your comfort zone.
3. The situation we’re worried about probably isn’t as bad as we think. Fear, anxiety, keeps us from thinking clearly. Our mind immediately takes us to the worst possible outcome for a situation. Possibly, yes; probably, not. Prepare for the situation, and you’ll likely do fine or at least far better than your initial thinking.
4. We have more resources than we think. When you have a really difficult situation, stop and think about the resources you can draw upon. Mentors, colleagues, friends all can provide guidance and support. And, depending upon the situation, you likely have even more resources.
Thomas Edison is the poster person for an individual with outstanding resilience. He’s quoted as saying: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When he was not successful, he learned from what he had done and tried again. By the time he died in 1931, he had been awarded 1,093 patents including 389 for electric light and power, 195 for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for storage batteries, and 34 for the telephone.
No matter what your resilience level is, however, you can build and extend that skill. Here are six ways:
• Take care of your body – Get enough sleep (7 to 9 hours is the range most adults really need every night). And, getting into and staying in good physical condition does wonders for your mental well being, including your resilience. Part of being resilient is that you have more control over your response to a situation. When you are not in shape physically, it’s easy to feel that you are out of control of your body as well as your response to any other stressors you are experiencing. Research data shows that you are mentally tougher when you are physically stronger. So, if you want to be more resilient, strengthen your physical endurance.
• Train your mind to see positive and negative – Don’t let negative thoughts derail your efforts. The negative, no matter how small, will grab your attention more readily that the positive. (It’s our ancient brain reacting.) Listen to how you talk to yourself when something goes wrong – stop making permanent (“I never get it right”), overly pervasive (“I’m not good at anything”) and personalized (“I can’t do my job”) statements. Resilient people keep the negative from having such a powerful impact by focusing on what’s positive in the situation. Instead of focusing on just the negative or just the positive observe both. Professor Heidi Reeder of Boise State University says that this kind of emotional balance enables you to move forward with more confidence and less stress. Practice by thinking about past events and how you reacted and examining the options that were available to you then. Finally, maintain perspective. Avoid blowing events out of perspective.
• Focus on learning – Learn from your mistakes and failures. There are lessons in every mistake, find them. During tough times and difficult moments, you have a fundamental choice to respond with your old-patterns – most likely defending, protecting, attacking, hiding, … – or open yourself to learning. Making the choice to see challenging circumstances as a learning opportunity rather than as a time to protect yourself makes a big difference in your level of resiliency. For example, you’ve just had your manager pull you off a challenging project because you weren’t making progress. You could go into a funk saying “I’m just not good enough,” or “If they had only given me more time, I’m only two-weeks behind schedule”. Or, you could stop and ask, “What can I learn from this so that I’m better next time?” You will be and will become more resilient if you learn from the event and use that learning as you go forward.
• Stretch your mental muscle – Choose your response. We all have bad things happen. We can choose how we react. Most of us have a “go-to” coping strategy. When we experience a set-back, or stress, we fall back on a particular behavior. It may be to go silent, to take a walk, to shout and scream, to seek a friend, etc. Individuals who have a high resilience know that having a repertoire of go-to behaviors to fit the different situations is a good thing. As you experience you next stressor, before you rush head-on into your go-to behavior stop and ask whether it is the best response. By pausing and reflecting on how to respond, you are much more likely to move forward with a conscious plan of action.
• Keep some fuel in the tank – Life can be exhausting; it’s very easy to put all the commitments we have ahead of our personal well being. Yet, taking care of yourself each day replenishes your mental energy stores and prepares you to deal with stressful challenges. Some of us run with the tank empty and find ourselves in trouble when the challenge arises. Taking care of yourself is not selfish but rather a deliberate choice to be prepared.
• Stay social, always – Research has shown that social interactions are incredibly important for our mental and physical health. They are key to staying resilient. Craig Malkin, psychology instructor at the Harvard Medical School says that we can all tap into this by doing just one thing: “Open up and depend on others emotionally, sharing vulnerable feelings, like sadness or fear or loneliness, and trust that the people we care about will be there for us.”
Resilience is an important trait for each of us to have. So, you may want to make a point of working to further strengthen yours. As you become more resilient, you build self-confidence which enables you to take appropriate risks that keep you moving forward.
Make it a great week for you. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Andy Molinsky, You’re More Resilient Than You Give Yourself Credit For, Harvard Business Review, Jauary 25, 2017.
Developing Resilience: Overcoming and Growing from Setbacks, MindTools.
Alice G. Walton, Recovering Resilience: 7 Methods For Becoming Mentally Stronger, Forbes, March 2, 2015.Resilience