Developing Resilience

Developing Resilience
Learning from setbacks, disappointment and failure

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


Resilience can mean different things to different people. According to legend, Thomas Edison made thousands of prototypes of the incandescent light bulb before he finally got the result he was looking for; he went on to secure over 1,000 patents – a true testament to resilience.

Although he often encountered ‘failure’ throughout his entire working life, Edison never let it beat him. All of these ‘failures’, which are reported to be in the tens of thousands, simply showed him how not to invent something. And his resilience gave the world some truly wonderful creations, such as the phonograph, the telegraph, and the motion picture.

We take many of his inventions for granted everyday but would our world now look like if he had given up? His inspiring story can be used by all of us when we reflect on own lives – do we have the resilience that we need to overcome our challenges? Or do we let our failures derail our hopes and dreams? And what could we accomplish if we had the strength not to give up?

Giles, one of my clients had recently been made redundant after having spent 25 years in banking. He knew he didn’t want to find another job in banking and had in his mind a product that would help disabled riders, yet his fear of failure was holding him back. Through reflecting on his experiences Giles came to recognise that the fear of failure stemmed from childhood; if he didn’t get all grade As in his exams and school reports, his parents would look upon it as a ‘failure’ on his part.

Through our coaching sessions we explored resilience: what it is, why we need it, and how to develop it; so that Giles would have the strength and fortitude to overcome adversity, and to keep on moving forward towards his dream and his goals.

Resilience (or resiliency) is our ability to adapt and bounce back when things don’t go according to plan. Resilient people don’t wallow or dwell on failures; they face the situation, learn from their mistakes, and then move forward.

According to the research of leading psychologist, Susan Kobasa, there are three elements that resilient people embrace:

Resilient people view a difficulty as a challenge, not as a debilitating memory. They look at their failures and mistakes as lessons to be learned from, and as opportunities for growth. They don’t view them as a negative reflection on their abilities or self-worth.

Resilient people are committed to achieving their goals, and they have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning. Commitment isn’t just restricted to their work – they commit to their relationships, their friendships, the causes they care about, and their religious or spiritual beliefs.

Resilient people spend their time and energy focusing on situations and events that they have control over or can influence. They focus effort where they can achieve the most impact, they feel empowered and confident. Those who spend time worrying about uncontrollable events often have feelings of being unable to take action.

Another leading psychologist, Martin Seligman, says the way that we explain setbacks to ourselves is also important. (He talks in terms of optimism and pessimism rather than resilience, however, the effect is essentially the same.) This ‘explanatory style’ is made up of three main elements:

    People who are optimistic (and therefore have more resilience) see the effects of bad events as temporary rather than permanent. For instance, they might say “My manager didn’t like the work I did on that project” rather than “My manager never likes my work”– see the difference?
    Resilient people don’t let setbacks or bad events affect other unrelated areas of their lives. For instance, they would say “I’m not very good at this” rather than “I’m no good at anything” – see the difference?
    People who have resilience don’t blame themselves when bad events occur. Instead, they see other people, or the circumstances, as the cause. For instance, they might say “I didn’t get the support I needed to finish that project successfully”, rather than “I messed that project up because I can’t do my job” – be careful though not to shift personal responsibility!

Dr Crow also identified several further attributes that are common in resilient people:

  • Resilient people have a positive image of the future.
    That is, they visualise what it is to succeed
  • Resilient people have concrete goals, and a desire to achieve those goals.
    Resilient people are empathetic and compassionate, however, they don’t dwell on
    what others may think of them. They maintain healthy relationships, but don’t bow to peer pressure
  • Resilient people never think of themselves as victims –
    they focus their time and energy on changing the things that they have control over.

Giles and I spent some time reflecting on how he viewed adversity and stress and, how much of an affect this had on his vision of success; this is one of the most important reasons that having a resilient mindset is so important.

Giles grew to understand that from time to time he was going to fail and that was fine: it would be an inevitable part of his life, and the important thing for Giles to always remember was to take the time to reflect and learn from his mistakes. Giles would be required to stand up in front of people and sell his ‘idea’ and this would mean taking a risk!

Giles may have presentations that would go really well, and there would be others that would not go quite so well. The important thing for Giles was to develop resilience and bounce back, reflect and learn the lessons and move on.

Giles developed the skills to build a resilient mindset and attitude. He did this by:

  • Getting enough sleep and exercise, and learning to manage his stress
  • He practised thought awareness. Resilient people don’t let negative thoughts derail their efforts, so Giles consistently practiced positive thinking. He also, ‘listened’ to how he talked to himself when something went wrong – when he found himself making statements that were permanent, pervasive or personalised, he corrected these thoughts in his mind
  • He practised Cognitive Restructuring to change the way that he saw negative situations and bad experiences.
  • He learnt from his mistakes and failures. He held onto the belief that every mistake has the power to teach him something important. His mantra became “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger”
  • He learnt the importance of maintaining perspective. As his resilience grew he came to understand that, although a situation or crisis may seem overwhelming in the moment, it may not make that much of an impact over the long-term. He stopped blowing events out of proportion
  • He set himself SMART, effective personal goals – and used these as a structure for his reflective diary. As he embarked on selling his idea his self confidence grew. He embraced the concept that resilient people are confident that they’re going to succeed eventually, despite the setbacks or stresses that they might be facing. This belief in himself enabled him to take risks
  • He built stronger relationships with his immediate family, friends and clients. People who have strong connections at work are more resistant to stress, and they’re happier in their role
  • He also focused on being flexible. Giles embedded in his philosophy of life that resilient people understand that things change, and that carefully-made plans may, occasionally, need to be amended or scrapped.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back when things don’t go as planned. According to psychologist, Susan Kobasa, there are three main elements that resilient people possess. These are challenge, commitment, and control.

You can develop resilience in several ways. First, take care to exercise regularly and get enough sleep, so that you can control stress more easily. The stronger you feel physically and emotionally, the easier it is for you to overcome challenges.

Focus on thinking positively, and try to learn from the mistakes you make. Build strong relationships with colleagues and friends, so that you have a support network to fall back on. Also, set specific and achievable personal goals, and work on building your self-confidence.

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