“Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance,” writes Brené Brown in Rising Strong, further building on her earlier work on vulnerability.
When most people think of resilience, they imagine bouncing back from hardship. Most people see a resilient person as someone who recovers well and quickly goes back to being the same person they were before.
But in reality, there is no bouncing back from serious hardship. There’s no going back to being that same person.
When we experience hardship, it changes us. The hurt and fear that come with these struggles forever alter our perspectives and our outlook.
So resilience isn’t about going through life unaffected by hardship. It’s not about being unyielding in the face of adversity. It’s about integrating those hardships into our lives in a positive and healthy way.
There’s No One Path to Resilience
“I think we build resilience to prepare for whatever adversity we’ll face. And we all face some adversity – we’re all living some form of Option B.” – Sheryl Sandberg
The Mission recently concluded the first season of their podcast, The Story. It included twelve inspiring stories of different women, all of whom overcame adversity on their atypical paths to success.
While there’s no shortage of takeaways from the wide variety of stories, one consistent theme was an extraordinary level of resilience. Each woman faced hardships and struggles, but instead of wilting under the pressure, they responded with strength and determination.
They didn’t go back in time to be the same person they were before each hardship. They took in each issue and adapted themselves to it. They allowed each problem and disappointment to adjust and fuel their journey. And they were all stronger for it.
And just as one theme was resilience, another was the wide variety of ways each woman went about achieving it. In an age where we’re inundated with quick fixes and guaranteed solutions, it’s refreshing to remember there doesn’t need to be a universal solution. Because just as there are many ways to live a good life, there’s many ways to develop resilience.
Resilient People Learn Through Practice
“Between sales and stand up comedy, she was rejected thousands of times. Soon her fear of rejection was a distant memory, and the habit of getting in front of people and whipping up an unruly crowd became second nature.” – The Woman Who Everyone Laughed At
The idea of standing up in front of a room to do stand up comedy terrifies me. As would trying to sell fax machines door to door.
Sara Blakely did both. And whether it was her intent at the time, each of those experiences helped to familiarize her with rejection.
Now I don’t know anyone that enjoys being rejected. And I think that most people that claim to are either lying or delusional. We all want people to recognize the value we bring and appreciate our contributions. We’re not hoping to be tossed aside.
But anyone who tries to push new bounds will be confronted with those who line up to say it can’t be done. It’s unavoidable. People who pursue new opportunities will face more rejection. They start more. They attempt more. They’ll be rejected more.
Sara Blakely turned an idea that most people dismissed into a billion dollar empire. When everyone refused to consider her product, she refused to allow the negative voices dissuade her. She demonstrated a resilience that was built through years of exposing herself to rejection.
We become what we repeatedly do. When we practice resilience in our daily lives, we become resilient.
Another inspiring woman, Billie Jean King, summed it up perfectly. She often said, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.”
Resilient people are intentional about who they want to become. And they work every day to develop that behavior.
Resilient People Make Tough Decisions
“Sometimes, we only have two choices: the stupid option and the less stupid option. Sometimes, it’s only risky or riskier.” – The Woman Who Walked a Thousand Miles
Life rarely affords us the luxury of obvious answers. And there’s few situations that are purely black and white.
If we’re leading challenging lives, it goes without saying that we’ll have challenging decisions. And when there’s no clear right answer, it’s easy to fall victim to indecision. In the absence of an optimal choice, it’s easy to just default into the status quo. And continue drifting along our current path.
Before Cheryl Strayed decided to trek the Pacific Crest Trail, she was in a place without a lot of great options. Surrounded by people intent on dragging her down, she made the decision to escape that life.
We don’t need all of the answers to take that first step. Just the courage to try something new. And the resilience to recognize that no decision comes without risk. As Chad Grills said in summing up Cheryl’s story,
“It won’t be perfect, and a life worth living is never without risk. Don’t worry about things being perfect. Take a small action today to make your life better.”
Resilient People Hold Themselves to the Highest Standard
“It’s easy to make a harsh critique of our education system. It’s far more difficult to accept that parts of it are broken, and parts of it work incredibly well. Condi trusted in her family, tradition, and education. Those pursuits helped her rise from a town where bombings were the norm to holding one of the highest political offices in the world. She now works tirelessly as a champion for education reform.” – The Woman Who Was Always First
There’s no shortage of people who are happy to say something’s broken. It’s easy to see these shortcomings. But it’s much more difficult to see the solutions.
Instead of adopting cynicism around a world that worked to discourage her, Condoleezza Rice recognized the positive aspects of the educational system and pushed herself to excel at every level. Neither she, nor her family, accepted any excuse against developing her education. A practice she continues to this day.
Few people follow the leader who says one thing but does another. People respect integrity in others. But more importantly, we respect this behavior in ourselves.
Holding ourselves to a high standard builds the self-respect and confidence necessary to take on new challenges. It builds the mindset of resilience against life’s adversity.
Corazon Aquino returned to the Philippines after her husband was brutally murdered by his government. She refused to fall to the standards of her corrupt, totalitarian government, and eventually led her people to a peaceful transfer of power.
Through the entire race and after attaining office, she continued to hold herself to the highest standard. And when she had the opportunity to run for re-election, she declined, holding to her beliefs.
“Cory wanted to set an example for both citizens and politicians. She did not believe that the presidency was a lifetime position.” – The Woman Who Saved Her Country
When we hold ourselves to a high standard, it justifies holding others to the same heightened expectations. And it reinforces the identity that we don’t compromise on our beliefs and our values in the face of adversity. All of which leads to the resilience to lead a meaningful life. Because in Corazon’s immortal words,
“I would rather die a meaningful death than live a meaningless life.”
Resilient People Take Responsibility
“She would find a way to solve her own problem. Maybe in doing so, she could solve the problems of those around her.” – The Woman Who Lost Everything
If you go to your average networking event, you’ll likely find some poor sap whose life is just stacked against him. You know the type, that guy who’d be a millionaire if only everyone appreciated his unique genius and the market hadn’t conspired against him for all these years.
The world’s full of people who are looking for any excuse to rationalize their setbacks. They find other like-minded complainers and validate their own lack of courage by putting all of the blame on external events.
And in the end, this group never seems to accomplish anything. Because they’re content to settle for intentions instead of results. They’re happy to say they tried, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s no fault of their own.
The alternative is to take responsibility for the results as well as your actions. To stop asking “Why me?” and start asking “What can I do?”
In a Longform podcast, Cheryl Strayed captured the importance of taking responsibility for the situations we find ourselves in,
“We’re all flawed, we’re going to fail, we’re all going to be afraid sometimes, we’re all going to feel terrible about ourselves sometimes, or regret what we did or said… But you have to say, ‘Well, who is going to be my ruler?’ — almost on a moment-by-moment basis.”
Madam CJ Walker took a personal crisis and turned it into an entrepreneurial empire. Instead of accepting self pity amidst personal and family struggles, she took the opportunity to find a new solution.
Resilient people take responsibility. They may share it with others, but it doesn’t diminish their portion. In each situation, each moment, they continue to ask “Well, who is going to be my ruler?”
Or as Madam Walker wisely put it,
“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Resilient People Love the Process
“She decided that she didn’t care if she didn’t have a high level of talent. She didn’t care if she ever had another book published. Even if she would never be a successful writer, the pain of not writing outweighed the pain and possibility of failure.” – The Woman Who Quit
Excellence is defined by the product we deliver. If we’re not delivering an excellent product, we don’t get to claim that we operate with excellence.
But excellent products are only brought about when people operate with excellence on a daily basis. It’s not a switch that we turn off and on at will. It’s a Mindset and a method that influences how we approach each action.
If we don’t enjoy the process, we’re unlikely to repeatedly put in the time and the effort needed to truly master something.
Madeleine L’Engle was rejected over forty times on her route to publishing A Wrinkle in Time. But she kept at it. Because she wasn’t writing to publish a book. She was writing to tell her story. And doing that was more important than publishing a book.
She was motivated internally. And that couldn’t be overcome by external feedback.
Another great woman, Grace Hopper, was repeatedly turned away from enlisting within the Navy to pursue her dream. She was told that she was too small, too old, and too overqualified.
But she continued to do what she enjoyed – understand how things work and then improve them. And she kept doing this throughout her career, delivering so much value that she could no longer be ignored, eventually rising through the Navy ranks and becoming one of the first female Admirals.
Admiral Grace Hopper was committed to the process of understanding how things worked and then building them to be better. As she was known to say when traveling the country and encouraging the next generation of builders,
“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”
A lot of people want to be successful. But few people want to put in the work through the rejections and disappointments. Resilient people appreciate the process and don’t allow these external hurdles to ruin their internal dedication.
Resilient People Push Their Limits
“There will always be safe harbors to dock in. But we can’t remain docked in safe harbors forever.” – The Woman Who Left the Harbor
There’s no shortage of safe options in today’s world. You could conceivably live your entire life without leaving the safety of your own home.
But life isn’t meant to be lived from the sidelines. As another source of inspiration, Brené Brown, wrote in Daring Greatly,
“Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.”
Tania Aebi sailed around the world when she was 18, with only cats to help. With no sailing experience and in the time before GPS, she navigated across oceans and into unknown lands.
A large part of being resilient is testing your limits. It’s about understanding your capabilities and then pushing yourself to extend them.
Another woman who was no stranger to challenge, Amelia Earhart, advocated constantly pushing through new challenges,
“Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
A resilient life isn’t one lived on the sidelines for fear of failure. It’s one that dares greatly and tests our limits. Because failure isn’t an excuse. It’s a challenge.
Resilient People Have Purpose
“She looked back and remembered how powerless she felt as a child watching the madness. But now, something was different. She was no longer powerless. She had friends, connections, and savings earned through her hard work. She had her pen and immense skills that she had developed over decades of honing her craft.” – The Woman and the War
Everyone has a purpose that drives their actions. Some people have the purpose of filling their bank account with money and buying expensive things. Others have a purpose of being a great parent and helping to give their kids the opportunities they never had.
Everyone has a purpose. There’s always some reason behind the things that we do. Suzanne Collins elected to use her storytelling craft to improve the cultural conversation we have on topics of war and violence. She was willing to risk her success to spread a message she saw as critically important in today’s world.
Patricia Bath used her knowledge and dedication to bring sight to people blinded from cataracts. She overcame discrimination and poverty to develop an ingenious new method of removing cataracts and returned sight to people who’d been blind for more than thirty years.
Dr. Bath was driven by her mission of returning sight to the blind. Inspired by that goal and keeping that vision in focus, each challenge in her path became more manageable.
“If you see a problem or suffering in the world, you can learn the skills and create the technology to solve those problems. The journey won’t be easy, but there is no greater legacy than to live a life and make creations that reduce suffering for others.” – The Woman in the Eye of the Storm
More than anything else, resilient people are driven by a purpose greater than themselves.
What’s driving you? What purpose will encourage you to push through life’s difficulties?
Because if we want to be resilient, we need something to be resilient for.
Live a Resilient Life
“No plane is ever on a straight course toward its destination – it’s always correcting. Adjusting it’s path over and over is the only way it gets where it wants to go.” – Kristen Ulmer, The Art of Fear
For anyone who hasn’t yet heard the podcasts, I highly recommend them.
Not so we can try to recreate the success of each woman. But so we can understand the lessons they lived their lives to provide.
The intention isn’t to just go out and achieve what they’ve achieved. It’s to consider how we can develop ourselves as they developed themselves. It’s to consider how we can demonstrate our own version of resilience.
What purpose drives you? What process brings you intrinsic joy?
What practices can you develop each day? What standards can you hold yourself to each moment?
How can you take responsibility?
Every life that’s worth living will face adversity. We all need resilience. Not so we can bounce back from hardship. But so we can incorporate the inevitable difficulties into our lives. And so we can make the adjustments needed to get where we want to go.