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Resilience: Techniques for Recovering from Adversity

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Some people are crushed by adversity, others recover, and some very rare people seem to thrive and be made stronger. What makes the difference between survivors and thrivers? What techniques can enable us to best deal with life’s adversities?

Everyone faces adversity

We lose loved ones to death. We face health challenges. Plans fail because we missed a tiny detail. Our life circumstances change and can be upended for reasons beyond our control. To be alive is to face regular change and frequent adversity.

Faced with the same adversity from the same starting point, why are some people crushed, never to recover, while others are reluctant survivors, yet some cope comfortably, and a rare few actively thrive?

What makes the difference?

Adversity is the anvil of achievement

In over 35 years of coaching elite performers, over and over again, I have witnessed how super-achievers deal with adversity: they see it as a development opportunity.

They don’t wish they had no problems; they know that it is just an idle fantasy. They act to ensure they have better abilities to deal with current and all future problems.

Over time, they see adversities that would crush others as minor challenges to be sorted before the day’s real work is to be started.

Adversities that would, a few years ago, have taken them vast amounts of time and energy to overcome are now seen as trivial irritants to be quickly addressed. It is almost as though handling adversity is a muscle, and the more the muscle is worked (within limits), the stronger it gets. How do super-achievers, adversity thrivers, develop that muscle?

Choose your mindset

Adopting a positive mindset to adversity is wise. Adversity affects everyone, and the resilience it develops is a life skill worth developing.

What mindset do such adversity thrivers adopt? They know that the only people without problems are in the graveyard. They know that almost all roles in life are problem-solving roles, requiring resilience. They know that the people who become most successful in life are those who are best at solving problems for themselves and others. They know that a greater and greater ability to solve problems can only come from taking on bigger and more complex problems. They know that resilience is developed by practice.

Beginning the journey to resilience

How did they start on that journey? Usually, they had early life adversities that required them to develop resilience. Perhaps they lost one or more parents. Maybe they had an illness or disability. Possibly they were born into poverty. Maybe they learned from having negative role models, people whose lives were a disaster because they never worked to overcome their adversities. Perhaps they had a positive mentor, someone who showed them that persistence pays and that failure is a learning opportunity for those willing to seize it.

In every case where I coached someone of outstanding ability, there was at least one reason they became super-resilient, and that or those reasons was/were always related to the real-life practise of overcoming adversity. For thriving super-achievers, adversity was and continues to be, the anvil of achievement.

What can we learn from the super-resilient about how to overcome adversity?

Acknowledge the adversity

When a large, and unexpected adversity hits us, we can be knocked off balance for a time. We can’t just tick all the boxes in the grief process and move on. We have to acknowledge that we have been subjected to an adversity, and work on ourselves to overcome it.

See adversity as opportunity

That is not to say that we can do so immediately. But once we have regained our equilibrium, we can start finding ways to learn from, or even harness the adversity. This useful phrase has become a cliché for a reason; it resonates with so many people:

“If life throws you a lemon, make lemonade.”

Some of the world’s best grief counsellors were, before changing careers, people who had lost many loved ones in a short period of time. They faced multiple bereavements at the same time. Their extreme grief made them experts by experience, on how to overcome bereavement adversity.

Learn from resilience masters

Indeed, many massive social changes and improvements have come from people who turned their adversity into benefit for large numbers of others. We can all look to those inspirational people and learn about their resilience.

  • Oprah Winfrey has influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people after overcoming horrific childhood adversity.
  • Abraham Lincoln freed vast numbers of people while overcoming chronic depression.
  • Helen Keller overcame blindness and deafness to become a successful author.
  • Winston Churchill, despite his apparent racism, sexism, and alcoholism, and a catalogue of shocking failures, overcame his “black dog” (depression), to ensure that democracy survived in Europe, and went on to be one of the founders of what is now the EU.
  • Steven Hawking overcame the increasing limitations imposed on him by Lou Gehrigs’ disease, formally ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -usually fatal within two to five years) for 50 years to become the most influential cosmologist of his generation.

It is possible that some great achievers become so, not in spite of, but because of their adversities; that those adversities cultivated the resilience that led to their success. If that is so what does it suggest we can do to develop our own resilience?

Take on challenges

Take on challenges that will stretch us, that require us to deal with and learn from what others see as failure. Thomas Edison said it well:

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

The great American sports coach, Vince Lombardi famously said:

“It is not whether you get knocked down [you will]; it’s whether you get up.”

The more you try, the more you will (metaphorically) get knocked down. The more you get knocked down, the more practise you have of getting up. The more you can get up, the greater your resilience. “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it”, Michael Jordan

In a country deeply divided in so many ways, (race, health, wealth, firearms, politics…) who would have thought that a smart, charismatic African-American could overcome racial prejudice to become a two-term President of the US, and, win the Nobel Peace Prize?

“If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress“, Barack Obama

Inner conviction becomes outer reality

Perhaps resilience is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you think you can develop it, you do; if you think you can’t, you don’t.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”, Henry Ford, founder of Ford

Resilience benefits from the practice effect

All of the successful people I have coached seemed to self-fulfil when it came to adversity. They knew that successful people in any field are those who are best equipped to solve problems. How did they become so skilled at solving problems? By taking on progressively tougher problems, making mistakes and learning from them.

“One who makes no mistakes makes nothing”, Giacomo Casanova

They knew that they could choose to see what others saw as adversities, as both learning opportunities, and an essential tool to develop their resilience. They knew that being able to solve progressively tougher problems was one of the keys to success. They shared a philosophy wonderfully expressed by Stephen McCranie:

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried failure” to the future master, is the route to mastery.”

It seems the most effective techniques to recover from adversity relate to seeing the challenge as a growth opportunity. That is far from easy when the adversity has been life-changing, and the emotions involved are
overwhelming. With time, some help from role models, and the decision to turn adversity into something useful, recovering from adversity can start you on a journey to amazing achievements.

What will you take from this article to develop your resilience? What will you do to overcome your next adversity? What challenges will you adopt to deliberately develop your resilience?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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