Learning to 'Get After It in Life' -- The Science and Art of Building Resiliency

Learning to 'Get After It in Life' -- The Science and Art of Building Resiliency
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There is much to learn from people who push limits, challenge conventional wisdom and are able to excel in moments that are packed with intensity. One of the characteristics that many of them have developed is the skill of resiliency -- being able to adapt and adjust to challenging circumstances. The capacity to handle more and to adjust well in challenging environments is often highly desirous for those who want to "get after it in life."

And for that, building resiliency is of particular interest. But let's be very clear, the foundation of building resiliency, by definition is to "go through some heavy stuff."

Loosely speaking, being resilient requires a positive mindset in the face of adversity (for more, see: Davidson, 2000; Freitas & Downey, 1998; Luthar et al., 2000). When we construct the recipe, so to speak, researchers have suggested that being resilient requires three primary ingredients, known as the Three Cs: first, a challenging situation; second, a commitment to a positive mindset; and finally, a maintained sense of being in control (Kobasa, 1979).

While most envision the resilient as those especially adept at navigating high-pressure situations -- world-class athletes, military soldiers, anyone who has "beaten the odds" and come back stronger -- resiliency isn't merely reserved for the world's best performers. You don't have to be on the goal line, on the frontline, or on the flat line to practice the skills of resiliency, but we can all borrow some important insights from those who are.

Here are three steps that all of us can take that will improve your ability to stay the course despite setbacks.

1. Set an intention every day (target 30 consecutive days... and, yes, weekends too).
I was recently working with a corporate executive whose workforce is north of 80,000 employees. I asked him what his typical day looks like, and he explained that if he's not thoughtful, it becomes a 10-hour fire drill. He went on to explain that he begins his days by getting connected to what matters most. Before he gets out of bed, he takes a moment to get centered (by taking one breath). He then sets a clear intention for the day. This helps him to set the tone of his day by determining what his goals are for the day. This is how he focuses his attention on goal-relevant information, while keeping an eye on the big picture:

Wake up, and before you get out of bed, take one deep abdominal breath. Then spend just a few moments to set your intention for the day. Super simple. Super quick.

Let yourself see and feel your intention. If you want to take it a step further (to help anchor your intention), pull out your digital journal (or paper journal if you prefer) and write at the top of your calendar page: "Today, I am all about ____." Halfway down the calendar, write: "Today, I will focus on _____, ____ and _____." This will help keep you connected to your priority (and a reference point for coming back to your intentions) throughout the busy day.

"Three C" Rating -- Challenge: Low to Moderate / Commitment: Moderate to High / Control: High

2. Embrace and learn from each mistake.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a professional athlete. He is highly structured in his life, trains like a machine and is extremely detail-oriented... and he has gone through incredible adversity in his life. When asked how he's been able to become one of the best in the world at his sport, he replied, "Every day, I look forward to finding my limits. It's the only place where I can get feedback on what I can get better at. I don't look at it like making mistakes, but rather learning about my rate of growth."

He does make mistakes, however he sees them as learning opportunities. When you make a mistake, like missing an important detail on a work project or pressing the "off" instead of the "snooze" button on your alarm, take ownership of the mistake with a neutral statement. Instead of denigrating yourself ("Why did I do that!"), take a quick moment to get perspective about the big picture of your life, or even the bigger picture of how this moment in time is so small in relationship to the total moments of the universe (so heavy, huh?!).

Make the conscious effort, as much as you can, to coach yourself through the uncomfortable time as if you were coaching your closest loved one. In these examples, neutralize the situation internally first: "OK (your name). How do I get back on track here? What can you do to adjust RIGHT NOW? How can I use this experience to my advantage?" Then -- and this is important -- apologize for your mistake to other stakeholders, and ask them how you can stay the course: "Boss/teacher, I apologize for (insert mistake). I feel I haven't done my best work yet. How can I keep momentum forward?"

"Three C" Rating -- Challenge: Moderate to High / Commitment: High / Control: High

3. Trust your inner coach
It's pretty easy to immediately understand the value of having a trustworthy coach -- someone who is completely honest with you, has your best interest at heart, can shape conversations that help you excel in your craft, and -- at the same time -- holds you in high regard. That's a great coach!

The most important coach, however, is within you. You speak to yourself more often than any other person in your external world. In essence, you coach yourself all day long. The way you speak to yourself is either helping you build your sense of self or, if overly critical, can chip away at your ability to feel confident.

Investing in the awareness of your inner dialog can be a life altering effort. Once we become aware of that inner coach, we can let go of the conversations that shred us to the core. Over time, just like you would trust a coach who has your best interest at heart, you'll be able to trust your inner coach. When this takes place, the experience can be transformative, and at the same time, accelerate performance at a rapid pace.

Try this:

On a blank piece of paper, make three columns. Title the left-most column "Negative Thoughts," the center column "Is That Right?" and the right-most column "More Productive Thoughts." In the Negative Thoughts column, list out some of the negative things that come to mind for you. Maybe you notice that you tend to say "I'm overwhelmed," or "I can't handle this!" when faced with a challenge at school or work.

Now, confront the validity of that negative thought in the center column. Start with this statement: "Wait a minute..." and see where that leads you. For this example, the column may say "Wait a minute... is that right? Can I really NOT navigate this challenge?" This is an important component of the process.

Finally, in the third column, answer that question with a more productive thought. I like to use the term "Yeah!..." and fill in the rest with a better way of approaching the situation. In this example, you might say: "Yeah, that's not accurate. I've spent the last two months training 30 hours a week for this... I did everything I could... I AM ready for this!"

Three C Rating -- Challenge: High / Commitment: High / Control: High

These steps can be powerful ways to develop resiliency -- an essential skill to build your capacity to harness stress and maintain focus and perspective in your life. In my experience, many high-performing individuals and teams do more than just bounce back from adversity. They do more than just survive the moment. They embrace challenge, they trust and commit to their goals and purpose, and they maintain a strong belief in their ability to control boring, low-pressure, and/or high-pressure situations. Even if you may not be able to personally identify with those who thrive in high-stakes contexts, we can all learn a little something from those who do.


Kobasa, S. C. (1979). Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (1), 1-11.

Freitas, A. L., & Downey, G. (1998). Resilience: A dynamic perspective. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22 (2), 263-285.

Davidson, R. J. (2000). Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity. American Psychologist, 55 (11), 1196-1214.

Luthar, S. S. (2006). Resilience in development: A synthesis of research across five decades. In D. Cicchetti & D. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Risk, disorder, and adaptation (pp. 739-795). New York; Wiley.

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