the art of the bounce: new research on how to be more resilient..

How do we become more resilient leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, parents, people? Here’s a quick checklist, informed by new brain research:

  1. Practice overcoming hurdles in everyday life
  2. Have a purpose
  3. Accept reality with a positive attitude
  4. Learn how to improvise
  5. Meditate (mindfulness training)
  6. Exercise
  7. Develop an abiding sense of humor
  8. Build strong support networks
  9. Look for role models
  10. Keep your mind flexible
  11. Face your fears
  12. Reframe
  13. Nurture a strong sense of self
  14. Know when to be kind to yourself
  15. Be compassionate

Resilience is a concept that exists in almost every culture around the world: the ability to bounce back from adversity, from whatever setbacks life deals you, in order to come back and conquer another day.

From Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong in the broken places”…

…To the concept of the Refiner’s Fire invoked by author Mark Helprin: being forged by walking through fire, and coming out finer, stronger, better, and more indomitable…

…To the Japanese Daruma doll, a version of the Buddha with no arms or legs, so he can always snap back from setbacks – “Seven times down; eight times up”…

Resilience has been the Holy Grail for those individuals or organizations that have gone through crisis and adversity and want, literally, to “get their lives back.”

But while it has always been known that some people, and some organizations, recover better than others, new brain and behavioral research is now shedding light on why. Even better, it is showing that we can cultivate resilience in ourselves before we even need it.

By studying the habits and brains of “gritty,” determined, indomitable, highly resilient people, science is adding to what we know about fostering resilience. And it turns out that resilience really is like a muscle – you can have a propensity for it, and can make it stronger through practice and training. Yet, just like a muscle, you can also overtax it or stretch it to the breaking point.

So, research has shown that an uneventful history does not necessarily prepare organizations or individuals for tough times, but neither does an unceasingly troubled history. Rather the qualities of resistance training can be put into play: the experience of being firmly grounded as a child, and then having to overcome progressively more challenging hurdles seems to strengthen our ability to face the worst life has to offer.

In fact, Robert Krulwitch found that a disproportionate number of U.S. presidents lost a father when they were young.

So, our first rule to cultivate resiliency is: Practice overcoming hurdles wherever you find them in everyday life.

New Research, Older Insights

This July, I gave a speech at Chautauqua Institution on new research and older insights about resilience, and how we can cultivate it in ourselves, our families, and our organizations. The list of 15 attributes I included comes from reading over 70 books and articles on the topic, as well as from my practice in crisis management and recovery, and from not insignificant personal experience recovering from a near-fatal taxi crash 10 years ago. A short reading list follows at the end of this article, with many terrific sources, but the most important sources are from Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, especially their book: Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges and their article in Scientific American Mind. I can’t recommend them highly enough, along with articles written by Diane Coutu in HBR, Eric Barker in Time, David DeSteno, and Mandy Oaklander.

While no one prescription is guaranteed to help each of us and our organizations go through the tough times we will inevitably face, there should be something in this list to help most. The trick is to draw upon those items that seem on point to you. I hope they will be of value.


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