Cultivating Resilience

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Back in the 2000s, when my national public television series, Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, was in production, what appeared to be a juicy plum dropped into my lap. Together with the General Manager of University of North Carolina Public Television, I had the chance to meet with one of our United States senators. The senator liked my series, offered some segment ideas and personally made an introduction to a grant-making financial institution in Greensboro that he thought would be receptive. “Ask them for $50,000,” he suggested.

I prepared a proposal, drove it over to headquarters and stayed to schmooze. Heading home, I was already mentally uncorking the bubbly; this had to be a slam dunk!

Talk about counting your chickens. Not long after, a letter arrived informing me that my request had been declined. I began to rehash “the ask,” turning over every stone: What had I done wrong? Had I appeared overly confident? Did my proposal lack sufficient detail? Then self-flagellation set in: If you can’t pull in funding when your door opener is a United States senator, you must be… well, a loser.

In fact, the real story is that bumps along the way such as mine are actually beneficial, as they flex your resilience muscle and position you for even greater success. The ability to pull yourself up from failure and move on is healthy. A range of studies suggests that overcoming adversity can not only set you up for future success but is a necessary ingredient in building professional – and personal – mastery.

Indeed, a disproportionate number of super-achievers overcame childhood trauma and adversity to leapfrog to greatness. Think of Barack Obama, a mixed-race child whose parents divorced when he was a toddler, before moving to Indonesia at age six with his mother and her new husband. Oprah Winfrey, who overcame sexual molestation by family members, comes to mind, as does Marilyn Monroe, who grew up in foster homes in Los Angeles before an early marriage at age 16.

According to a recent report on “The Secrets of Resilience” in The Wall Street Journal, studies show that about two-thirds of those who experience acute childhood trauma fail to rise above it, while the other third actually grows from overcoming hardship, viewing their struggle as “one of the keys to their later success.”

When addressing nonprofit clients, my colleague Bill Crouch invariably shares how he overcame personal challenges – marrying young, starting a family that he lacked the means to support, and ending up for a period on food stamps. “I share these vulnerable moments so that people are not put off by my college president credential or my fundraising track record,” he says. “We ask clients to reflect upon their rough patches to tap their innate resilience.”

In order to develop yours, you need to embrace risk and fail forward. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Happily, the skills of resilience can be cultivated:

1.    Do one thing that scares you every day. Whatever that scary or challenging thing is – whether it’s speaking up in a meeting or calling that prospect who’s given you the cold shoulder – follow this advice from Eleanor Roosevelt to build your character and ability to weather future storms.

2.    Commit to the “Hard Thing.” Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, challenges her family to practice the “Hard Thing Rule,” that is, committing to something that does not come easily to you and “requires daily deliberate practice.” For instance, if you’re accomplished at writing letters of request but fear strikes your heart when making a cold call, commit to making one every day for a month. You’ll learn something by stepping outside your comfort zone just by sticking with it.

3.    Channel your inner Pollyanna. Change the way you think about negative situations by finding that silver lining – no matter how thin – in any situation. Instead of berating yourself for a disappointment, step back and recalibrate. “I was counting on getting that gift/promotion, but maybe I was meant to look at other options.” Remember, optimism is contagious – to yourself and others!

4.    Take the long view. Think of your failure as temporary. It’s only the battle – not the war. If you reframe this setback in a lifelong career or longer campaign, and identify lessons learned, you’ll be better equipped to develop the next winning idea or big ask.

5.    Help others. While it’s always wise when facing serious disappointment or crisis to seek comfort from family members and other intimates, one of the most powerful routes out of any personal morass is helping someone in need. In fact, a recent study of US military veterans demonstrates that higher levels of altruism, gratitude and life purpose were linked to higher levels of resilience.

If you haven’t failed lately, you’re not working hard enough. Coping with adversity and disappointment will keep you on our toes and connected to the broader sweep of the human experience. Indeed, the life skill of resilience is as necessary to success as tenacity and intelligence, so flex that muscle!  

Bio: Wanda Urbanska is Crouch & Associates Director of Content.