Resilience Is NOT What You Think It Is

When I ask anyone to define resilience, I always hear ’bounce back.’ In the 1620s, the word resilience came from the Latin to mean ‘the act of rebounding.’ I think of rebounding as what my mother would say when a couple got divorced and one of the formerly married partners quickly became attached to another person.

Check out Merriam Webster and we’ll find this:

  1. The capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.
  2. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

While there are individual words that seem to resonate with the human experience in these complex and disruptive times, there are two critical differences. First: you can’t go back. You will never resume the same size, shape, relationship or job title. We are forever changed by an experience, an event or a personal interaction. You are different. You can’t step into the same river twice. The flow of water and life has moved on. In subtle and perhaps large ways, you are changed.

Second, Webster seems to think that misfortune or change serve as the catalyst for resilience. Even words like recover imply something sick, unwanted and disastrous. And, more importantly, resilience happens after the fact. A city becomes resilient AFTER the hurricane. Which is too late, according to Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation and author of The Resilience Dividend. Rodin makes a masterful case for how cities and companies can take advantage of new economic and social opportunities and become stronger in times of relative calm. Being proactive and in a state of readiness is common sense—even if common sense is not all that common!

Resilience is both a life skill as well as an organizational strategy. Resilience is about growing wiser, stronger and more competent, as well as compassionate for what each person is experiencing. Resilience requires energy which is the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.

The good news is organizations and individuals can begin cultivating resilience right now.

Here are three steps for each.


Practice Mind Sweeping

Internal chatter tends to focus on what is wrong, missing, substandard and not up to par. Negative self-talk creates a doom loop that both drains energy and defeats responses that can be more life-giving, innovative and creative. Write down what your mind is saying and then ask the critical question: ’Is this REALLY true?’ ’What happens to my energy when I fall into this doom loop?’ ’Who could give me another way of looking at the situation?’  

Develop The Skill of Intelligent Optimism

Intelligent optimism invites you to explore what might be another way of viewing the situation. When the almost-disastrous Apollo 13 mission occurred, engineers came to Gene Krantz, head of mission control, and said they had tried everything, but nothing worked. It was a failure! Krantz did not accept that verdict. Instead, he replied, “Gentleman, this can also be our finest hour.”  

When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, the doctor told her she’d lose her belly button. Mom’s reframe: “Shucks, that means I can’t carry the flag in the parade.” Humor goes a long way in creating intelligent optimism.

Nurture Your Support Base

Actually, you better have a community or start growing one, even if it is only one or two people who stand ready to care and comfort. In fact, one way to help children become resilient—particularly if they are living in less-than-optimum situations—is to make sure there is at least one caring adult. Resiliency can be cultivated, according to research, through a child’s solid, meaningful connection with just one very caring individual.1


Sweep Away Meaningless Work

Redundancy, email overload and useless meetings are just some of the energy-draining activities workers face on a daily basis. If you are in a leadership position, be bold and ask your team what activities seem like time wasters. Gather the data. What can be eliminated, altered or adjusted in a more appropriate fashion? I remember hearing a contractor talk about being required to write a huge report that seemed to have extraneous details. He put a page from a recipe book in the report just to see if anyone even read it. Yes, you are correct—not one comment about the recipe!

Develop The Skill of Appreciative Inquiry

Think of this as organizational reframing for intelligent optimism. Developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, two professors at Case Western Reserve, appreciative inquiry uses an appreciative approach to look at opportunities versus problems. It builds upon collaborative and strengths-based change.

Imagine the power of bringing together a team to dream, develop and deliver products and processes that are life-enhancing for the organization.

Elevate The Gift of Gratitude

Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever said was thank you, that would be enough.” Recall how your personal energy increased when someone noticed the work you did and acknowledged it. Remember, a pat on the back is a short distance from a kick in the pants, but a LONG way in generating positive results. Resilience, the ability to grow through challenge or opportunity, is enhanced when one’s efforts are noticed. A simple step with powerful results. And cousin to gratitude is kindness. There’s a Persian proverb: ‘With a sweet tongue of kindness, you can drag an elephant by a hair.’

  1. (Benard, 1991).  Benard, B. (1991). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school, and community. Portland, OR: Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities. (ED 335 781)

©2022, Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE