February 2006
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Develop Resilience to Recover From Setbacks

“Hope springs eternal,” proclaims the poet, but what happens to those who have lost hope? Death, illness, loss—all can throw us into despair and depression. Yet loss and suffering are an inevitable part of life.

Why do some bounce back from major and minor losses and others never recover? More importantly, how can we build our resilience so that we can recover from life’s blows and forge ahead?

Have a purpose and mission in life

The most important factor in building resilience is to connect with a purpose in life larger than yourself or any one event. Some people define their purpose spiritually; they see themselves as part of a divine plan. Others look outward and ask: How can I make my life, my experiences have a positive impact in the community? Still others have personal goals that steel them through setbacks: They forge ahead because they need to provide for their family, or they want to serve a cause or express themselves through art or action. Whatever the purpose or mission, resilient people develop goals and plans that focus beyond the present crisis.

Perhaps the most famous example of resiliency is Victor Frankl, the much-lauded writer, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who found the will to live in the midst of horror by pledging himself to future goals. Throughout his ordeal in the concentration camps, he asked himself why some prisoners survived—given the chance to survive—and others did not. He determined that the survivors had developed reasons to live that helped them retain hope for the future.

Finding a purpose in life can help people survive traumatic loss. Candy Lightner, for example, founded Mother’s Against Drunk Driving after her 13-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a drunk driver. This mission not only gave her the will to go on but also helped her create something positive out of a senseless tragedy.

Of course, you don’t need to survive a Holocaust or the death of a loved one to experience loss. Anyone can be thrown for a loop by the loss of a job, a breakup, defeats in sports or work, rejections of art or friendship, or any of the disappointments, big and small, that beset us throughout life.

Having a goal or mission beyond the present crisis will help you recover. The goal can be as complex as starting a foundation or as simple as taking care of a pet. The idea is that you have something that gets you out of bed every morning and back into life.

View mistakes and failures positively

Resilient people know that failures and mistakes are not dead-ends. They’re an inevitable part of life. Expect them and accept them as learning experiences. Most successful entrepreneurs, for example, fail many times before they finally find a business that works. They’re resilient because they don’t let failures and mistakes stop them—they use them as learning experiences the same way a scientist uses trial and error as part of the discovery process.

Studies show that people who suffer repeated setbacks grow in resiliency. Why? Because they’ve learned that life goes on despite difficulties. When new problems arrive—as they always will—these people have the experience and perspective needed to bounce back. They’ve truly learned that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Examine your values

Another way to gain perspective and become more resilient is to ask yourself what your values are and why you do what you do? For example, say the family breadwinner loses her high-paying job. She can get through this crisis by identifying her greater goals and values. She may discover that it’s more important to her to be a good parent or a good friend. If so, the loss of the fancy job has not affected that—in fact, she may now have more time to fulfill those goals.

The loss of a job may also be an opportunity to redefine what you need and want out of life. Do you really need X amount of dollars, or can you live on less? A setback may be an opportunity to change directions in your career or personal life. Resilient people know how to look for the proverbial silver lining.

Build your resiliency muscles

In our fast-paced world of changing technology, lay-offs and job jumping, people need to prepare for setbacks, transitions and bumps in the road. Here are some ideas for flexing your resiliency muscles:

  • Learn to like change.
  • Take care of yourself physically and emotionally.
  • Build your self-esteem.
  • Create a network of friends, peers and business associates.
  • Develop problem-solving skills.
  • Have a sense of humor.

Sources: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl. Beacon Press, 1959; International Network on Personal Meaning, www.meaning.ca/index.html; Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success by John C. Maxell; Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000; The Resiliency Center, www.resiliencycenter.com; Victor Frankl Institute, http://logotherapy.univie.ac.at/

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Making Friends With Change: How to Increase Your Resilience

Marilyn’s company is about to be sold to a competitor. Her workgroup is downsizing. To stay with the new organization, she has to move to a new location and significantly increase her commute. In addition, her project is implementing new software that she needs to master quickly.

Work-related changes are just the tip of the iceberg for Marilyn.

Her 82-year-old mother recently took a nasty fall. Marilyn is exploring putting her mother in a nursing home because she cannot cope with the stress of caring for her long-distance. Her teen-age son is failing algebra, and his school was recently emptied for several hours by a bomb threat. She is concerned about his Internet surfing and has trouble communicating with him.

Marilyn could easily become immobilized by all the changes in her life. How can she survive and prosper through all the transitions she is experiencing?

“You can learn to discipline yourself to use the forces of change to your advantage—like learning to turn into a skid rather than succumbing to the natural tendency to turn away from it when driving on an icy road,” says psychologist and consultant Daryl Connor.

Connor specializes in helping people and companies develop the resilience to cope with change. The good news for employees? Resilience can be learned.

Five attributes of resilience

Connor notes these five attributes of resilient people:

  1. Positive: They see life as complex but filled with opportunity.
  2. Focused: They have a clear vision of what they want to achieve.
  3. Flexible: They demonstrate pliability when responding to uncertainty.
  4. Organized: They develop structured approaches to managing ambiguity.
  5. Proactive: They engage with change rather than defending against it.

We can build these traits, increasing our ability to assimilate change and our resistance to its negative effects. People with high resilience can become architects of their own and their company’s future. People with a low resilience quotient, however, will be victims of imposed change. Connor calls these “danger-oriented” or Type D people. Type O people, on the other hand, are “opportunity-oriented.”

So what are some ways to become a more opportunity-aware, Type O employee?

Accentuate the positive

Focusing on the positive is an old but extremely useful bromide for employees in the midst of change. It requires being positive on two fronts: about ourselves, first and foremost, and about the world at large.

“Although the world is full of danger, and bad things, if we dwell only on those, we miss the truth that the world is also filled with opportunity and good things,” says Joan Massola, director of the Career Development Center at Pacific Bell.

One of the biggest challenges for most people is their own negative self-talk. We tend to be very self-critical. Massola, who leads resilience workshops for employees, believes positive self-talk must become a daily habit.

“One of Daryl Conner’s key thoughts about resilience is that problems are temporary, they are usually limited to one area of life, and they are never solely our fault,” she says.

Positive people believe that disruptions are part of the ever-changing landscape of life—they are par for the course, not a major crisis. “If there were no change, there would be no disruptions, but the world continues to change, so we have to expect disruptions,” Massola emphasizes.

Focus on clarifying your goals

“You have to identify what you want out of life. If we go around just flapping in the wind about our goals, we never get very far, unless it’s by accident,” Massola says. She advises using self-assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs or the Rokeach Values Survey to identify who you are and what you want out of life.

“If you are driven to do something, obstacles will not get in your way. For instance, if you really want to buy a boat and you are making $50,000 per year, you will find ways to set aside the money if that is your primary goal this year.”

Be a taker as well as a giver

One of Connor’s five resilience traits is flexibility. He says there are two ways to be more flexible: in your thinking and in your social support system.

“Many adults have a hard time understanding that social flexibility means taking from society as well as giving,” Massola points out. “Many people can give, but old school thinking says you shouldn’t take. In today’s world, you need companionship from the community, from the church, or from the family—you need a support system that will be there for you in the midst of change,” she advises.

Learned optimism

Psychologist Martin Seligman says we learn limitations from parents, families, and our environment, but we can teach ourselves to think more realistically if we:

  • Focus on the positive side of situations.
  • Try to avoid global statements.
  • Catch, dispute, and correct our negative self-talk and thoughts.
  • Make lists of statements that are global, blaming or grandiose and consciously change them.


Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges. Perseus Press, 1991.

Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas by Edward de Bono. Harper Business, 1992.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

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Resilient Families

Why is it that some families seem to endure the worst things that life dishes out, while others seem to unravel at the first sign of trouble? In a word, the answer is resilience.

Resilience refers to internal strength and durability. In families it is evidenced by a sense of control over the outcomes of life and how the family unit responds to hard times. There are three major components of family resilience.


There are numerous positive adages about families who stick together, and rightfully so. Families with high cohesiveness count on each other to provide meaningful and tangible support, encouragement and even rebuke when appropriate. In other words, there is an assumed, unspoken level of trust and commitment to one another that seems to defy logic.

In times of adversity, others marvel at the apparent lack of distress observed in their friends or co-workers from cohesive families. This lack of distress should never be mistaken for a lack of concern. During tough times cohesive families communicate a consistent message: “I am here for you.”

Researchers who have investigated women in labor can attest to the power of having a loved one present. Studies have consistently shown that women who have their husbands or other loved ones present during delivery report less distress and require less pain management than those women who are alone. Knowing that someone cares that you are hurting can make all the difference in the world.         


While it’s true that there usually are enough challenges in daily living, resilient families seldom shy away from a challenge. In fact, what other families describe as a problem, resilient families, more often than not, describe as a challenge. It’s their mindset. They tend to believe, in the humblest way, that they can overcome most obstacles in life. It is not that they feel overly confident in their talent or that they have special abilities. Resilient families possess a sense of purpose, perseverance and an uncanny understanding that by hanging together they can make their way.

A popular television ad epitomizes this type of family. It states, “Life’s a journey—enjoy the ride.” Resilient families accept that there are many obstacles and challenges in life. Instead of shaking their fist at them, they take them head on.


Losing hope during difficult times often signals the beginning of the end. When hope is lost, we tend to throw in the towel. Resilient families are known for their sense of hope, and for even “out hoping” others. One explanation is that they continually find things they can control when other things are tilting out of control.

When Joann’s 79-year-old father was dying of lung cancer, there was little the family could do to stop it. However, they decided that there was plenty they could do to keep this illness from robbing them of the time they had left. So they planned parties and family celebrations to commemorate his life. Because he did not want to be in the hospital until the very end, the adult grandchildren took turns sleeping at his home to provide support to their grandmother. Although they accepted that his death was not in their hands, they never gave up hope that his remaining days could be filled with joy.

Unfortunately, there is no recipe for resilience. It is a character asset that some have and others lack. You can, however, learn a great deal from observing resilient families and asking how they respond to hard times. 

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For a Good Life, Giving Up Is Not an Option

Over the years I have observed many people with all sorts of lifestyles and from all walks of life. One pattern stands out. People who live successful lives all share the same three qualities:

  • They know how to get along with people and feel connected to all of humanity.
  • They look upon their mistakes as opportunities to do better and to learn from their mistakes.
  • They persevere and do not quit when setbacks and tragedies enter their lives.

Dr. Scott Peck tells us in the first chapter of his book, The Road Less Traveled, that life is difficult. Not only does he tell us that life is difficult but he instructs us to accept this as a fact and to stop acting surprised and shocked when setbacks and tragedy enter our lives.

Examples of perseverance

I learned early in life the importance of not giving up. As a young boy, I was surrounded by Greek immigrants who came to the United States to carve out a better life for themselves. They endured the long voyage from Greece to the United States by boat. They entered competitive cities not knowing the language and with few skills. Like many other immigrants from all over the world they found hardships and discouragements to be a daily diet, but they did not give up on creating a new life.

Terry Anderson was a reporter who was captured years ago in the Middle East. His captors kept him imprisoned for seven years, chained to a wall with a three-foot chain. Now free, he tells his audiences during public speaking engagements that he never gave up during those awful years. He says he found strength and inspiration to not give up by reading one book over and over again: the Bible. It is filled with the stories of many who suffered and did not give up.

Advice for perseverance

If we had a textbook on how to live life, not giving up would be the first chapter. And in this chapter would be the following advice:

  • Accept that life is difficult.
  • Accept that the universe does not operate under the principle of fairness. Life is not fair.
  • Think of yourself as a problem solver throughout your life because problems are inevitable.

Living life is something none of us master. All we can hope for is to get better and better at directing our lives. With this in mind, make three lists over the next few days. Take your time to consider these tasks:

  • Looking back over your life, list those times when you chose not to give up and how it affected your life.
  • Looking back over your life, list those times you did give up and note how this decision affected your life.
  • Now, while looking to the future, make a list of the goals you want to achieve in life. Prioritize these goals—list the most important goal first and the least important goal last. Next, make the conscious decision to not give up on striving to achieve the goals you have prioritized.

Looking for inspiration

No doubt you will find yourself discouraged from time to time as you strive to reach these goals. You will be discouraged by setbacks and you will be discouraged when adversity enters your life. So you will need a way to keep yourself inspired:

  • Rely on your faith to inspire your dedication to go forward.
  • Associate with friends whose lives reflect not giving up.
  • Read about others who had every reason to give up and did not.

I’m sure as you examine your own life you will see that when you chose to not give up, you advanced your life. These choices from your past will inspire you to deal with the events of life that lie ahead of you. Good luck!


It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong. Penguin Putnam, 2000.

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Learning From Mistakes and Failures

Nobody’s perfect. To be reminded of that fact can be reassuring whenever we flunk a test, miss a deadline, make a social gaffe or otherwise fail. To err is human, after all. But to take advantage of errors—to learn from mistakes and failures—isn’t such a universal trait. It’s a skill that marks successful individuals and organizations, and not all have it. It’s also a skill that can be learned, but not before getting over an emotional hurdle or two.

Think positively

Learning from failure requires taking an optimistic view of it; a positive attitude is essential. It’s important to think about a mistake in a way that points toward new, useful knowledge rather than self-pity. “What have I learned?” is a much better question to ask than “How could I have been so stupid as to do such a thing?”

To develop this habit of positive thinking, you may have to unlearn some old lessons about mistakes. “A lot of us grew up thinking mistakes weren’t a good thing,” says Macon, Ga.-based psychologist Dan Johnston. And it is better, of course, to be right than to be wrong, to succeed rather than fail. But there’s a price to be paid for trying too hard to avoid mistakes and failure, and for being so intimidated by them that you stop trying new things and taking reasonable risks. “Getting people who are somewhat perfectionistic to change,” Johnston says, means “getting them to change their (inner) dialogue, seeing that mistakes are useful.”

Resilience—a mark of success

The emotional quality that makes such learning possible is resiliency, the ability to bounce back from failures and disappointments. Management consultant John Baldoni says, “Most successful people are highly resilient … most have been knocked down more than once.” This bounce-back quality grows out of a generally positive attitude, stress reduction and relaxation. (“In order to be resilient, you have to have fun every day,” Johnston says).

Experts say that if you still have trouble figuring out how to bounce back and learn from mistakes, you should watch (or remember) how a baby learns to walk. It is a process of trial and error, capped by a few triumphant steps. Even then, the toddler isn’t ready to do high hurdles. The child starts out rough and error-prone and gradually develops grace, balance and confidence.

Review previous actions

Children do all this without worrying about their progress. Adults worry, and they have to make a conscious effort not to let their worrying get in the way of their learning. Is there a technique to accomplish this? Management psychologist Elizabeth Gibson suggests imitating the armed forces: “When something goes wrong, you can do what the military calls an after-action review. Ask, ‘What could I have done differently?’ Then, ask what you can do in the future.” This technique, Gibson says, “keeps you out of pity city.” She says you may learn from such an exercise that there was nothing different you could have done. It’s also possible that the lesson will be less encouraging than you would like.

Errors also teach you about your limitations as well as your abilities. If you’re in a job that never seems to go right and never seems to get easier, it may be time to change positions. “If you continually find yourself running up against a brick wall, perhaps that’s not the place for you,” Baldoni says. Even in this case, it’s important to stay resilient. Leaving an unsuitable situation forces you to do something new and (typically) deal with new people. It leads to risk, and you have to be willing to accept it. Life sometimes teaches negative lessons, but that knowledge is best put to use in a positive frame of mind.

Sources:Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Mercer University School of Medicine, Macon, Ga.; Elizabeth Gibson, PhD, co-founder, KnoWorks, Wimberly, Texas; John Baldoni, Baldoni Consulting, LLC, Ann Arbor, Mich.

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