Updated: Nov 19, 2020
I have often relied on sports as a metaphorical stage to discuss important topics like communication, teamwork, leadership – and yes, resilience. There are a multitude of ways different authors have defined resilience over the years. In its most simplified form, the key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again.
The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again.
When we are faced with challenges or confronted with setbacks, resilience helps us to recharge and bounce back – to try again and persevere. Building resilience can take two forms. Psychologist Martin Seligman in an April 2011 HBR article wrote that you can become more resilient by talking to yourself. “Give yourself a cognitive intervention, and counter defeatist thinking with an optimistic attitude. Challenge your downbeat thinking and replace it with a positive outlook”. This approach is great for major failures. In fact, I would argue this is typically how we learn about resilience and why it has found a particularly natural fit in organized sports. Competition requires us to be resilient and to persevere in the face of difficulty. In many cases, this is why we idolize major sports figures. Perennial competitors like Tom Brady or Serena Williams often invoke these leadership traits and rightfully so.
“Give yourself a cognitive intervention, and counter defeatist thinking with an optimistic attitude. Challenge your downbeat thinking and replace it with a positive outlook”
I would argue, though, that resilience is more useful to daily functioning than the above example allows. Resilience as a tool to overcome major loss or as a characteristic we apply to sports heroes narrows our understanding of resilience to the macro level of our social lives. We can also apply resilience in smaller ways – in micro ways – to better adjust, learn, and respond to the “annoying screwups, minor setbacks, and irritating upsets’ that are a routine part of daily life.
We can apply resilience in smaller ways – in micro ways – to better adjust, learn, and respond to the “annoying screwups, minor setbacks, and irritating upsets’ that are a routine part of daily life.
In order to apply resilience at the micro level, Daniel Goleman teaches us that we need to ‘retrain our brains’. In fact, we can retrain our brains to bounce back from the cumulative effect of daily downers or setbacks. I won’t get into all the brain science behind this here (links below), but the key to building micro resilience levels requires us to practice mindfulness on a daily basis. Specifically, applying an attention-training method that teaches the brain to register anything happening in the present moment with full focus – but without reacting.
Here is a daily exercise you can do to practice mindfulness and build your micro-resilience to manage those daily stressors –
Find a quiet, private place where you can be undistracted for a few minutes. (Remember to mute your phone as well).
Sit comfortably, with your back straight but relaxed.
Focus your awareness on your breadth, staying attentive to the sensations of the inhalation and exhalation, and start again on the next breadth.
Do not judge your breathing or try to change it in any way.
See anything else that comes to mind as a distraction – thoughts, sounds, etc. Let them go and return your attention to your breath.
After trying this exercise for 8 weeks for 30 minutes a day, employees at a large tech firm found it easier to remember what they loved about their work and why they got into the industry in the first place.
As we push forward and through this time of physical distancing and quarantines, we will have days where daily redundancies and feelings of isolation carry a cumulative weight that can feel overwhelming. Before we make mountains out of molehills, I encourage each of us to consider that resilience is useful at a macro and micro level. We can practice mindfulness on a daily basis to train our brains to be resilient in the face of large and small challenges alike.
Goleman, D. (2011). Resilience for the rest of us. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 4/25/2011, P2.
Maulding, W., Peters, G., Roberts, J., Leonard, E., & Sparkman, L. (2012). Emotional intelligence and resilience as predictors of leadership in school administrators. Journal of Leadership Studies, 5(4), 20-29. doi:10.1002/jls.20240