“We choose to be victims. I am not a victim. It’s not my identity. It’s what was done to me. I am a whole person who can have joy and passion rather than being in the past and becoming a hostage of the past.” —Dr. Edith Eva Eger, Holocaust survivor
The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as ‘”the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” It’s that quality that allows us to overcome challenges, obstacles, hardship and adversity, instead of being defeated by them.
Traits of Resilient People
The concept of resiliency grew from scientists in the 1970s charged with evaluating the psychological well-being of executives under high stress during the restructuring of a telephone company. Researchers identified a group of executives with exceptional personality traits that protected them from the ravages of stress. During the restructuring, many executives succumbed to heart attacks, became violent, got divorced and had overall poor mental health. But one-third of them thrived under the stress. Their health improved, careers soared and relationships flourished. According to the scientists, the resilient executives had a whopping 50% reduction in stress-related health problems compared to managers without stress resilience.
Today, the notion of resilience has become a road map for how we can let job stress roll off our backs. Some people are naturally born with stress resilience, less affected by pressures and more resilient to job changes. Others are more vulnerable to the arrows of career life. If you’re vulnerable to stress, you believe life is determined by external forces more powerful than you are. You think you have no control over what happens and that it doesn’t pay to try hard because things rarely work out in your favor. You’re used to thinking of yourself as downtrodden, and you focus on hardships and problems that keep you stuck. Chronic feelings of failure, despair and self-pity leave you wide open to stress. Researchers identified three personality characteristics of resilient employees from the telephone company study: control, challenge and commitment that you can cultivate when you answer yes to the following questions.
1- CONTROL: Can you control your response when you can’t control what’s happening? Studies show when you see yourself being a cause of your life, more optimistic and responding more positively to situations beyond your control, you can beef up your resilience. You consider yourself to be the master of your fate, bearing responsibility for what happens. You know you cannot control all situations and respond constructively to situations beyond your control. When you’re not in control of what’s happening, you challenge yourself to control the way your respond to what’s happening, and let the rest go. You find ways around obstacles instead of falling victim to them. You realize your power lies in a mindset that disappointments and hardships happen for you instead of to you.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I asked singer/songwriter Rhonda Ross, how she was coping with social distancing and fears of uncertainty. She said, When you focus on where your power is and activate things you have power over, you feel like you’re not being batted around by life. You’re not being thrown up against the wall. You get to walk in your own control, and that is huge for me whether it be the coronavirus or anything else. I’m always thinking about where my power is in this moment and where am I giving it away, whether it’s to something else or to somebody else’s opinion.
2- CHALLENGE: Can you re-frame unwelcome hardships as a challenge instead of a threat? Your optimistic nature allows you to overcome obstacles instead of caving into them. You’re able to see an opportunity in a problem instead of the problem in the opportunity. You’re able to discern the upside of a downside situation instead of getting sidetracked by the downside. You can treat a problem as a challenge instead of a personal threat and try to find something in the stressful event to learn and grow from. You hold the perspective that life is an adventure to experience instead of a problem to solve. You look for opportunities to overcome pressures instead of ways to deny or avoid them. You expose yourself to small challenges that hone skills for the bigger ones that are sure to come. Instead of feeling helpless, you welcome challenges that offer a chance to grow and turn negatives into positives.
3- COMMITMENT: Can you commit to the greater good beyond yourself? You commit yourself to something bigger than yourself such as the company you work for and the co-workers with whom you work. You let curiosity about life move you outward into new, uncharted territory instead of inward into retreat. You’re committed to collective selflessness—the bigger picture, not just your own little corner of life. You cultivate relationships with other people that support and give you the “social capital” to jump-start your motivation. You align with others and allow your shared struggles to toughen you and offer a greater cause to your efforts. You have a commitment to working as a team for the common good that dwarfs your own individual concerns. If you get discouraged and feel like giving up, you find support from other colleagues that anchors you and keeps your spirit alive.
Cultivating Career Resilience
If you weren’t one of the lucky ones born with resilience, you can develop it with willingness, time and patience. Erin Brockovich, environmental activist and author of the book, Superman’s Not Coming, had to overcome her childhood struggle with dyslexia that challenged her to develop what she calls “stick-tuitive-ness.” She says when you get beaten down, you have to learn to pick the ball back up and run 10 yards and get slammed. You don’t throw the ball down and walk off the field. “Imagine if we saw that,” she said. “We’d be going, ‘Boo!” Then she went on with her metaphor of the Superbowl:
Be prepared that you could get pushed back five or 10 yards, but also when you pick that ball up again you could rush thirty or forty yards. It’s a process, and it doesn’t happen on the first try. It took the ladies of Hannibal, Missouri three years to get the ammonia out of their drinking water, but that dogged persistence that loyalty to your cause, that stick-to-itiveness is a process. You’ll have moments when you get pushed back, but you’ll also have moments when you push ahead. And that’s what you need to remember. A lot of times people think you’re going to give up and go away. I’m a huge believer in mindfulness because it’s a matter of what your mind is saying to you and how you deal with that voice.
Successful, happy people are proof that as long as you’re willing to practice being more optimistic, flexible, and positive in your reactions to pressures, you can become strong like steel and the career stress will ping off of you. Hard knocks can help us grow and enrich our professional advancement. Our careers aren’t supposed to be smooth. They are uncertain, messy and bumpy at times. A new study found that contemplating how you overcame past hardships—just as Dr. Edith Eger, Rhonda Ross and Erin Brockovich did—widens what neuroscientists call the resilient zone. Reminding yourself of how you overcame past personal and professional adversity can be a resource that strengthens your stick-to-itiveness and belief in yourself. The belief in our own power to affect events beyond our control to at least a small degree, even if some things are unchangeable, gives us the ability to find a way to cope with adversity.
Dr. Edith Eger and Erin Brockovich join Resiliency 2021, a free live stream webinar on September 9, 2021, to talk about the life experiences that helped them cultivate resilience.