Courage is essential for building resilience. Courage is needed to engage in the work of honest self-reflection, living your values, communicating clear boundaries, persevering through setbacks and asking for help. Courage is a practice that greases the wheels of resilience building, especially when brought alongside vulnerability. Another attribute often likened to resilience is grit, which is connected to one’s passion and perseverance. I see all of these characteristics as part of the resilience equation, but not the sum of it.


Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Mollie Marti.

As a resilience researcher and cancer survivor, Dr. Mollie Marti is a teacher and a student of transforming hardship and heartbreak into triumph and thriving. Mollie has dedicated her career to supporting individuals, organizations and communities to develop resilience in ways that strengthen and save lives. She is a social psychologist, attorney, author and founding CEO of Worldmaker International, a nonprofit that works globally to help people prepare for, adapt to and grow through adversity, one community at a time.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

Sure. I was raised in the Driftless Area, a beautiful part of northeast Iowa along the Mississippi that was untouched by the glaciers so we were surrounded by rolling hills, forests and natural trout streams. Growing up number 12 of 13 kids, we had our own baseball and football teams and spent many a summer night playing Kick the Can until dark. My family relationships taught me much about thriving as part of a community and honed my ability to manage complex environments – and having 7 big brothers certainly helped build my resilience! Time spent outdoors nurtured a love of our natural world and my dedication to protecting it. Decimating our environment obviously can cut short any meaningful conversation about humans flourishing.

After college, where I studied communications, history and Spanish, I served as a Rotary International Ambassador of Goodwill to Ireland. Fueled by an injustice I observed as a young teenager, I then earned my law degree and spent several years working as a judicial law clerk, practicing law and conducting mediation. My thorough fascination with people and their choices eventually drew me into the field of psychology where I earned a Masters and Doctorate studying human potential, individual differences and social dynamics. My husband and I have enjoyed 30 years of marriage, raising three kids on a working apple orchard alongside some wonderful exchange students, aiming to provide them with deep roots and strong wings.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Here’s one that has stayed with me as a reminder of the importance of practicing what we teach. I was about to go on stage at a 9/11 remembrance event in New York City when there was a ruckus outside the auditorium door. A staff member came and asked if I might help settle down the situation. I went into the hallway to find a giant of a man who was very angry that he was not allowed in the room. He and the event organizer were in a stalemate with her telling him he needed to leave and him shouting back even louder, “What about my brothers? What about them? I will not leave until you help my brothers. They will not be forgotten!”

I asked him if we could talk and then quietly said, “I want to learn more about your brothers. What is their story? What do they need?” Tears streamed down his face as he told me how he and other contractors were called in to clean up after the towers fell. As he talked about picking up a finger, an ear and other body fragments and having difficulty breathing the debris-filled air, he kept saying, “Nobody prepared us for this.” He talked about watching his buddies, one after another, die from 9/11 related cancers, conditions and suicides. He explained that he and his brothers who showed up day after day for months to clean up the tower sites were not covered by any of the government aid provided to the first responders being supported at this conference. When he finished his story, I asked, “Are you a hugger? If so, I would really like to give you a hug right now.” He opened up his bear-sized arms and wrapped me in them. I felt his glasses press against the top of my head as he hung his head and sobbed in my arms.

A cornerstone of trauma-informed resilience is the understanding that all behavior is communicating a need. When we practice responding to unmet needs rather than reacting to the behaviors, we build strength. We humans share common needs, such as our need for safety, belonging and purpose. When these needs are not met, it can leave us feeling threatened, isolated and powerless. These feelings can quickly escalate into acting out in search of relief. As I helped this man, I learned that he had driven overnight from another state, had not slept or eaten well, and had stopped his medications. We connected him to a clinician who was able to provide care. I stepped back onto the stage that day happy to shorten my teaching time, having been reminded in a powerful way of the impact of putting this work into action. Or as Board member, General Jeff Buchanan, reminds us, “Make sure your video matches your audio.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our nonprofit has experienced organic growth, providing us unique frontline experience as a grassroots community organization, a national research institute, and a global collaborative. I started the work in my own community to stop an active suicide contagion and help heal after we lost three teens by suicide and more kids were going to the hospital. I had committed to one year of volunteering, but broad requests for help soon made it clear that we needed a more formal structure so I stepped away from teaching at university and my other work to found the National Resilience Institute. With sponsorship from the Wounded Warrior Project and others, we began hosting annual resilience summits in Chicago. At our 5th summit, faculty member Dr. David Schonfeld of the National Center for School Crisis & Bereavement asked if we might enhance our work to help the helpers by bringing resilience researchers together to learn from each other. Of course, we embraced this idea!

At our first international research symposium, Dylan Tête of the Bastion Community of Resilience introduced the term worldmaking in the context of military veterans transitioning into civilian life. He talked about how these individuals are tasked with remaking their world in ways that meet their needs for belonging and purpose. The concept lit up the room. We talked about worldmaking not only as an essential individual process but also expressed curiosity about what it might look like if the leaders in that room joined efforts to step up to the collective task of creating a world worthy of our children and future generations.

Our resilience institute started a worldmaking work group and over time we grew into fully embracing this work to equip human resilience beyond borders. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this decision would position us to play a critical role in response to a forthcoming global pandemic. Over the past couple of years, we have provided resilience education for leaders in 23 nations and are working closely with a team in southern Africa to replicate several of our programs to support youth and families, educators, women business owners, first responders and healthcare workers. I hold the utmost respect for each member of our board, executive team, research team and faculty. They are visionary, entrepreneurial, collaborative and sincere in living as positive, wholehearted trailblazers working to create a world where all are supported to thrive.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

As a young lawyer and as a newlywed, I had the privilege of clerking for Judge Max Rosenn of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The professional, personal and leadership lessons he taught deeply impacted both me and my husband. Judge refined how I saw the world and what I wanted for the world. When I was stricken by a cardiac virus in my early 30s that caused me to temporarily lose my ability to walk, talk and see, one of the greatest regrets that rose to the surface was not taking the time to write a book to share Judge’s wisdom. I committed that if I regained my health, I would prioritize this book. It ended up that revisiting his lessons actually helped guide me to a full recovery. Walking with Justice: Uncommon Lessons from One of Life’s Greatest Mentors lives on as a tribute to Judge and a holder of his wisdom. It’s been heartwarming to hear people say that they started reading this book without having a mentor in their life and they ended it having two. I often fall back on Judge’s words of wisdom, including this guidance to his post-crisis community: “In times of great uncertainty and need, you will have doubts. Also have hopes. Have dreams.”

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is a big concept so it’s useful to have a working definition and shared frameworks to put it into action, which we have developed in collaboration with several research partners. We define human resilience as the capacity to prepare for, adapt to and grow through adversity. The word capacity is important because resilience isn’t limited by one’s current ability, but rather based on skills and practices that can be learned. This definition incorporates the research on post-traumatic growth, highlighting that we humans can grow through even the greatest of hardships, coming out the other side with new wisdom, meaning and strength.

Rather than list certain characteristics of resilient people, I would like to emphasize the research showing that the number one predictor of resilience is being in a trusted relationship with someone who accepts, encourages and supports you. People can better use their individual strengths when they have strong social networks and are resourced in ways that meet their core needs. While you might think this obvious, the research I delved into to help post-crisis communities spurred a paradigm shift in me. I came to this work after spending over a decade as a performance psychologist for elite athletic and corporate performers – well-connected, resourced individuals and teams. While helping individuals grow their resilience skills remains an important part of my work, I more fully appreciate the importance of shifting our starting point beyond individual traits to building environments that nurture healing connections between people and their communities, workplaces and schools. This is what is needed to build a world where all are supported to thrive.

Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?

Courage is essential for building resilience. Courage is needed to engage in the work of honest self-reflection, living your values, communicating clear boundaries, persevering through setbacks and asking for help. Courage is a practice that greases the wheels of resilience building, especially when brought alongside vulnerability. Another attribute often likened to resilience is grit, which is connected to one’s passion and perseverance. I see all of these characteristics as part of the resilience equation, but not the sum of it.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Given the demands of my work, I am intentional about reading books that renew my hope that we humans will ultimately figure out the challenges of modern-day living and create a more connected, just and equitable world together. These books include The Choice and The Gift by Dr. Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor and trauma psychotherapist with a compelling story of resilience. Edith was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp at age 16, where her parents were executed. She was able to survive many atrocities that I find inconceivable by working together with others and choosing to continuously renew her hope for a better day. This woman has such a vibrancy of spirit! Worldmaker awarded Dr. Eger our 2021 Hope Builder Award for showing us how to transform our heartbreak into a better world for others. She reminds us that we all have a choice to give up whatever prison holds us and do the work to be free. Edith, now 94 years old, is a model of authenticity, humility, forgiveness and the potential to heal and transform our wounds into a gift for others.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

In a lighthearted way, this question takes me back to my early childhood. As far back as I can remember, my mother provided a consistent voice of possibility. She especially encouraged her daughters to get an education because you never know what life might bring and you need to be prepared. When I was little, this took the shape of my mom insisting that I could be anything that I wanted to be. When I was four, I set my sights on becoming a mama grizzly bear. I pored over each National Geographic and Ranger Rick magazine, falling into the pages that displayed these beautiful and majestic animals hunting in a salmon stream or tending to their young. One day, my older brother took issue with my statement that I was going to grow up to be a grizzly bear. “You can’t. It’s impossible. You’re a human!” “Mom said I could be anything I want, and I want to be a grizzly bear!” We took the dispute to Mom, and I will never forget the disappointed look on her face when she had to provide a caveat to her encouragement. With my mother’s help, I learned that some things are humanly impossible, like being a grizzly bear. Nonetheless, I could still espouse the mama bear characteristics that I found so alluring – and to this day, my sister still calls me Bear. Bringing this back to resilience research, I now know that although unbridled optimism might support short-term success, it doesn’t create sustainable change because it lacks a sufficient foundation to get you through obstacles. A resilience mindset is one of realistic optimism, acknowledging what is and bringing positive attitude and action to the challenges before you.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

While I embrace the potential for setbacks to assist us in growing trust and confidence in ourselves and others, the concept of bouncing back doesn’t resonate with me. Can we really bounce back to where we were before we experienced a global pandemic, and would we want to? That being said, post-traumatic wisdom and growth is real and available to us all.

One important setback has been my family’s unfortunate predisposition to certain types of cancer. After my sister survived breast and colon cancer in her early 50s, we were supporting her 34-year-old daughter through a recent breast cancer diagnosis when I was diagnosed with 3 malignant tumors. My recovery process provided rich soil for many resilience skills, including acceptance and patience that was nurtured by the support of others. One night after my husband got me situated in a special chair where I slept for weeks after surgery, he settled on the nearby couch. In tears, I expressed how desperately I wanted to lie down next to him – something seemingly so simple and yet impossible at the time. He said, “There will be a day for that. It’s just not today. And that’s OK.” How many times I used this as my healing mantra!

My cancer recovery was a life school for meaning making. While the sentiment that “everything happens for a reason” may or may not be helpful to someone experiencing hardship, I can tell you from both my research and life experience that this is the more true sentiment: you can find your own meaning in everything that happens. It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.

How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

One experience that strongly shaped my childhood is learning how to process the death of loved ones. My parents grew up having lost their fathers as children and both of my grandmothers died when I was nine. In my early 20’s, I lost five family members in five years, including my mom dying of breast cancer and my 3-year-old niece dying of brain cancer. A decade later I miscarried a baby and my dad passed. While the idea of only experiencing positive emotions can sound appealing, I’ve come to understand that not only is this unattainable, but would deprive a depth of richness and aliveness. The more I am present to what is, opening my heart to the darkness of my experiences, the more space I create for joy and all of life to flow through me and support me in creating true contentment. This perspective helps me process even small losses. Today, when embracing the ache of a quiet home after my kids once again flew the coop, it opened me up to such gratitude for their loving, laughter-filled visit that it brought tears of joy to my eyes. Perhaps this is what it means to live wholeheartedly.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

I put a lot of emphasis on relationship-based practices, which we teach through the THRIVE Resilience Model, which is an acronym for Trusted relationships, High expectations, Resilience leadership, Involvement, Vision and Enrichment.

For individual-based practices, I would prioritize cultivating these practices drawn from the research on emotional intelligence: self-awareness, personal wellness, emotion regulation, coping skills and social awareness.

  1. Self-awareness is recognizing who you are, what affects you and who you can be. After a recent Seniors THRIVE presentation, a veteran came up and said that a lightbulb had just gone off for him – one that was 18 years in the making. He made a plan for what he would do after he left the military, but it didn’t pan out. This gutted him in ways he didn’t understand and he struggled deeply. He eventually found his way to nursing, and caring for the elderly was fueling a sense of connection, competence and purpose. “You said in a few sentences what took me 18 years to figure out. It now all makes sense why I struggled so much.” Engaging in self-awareness practices and preparing for a shift in identity is essential when going through transitions. If your needs are being met in various ways and the situation is changing, be intentional about creating new ways to meet these needs on the other side of the transition. You cannot lead another past your own point of healing. The more you understand yourself, the better off others around you will be.
  2. Personal wellness is supported by practices that contribute to holistic health of the mind, body and spirit. Worldmaker uses a wellness inventory that assesses nine practices, from sleep and nutrition to time in nature and creative expression. This process is not about taking on nine new things at once but rather assessing high-impact starting points and committing to specific actions that grow strength and capacity, one at a time. A lawyer who recently left her position as a partner in a law firm came to us shortly after she had quit practicing law. Through the process of prioritizing her personal wellness, she regained clarity and came to realize that she actually enjoyed being a lawyer and was good at it. She had just been burned out from years in a toxic work environment. Today, she is practicing law at a firm that prioritizes staff wellness in ways that allow her and her family to thrive. We are all using the 24 hours given to us each day. When we continuously make small shifts to support wellness, it can make a big difference for our resilience and well-being.
  3. Emotion regulation is the process of noticing, accepting and changing your emotional experiences in positive ways. This is key to staying grounded, present and adaptable to what’s coming at you. Dr. Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance framework is useful to help understand how we can stay within and expand the zone where we are able to handle input without losing control or shutting down. One of our Board members, Kirk Ferguson, spent 23 years in Special Forces, including time as an Army medic, Green Beret and Delta Force operator. He says one of the most important things he did each time he got called into a crisis situation or operating room was to pause outside the door, take a few deep breaths, place his hand in his pocket with a causal stance, and slowly walk into the room, calmly asking, “What’s up?” No matter what he faced, he responded with a nod and some sense that “We’ve got this.” This was Kirk’s emotion regulation routine that helped him, and it had a direct impact of helping others regulate their emotions.
  4. Coping skills are strategies that help you deal with stress in a healthy way. Stress is needed for growth. The key is to eliminate or manage stressors so that they don’t put you in a state of distress. You can get in trouble when you think that what is required of you is more than what you can handle given your knowledge, tools and support. The magic resilience formula is to keep your perceived resources greater than your perceived demands. There was a woman who was causing problems at work by being really short and unreasonable with her co-workers. When a caring supervisor stepped in, she acknowledged that she was overwhelmed. He worked with her to list everything she thought she had to do and then guided her through a process of prioritizing the things that were hers alone to get done. They paired this with moving other items into categories of delegating with some supervision, completely delegating to others and crossing off tasks that really weren’t important. Providing support and resourcing this woman with a coping strategy had an immediate positive impact on her relationship with her colleagues. There is no one tool for every situation so we all need to be building a toolbox of coping skills that work to increase resources and lower demands.
  5. Social awareness is understanding your social context and how others experience the world. Resilience is inherently an inclusive process that embraces and celebrates diversity. To see another’s perspective as valid, we must learn how to set aside our own filters, values, goals and realities. When teaching at Andrews Air Force base, I was reminded that an honest yet very challenging place to begin practicing can be at home. Some participants were observing how the failure to bracket our own perspective is the root of where we are globally with war and discord, when another participant offered, “Sometimes it seems that I can help the world but can’t seem to connect with my son, who I want the best for. I want to help, communicate, connect, be impactful. When he’s not giving effort because he’s in avoidance due to anxiety, I want to say snap out of it. Get busy! It takes more time, patience and empathy to really search out where he’s coming from. I’ve heard him say so many times, you just don’t understand and I’ve always thought, I understand everything. I get it. But I don’t get it. This is where I’ve been having trouble. Because I’m so strong in my own value system, instead of accepting his values and maturity and where he’s at, I go right into persuading him to accept things my way so he can get unstuck. This was the problem I didn’t get. This helps me see where I can get better.” Of course we want others to take on our values – they’re our values for a reason. But in order to build relationships, our greater goal must be to understand rather than try to help others see the light. Listening without judgment is what is needed to get us to a place of authentic relationship and provide an opportunity for conversation and mutuality. As our Board Chair David Richmond says, “Most people don’t need a good talking to – they need a good listening to.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve been fortunate from an early age to see the value of embracing a process of starting where I am with what I have and use it to make life better for someone else. Despite growing up without much money, this has been expected of me, modeled for me and resourced in many ways over the years. Pairing this with my love for research and a natural awe of each person’s inherent dignity, it’s probably not surprising that I am actively engaged in mobilizing a human resilience movement that uses our knowledge of science to equip people around the globe to care for and support each other through life’s hardships.

Like many in the resilience field, I spent the early months of the pandemic creating resources and tip sheets. It soon dawned on me that there was so much noise and I could spend each day just trying to process all of the information floating around. What people really needed was a safe space to gather, make sense of their experience and be connected to resources needed at that moment. So Worldmaker opened a virtual café with a simple invitation: show up, get what you need and give what you can. This is the essence of the movement – we humans need each other in so many ways and each of us has something to give to help another. We can only thrive together.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

What a great question. I am inspired by so many virtual mentors! I believe that creating a dynamic Self Ideal is a powerful yet often overlooked way to build resilience. Ever since I learned about this concept in grad school, I’ve taught others how to integrate aspects of people who inspire them into their own sense of who they want to be. This isn’t about trying to become someone else, but rather becoming more of your true self through gaining clarity about your values and how you want to show up in the world. My Self Ideal contains aspects of Mom, Dad, Judge and many others. I use moments when people deeply inspire me as invitations to make refinements. One recent addition is a bold integration of generosity and ingenuity from trailblazer MacKenzie Scott. She is innovating philanthropy to support charities to truly build capacity, grow impact and thrive in service to humanity. I encourage everyone to really think about who inspires them and why. These are their core values speaking to yours, and you can use these to stay steady and true to your highest self.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for asking! Readers can join our Worldmaker community at www.worldmakerinternational.org and my community at www.molliemarti.com.

We welcome people to connect with us and engage with our Worldmaker work on socials – @WorldmakerInt on Twitter and Instagram; Worldmaker International on LinkedIn and Facebook.

I am @DrMollieMarti on Twitter and Mollie Marti on LinkedIn.

I look forward to hearing from readers with insights, questions and ideas for our human resilience movement. As we say at Worldmaker, we thrive together!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Author(s)

  • Savio P. Clemente

    Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 Best-selling Author, Syndicated Columnist, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor

    The Human Resolve LLC

    Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 best-selling author, syndicated columnist, podcaster, stage 3 cancer survivor, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC. He has interviewed notable celebrities and TV personalities and has been featured on Fox News, The Wrap, and has worked with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, BuzzFeed, Food Network, WW and Bloomberg. Savio has been invited to cover numerous industry events throughout the U.S. and abroad. His mission is to provide clients, listeners, and viewers alike with tangible takeaways on how to lead a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. Savio pens a weekly newsletter in which he delves into secrets to living smarter by feeding your “three brains” — head ?, heart ?, and gut ? — in the hope of connecting the dots to those sticky parts of our nature that matter to living our best life.