What is resilience and why do you and I really need it?

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I’ve come to believe that resilience is one of the key life skills of the 21st century.

Indeed over the last few decades I have been challenged in my own personal life to reflect on how resilience is central to finding true and meaningful success in life. (For more on that see How Would You Define Success? Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

But what exactly do we mean by resilience? it certainly does not  come naturally. Here is how the late 19th to early 20th century writer Oswald Chambers expressed a lack of resilience and its consequences:

“A great fear has been at work in my mind and God has used it to arouse me to prayer. I came across a man whom I knew years ago, a mighty man of God, and now ten years have gone and I meet him again- garrulous and unenlivened. How many men seem to become like that after forty years of age! The fear of sloth and indulgence has come home with a huge fear and fairly driven me to God to keep me from ever forgetting what I owe Him.”

Although Chambers wrote over a hundred years ago and does not use the word resilience, his use of those two words, garrulous (that is excessively talkative about trivia) and unenlivened (dull and uninteresting) are sobering. Also is his reflection on how common this can be in those who are over 40!

Another writer V. W. Burroughs puts it quite bluntly when he says,
“One of the saddest experiences is to awaken at old age and discover that one has been using only a small part of the self.”

Resilience is about the power to master change, thrive under pressure and bounce back from setbacks. In our fast changing and increasingly complex world it is a vital life skill to master. As Chambers and Burroughs both point out, it is by no means an automatic skill.

Excessive fatigue, stress, depressive thinking, burnout and even cynicism are all hall marks of a lack of resilience. These symptoms are a growing feature of modern life.

But that does not necessarily have to be the case.

What is a resilient person? It sounds good, noble and even inspiring. But what does resilience look like in someone? Here are some definitions to consider:

A resilient person is……

– Someone who has gone through adversity and not got weaker, but become stronger so they can be an inspiration to others.
(Gordon Macdonald)

Is not someone who always does things right; there’re a person who always gets back up. The issue is not have we fallen, but are we getting back up? If you are getting up you are a resilient person.

(John Maxwell)

– able to absorb high levels of disruptive change, bounce back and even excel in times of change and uncertainty, without acting in dysfunctional ways.
(Mary Steinhardt)

able to be successful both personally and professionally in the midst of a high-pressured fast paced and continuously changing environment.
(Glaxo Smith Kline)

Or perhaps to put it most succinctly, the resilient person is able to….

intelligently deploy limited resources (David Becker).

able to absorb high levels of disruptive change.

Indeed on-going change is a key feature of modern life. And that rate of change is continually increasing. On one level we certainly have the potential for a more enhanced quality of life compared to previous generations. However, it is so easy to increase our stress levels to take on more than we have resources to handle. There is always something more we could do – another email to write, another person to reach out to, or another task that needs to be done that is crying out for our attention. The list really is endless and changing continually through email, text messages, social media and the latest new idea.

So we can define resilience as the ability to……

– Cope well with high levels of ongoing disruptive change

– Sustain good health, energy and performance when under constant pressure.

– Bounce back easily from setbacks

– overcome adversities

– change to a new way of working and living when an old way is no longer possible.

– do all this without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways

– have access to your ‘best self.’

How do resilient people behave and how can we grow in resilience? How can I get stronger rather than weaker when the challenges and problems hit me?

We will look at that in the next post, but for now what questions, ideas and thoughts does the concept of resilience raise for you?




10 thoughts on “What is resilience and why do you and I really need it?”

  1. Mei Ling Routley

    Thank you, Sunil, for another thoughtful and insightful article. Many of the qualities mentioned here remind me of the contestants in Masterchef…having to bounce back from continuous setbacks. It also beings to mind Job in the Old Testament…that surely was the ultimate test of resilience, when even your friends doubt you. I look forward to reading the next post.

    1. Thank you Mei Ling for the encouragement.
      Yes your comments remind me of a quote attributed to Churchill – “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. The key ability is being able to get back up again when you fall down and not taking it personally (which is so easy to do).
      Job is a very powerful Old Testament example of resilience in spite of all His suffering. The key was He kept returning to God. I think of what he said after all his disasters -“Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.” (Job 13:15)

  2. In your next part you might feel it appropriate to mention Christian mindfulness (www.christianmindfulness.co.uk)

  3. I had a very near resilience breakdown last week; I had been working 8 nights in a row, on my final night I had been messed around backwards and forwards continually all night by people who could not make decisions and didn’t want to make decision, people being disruptive and uncooperative, I was extremely close to just going home and abandoning them all, even if it meant I would not be paid, that’s how annoyed I was!! I somehow managed to regain composure and carry on, but I was complaining a lot to my colleagues after, when one of them said ‘I’d hate to see you in a real crisis’, which made me think that I had overreacted to the whole situation, I just can’t stand being messed around for no reason! Yes I’d worked 8 nights in a row, so I forgave myself for this, but it did show me how fatigue can really affect your state of mind. Hopefully next time I’ll cope better!!

    1. Thank you Karl for your personal example.
      Tiredness and fatigue can have a huge impact on our perspective and how much we are able or feel able to handle.
      I hope you will be able to get a good rest after your 8 nights in a row!

  4. Very stimulating article. It seem that resilience includes the concept of flexibility; the ability to adapt to events rather than ‘steamroller’ your way through, doing what you’ve always done in the way you’ve always done it.
    I think it also necessitates a high level of self awareness: understanding your needs and how you operate, and figuring out how to deploy your skills (and ration your energies) in a way which meets demands without completely draining yourself.

    1. Yes Ian you are quite right – flexibility in thinking and acting is key. As they say, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result!

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