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Resilience: Ability to Recover from Setbacks


Working life can be tough. So, perhaps your greatest asset is your ability to cope with the challenges and bounce back from adversity. And we have a name for that skillset: resilience.

We could argue that it’s a worrying sign of the times, that we need this talent, that we have a name for it, and that organisations need to train us in it. But the truth is that, like other Big Ideas, resilience is neither new nor more important than it was before. We’ve just got more aware of it.

Why do we need Resilience?

In many ways, our lives are easier and softer than ever before in human history. Certainly this is true in the prosperous nations, where few of us will ever see warfare up close, or have to handle real hardships.

But what has changed is our understanding of the pervasive impact of long term stresses, and sudden personal setbacks. We used to use phrases in the UK like:

  • soldiering on
  • stiff upper lip
  • keeping your pecker (nose) up
  • keep calm and carry on

These speak to the value we place on fortitude in the face of adversity. Resilience is just another name for this. But its origins in the nature of materials lends it a certain technical cachet. It sounds sort of scientific.

What is Resilience?

I’d love to start with the science. I don’t often get a chance to get my old (1977) edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Physics off the shelf. It talks about the ability to store energy through elastic deformation which, I suspect, will leave non-scientists a little cold.

But the point is that resistance materials soak up applied pressures, and are later able to release the energy and return to the way they were. That’d be a useful characteristic for a manager!

S, I return to my favourite dictionary of English: Collins (1988).

Definitions of Resilience


  1. capable of recovering its original shape or position after bending, stretching, or other deformation

  2. (of a person) recovering easily and quickly from illness, hardship, etc

It’s the second of these uses that we see so commonly nowadays. I like the definition on the Psychology Today website, that

Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.


How to section

In a world of stressed managers, you’ll not be surprised to learn that a whole resilience industry has grown up. This ranges from knowledgeable experts to, frankly, charlatans selling corporate snake oil.

The best take a portfolio approach to resilience. They shun single convenient solutions in favour of systemic practices across many areas of our lives. For example, the framework that Janine Waldman and Paul Z Jackson offer in the Resilience Pocketbook has a simple but broad articulation as the four dimensions of looking after your:

  • Physical wellbeing
  • Mental wellbeing
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Social wellbeing
The Four Dimensions of Resilience
The Four Dimensions of Resilience

They populate their framework with so much good advice, that it would be tempting to try and summarise their excellent book here. But that would be unfair to them.

Rather, I’d like to offer some of my own favourite tips.

Tips for Building Resilience

The prime time to build up resilience is when you need it. This isn’t because  you can build a store of rest, good nutrition, and fitness, friendships, and good mental health, like deposits in a bank, or filling a larder. The metaphors do work to an extent.

But, those metaphors highlight the flaw in that plan: come the crisis, it doesn’t take long for your bank account to drain, and your larder to empty. And the deeper or more intense the crisis, the less your reserves will last you.

The value of building resilience in the good times is in ‘habit forming’. If you get into the habit of resilience building choices, like:

  • Getting good sleep
  • Taking exercise
  • Spending time with friends
  • Cherishing family
  • Eating wisely

…then it will be easy to maintain these habits through the tough times – at least to a degree. This means you’ll be topping up your bank account and restocking your larder, as you are drawing down your reserves.

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay (TED Talk: Why 30 is not the new 20) makes a compelling point that resilience is about far more than bouncing back from adversity. She sees resilience as a heroic struggle.

It’s really a battle, not a bounce

Tips for Unfurling your Resilience when you need it

A lot of the talent of resilience is in the inner game. This is the struggle between your desire to achieve and your inner voice that tells you to succumb to despair and give up. Tools like ABCDE and Solution Focus (the underpinning of the Resilience Pocketbook) give us the mental models to see events as nothing more than external situations we need to deal with. They are all about separating the reality from our emotional responses. One dimension (self control) of the Emotional Intelligence framework contains your ability to manage your emotional response to events.

Of course, this is not new: the idea of seeing events as external goes back at least as far (in Western thought) as the stoics. It has, perhaps, its clearest articulation in Shakespeare (as does so much of what goes on in the human psyche):

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2

What is Your experience of Resilience?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

The Resilience Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools on how to stay calm and confident in times of difficulty and bounce back from setbacks.

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