How to Build Resilience

No matter what talent you’re building, resilience is a big factor; perhaps the factor. Defined as the ability to recover from adversity; resilience is the ultimate killer app because it allows us to adapt, to learn, to turn setbacks into progress.

The mystery is, where does it come from? How is it developed? And perhaps most important, is it possible to teach?

One useful way to think about resilience is to think of it as the skill of controlling your emotions in negative situations. In this view, negative emotions are “hot” — they cause the brain to spark and short-circuit, they cause performance and confidence to dissolve in a cascade of doubt and judgement. Resilience is the skill of cooling those “hot” emotions and reinterpreting setbacks in a positive, future-oriented light.

We normally think of resilience as a response. The surprising thing about resilience, however, is that the most important moment comes before the negative event — it’s pre-silience. Studies show that resilient people start controlling their emotions before the stressful events begin. In other words, resilient brains function sort of like smart thermostats; even before the emotional heat arrives, they provide an anticipatory burst of cool, calm control.

Check out this study about Navy SEALs who were found to anticipate negative events by activating their emotional-control centers — in other words, before they encounter the negative event, their brains are already in calm-down mode.

The other interesting thing is that it seems this ability can be grown through practice. For instance, professional musicians who are preparing for a major performance will often pre-create, as closely as possible, the performance conditions, right down to the time of day, the clothes they’ll wear, the chair they’ll use.

NFL kickers like Billy Cundiff of the Ravens, who use bio-feedback devices to help teach them to regulate their stress levels in pressure situations.

Then there’s the wonderful example of Susan Cain, an introvert (and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking) who had to face her worst fear: giving a speech in front of a huge audience. (Long story short: she got coached, did nothing but rehearse for a solid week, and nailed it.)

They are all being pre-silient: creating the pressurized situation, over and over, to teach their brain to calm itself at the right moments. In this way of thinking, practicing resilience is not that different from practicing a golf swing. The keys are:

  • 1) Pre-create the stressful situation. It’s not enough to imagine it vaguely — try to get every detail. Ideally, duplicate the atmosphere; if not, imagine it as vividly as possible: a golfer or musician might imagine the uneasy rustling of the crowd; a CEO might imagine the hush of an expectant boardroom.
  • 2) No stopping allowed. Once the “performance” starts, you can’t give yourself an exit door; you need to endure it completely, get to the other side of it.
  • 3) Repeat. Then repeat again. And again. Learning to endure and control spikes of intense emotion is like enduring any sort of stimulus: time and repetition are your best friends.
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