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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8 Responses to “How to Build Resilience”

  1. Dan:

    As always, an excellent post. As anyone knows who’s read The Talent Code, everything we do is a skill.

    It’s so useful to remember that things we usually consider a response (like resilience) are actually skills we can practice and improve at – even the ones we consider ourselves “bad at.”

    I’ve been experimenting a lot with different kinds of visualization and I’m finding it all very powerful. Pre-creating stressful situation is a kind of visualization. I especially like the “no stopping allowed” aspect, and of course, the repeating, over and over. All so useful, because once the real thing starts happening, it feels like we’ve already done it.

    All so timely. I’m expecting a stressful encounter today. Time to start practicing for it in my mind 🙂


  2. Hap says:

    Moshe Feldenkrais, the Israeli genius who created a sophisticated movement-based approach to awareness, had an unusual definition of “health.” Part of it was “the ability to recover from shock.” Feldenkrais was a physicist and judo master, thus obviously ‘skilled’ at falling. The other part of his definition was “the ability to live out one’s avowed — and unavowed — dreams.” (That last one I’m still puzzling over.)

  3. Terrific post, Dan. Love the concept of “pre-silience,” which strikes me as a component of deep practice – one of many practice skills that runs under the hood.

    Regarding ways to acquire resilience, your recommendations complement those that I make to musicians, which I summarize in my post “Practicing Performance.” I invite you and your readers to take a look:

  4. Robnonstop says:

    Diet is important too. Bacteria in Yoghurt have been proven to make mice calmer in stressful situations. Considering the fact that we have more bacteria than cells with our own DNA in our body, we should look closely at what kinds of bacteria we want to house and how they affect us.–-eating-probiotic-bacteria-changes-behaviour-in-mice/

    Take this Zombie Snail housing parasites (worms) as an example, it is driven to make bad decisions:

  5. RDS says:

    This is a fantastic piece. This week we are doing some training to prep for media interviews and this is bang on. thank you.

  6. James says:

    Thank you so much, Daniel, for your excellent book. I recommend ‘The Talent Code’ to all and everybody who want to change their life or master something.

    Your article above, ‘How to Build Resilience’, came at a good time for me.

    I am in the middle of a huge project, too big for me really, that has to do with developing a device that could help make the world a better place. I caught myself wondering if there was any hope of this dream becoming reality.

    It took me a bit of time, but I got ‘back on my horse’. Of course it is worth every effort to get it done. It was a good reminder to keep a disciplined store of pre-silience.

    It is interesting that when you break up the word it almost looks like pre-‘silence’, which resonates with the book title ‘Quiet’. I am an introvert who has added Ms. Cain’s book to his Amazon wishlist. Thanks for the recommendation.

    One more Thank You. You have created an AWESOME blog. I continue to post your website link to my FB friends. You are changing the world my friend. Keep up the great work.

    BTW this TED Talk may relate well to this article.

  7. liz garnett says:

    Dan, I really like the recurrent theme in both your book and blog of identifying things that are so often treated as beyond our control, and putting both the responsibility and power to do something about them back in our hands.

    I’ve been doing quite a lot of work on issues of performance anxiety with singers recently, and have found that deliberately engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest/digest dimension that counter-balances the fight-flight response) helps people manage their level of arousal. (I’ve written about this here:

    By the way, another thing I like about your blog are the people you find participating in the comments – I’ve just spent a happy 20 minutes on Gerald’s site, and will be going back there again!

  8. I do believe all of the ideas you have presented for your post. They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too quick for novices. Could you please lengthen them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

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