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Becoming More Resilient
by Michael H. Smith, Ph.D.


On a national level, the weak economy, the stagnant stock market, numerous layoffs, the housing slump, the wars in Iraq and Iran and the environmental disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have severely tested our collective resilience. We have to learn how to live in a world that is not as stable or as safe as it used to be even a few years ago.

The term “resilience” is currently being applied to issues ranging from childhood education and recovering from difficult childhoods to surviving life-threatening illnesses and organizations and countries under extreme stress. It is defined in terms of our ability to bounce back from hard times. It’s "every man for himself".

There are three popular books on the topic: The Survivor Personality by A. C. Siebert; Resilience by Frederic Flach and How High Can You Bounce? by Roger Crawford. Each author refined resilience in terms of a laundry list of his favorite skills or qualities, which include:

  1. Flexibility
  2. Creativity
  3. Humor
  4. Self-Esteem
  5. Responsibility

The fascinating thing was the list was not the same. So there was no consensus about the real nature of resilience. Also there was very little empirical research to support their lists, which were just based on their own experience, i.e., the qualities that had helped them bounce back from life’s difficulties.

Having seen what’s out there, here is my own short list of skills that support resilience. But those qualities are based on empirical research.


One of the essential qualities that Diane L. Coutu, who wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “How Resilience Works,” mentioned was optimism. Martin E. P. Seligman, author of two books, Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, spent many years researching the topic and defines optimism in terms of how people explain bad events in their lives to themselves. Optimists say three things to themselves when bad things happen:

1. It won't last forever
2. It doesn't impact all parts of my life
3. I'm only partly to blame and maybe not at all

The good news here is that he says that optimism (and an important aspect of resilience) can be learned. It is a new way of thinking.


Another essential aspect of emotional resilience that Coutu mentioned is having a strong purpose. Psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl said that human beings could endure anything – as long as they have a strong enough reason for persevering. He learned this truth during his experience in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. He found that many people there committed suicide because they felt they had no reason to live.  He believed that he survived because of the strong goals he set for his life.

One of these goals was to create a new form of existential psychotherapy called Logotherapy (Logo is Greek for meaning), which has now been around for nearly sixty years. His moving experiences can be found in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl makes a very important point about how purpose strengthens our resilience.  One can see this in the lives of the many people who suffered great tragedies and then chose to devote their lives to social and political issues related to their experience.


The last important aspect of resilience is having a strong support system of family and friends. Many studies on long-term survivors of life-threatening illnesses found that those people who had strong support networks lived longer than those who didn’t.

The point here is that you really need to be resilient before something happens in your life. When things are good, we don’t think about what we would need if they weren’t so good. In fact, most people learn how to be resilient during these painful experiences. But the truth is it is much more difficult that way.

Teach yourself to be more optimistic and find out what really matters to you. Find people who will really be there for you during crises.

If you’re a manager, consider teaching optimism skills to your people or doing a seminar on prioritizing their life goals. Focus on strengthening your organization’s mission and vision statements so they are clear to your people and these statements motivate them. And encourage your people to help each other during hard times by setting up support structures before they are needed.

Resilience may be a hard term to define, but it’s a very real phenomenon. The truth is: Some of us survive hard times better than others.

Be prepared for those hard times by developing those skills and qualities. When the difficulties inevitably come, you’ll be glad you did.


The Author

Michael Smith

Michael H. Smith, Ph.D., is an Oakland, California-based organization consultant who conducts “Rapid Strategic Planning” retreats for law firms. He can be reached at (510) 832-8500 or

Visit his Web site and blog site:;

Many more articles in Personal Development in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2010 by Michael H. Smith. All rights reserved.

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