A resilient life!

There were 50 descriptive word cards on a table and it was a long-term colleague’s turn to pick one card he associated with me. I scan the cards. No, he won’t choose “handsome” or “athletic”. Maybe “intelligent” or “humorous”. Hopefully “humble” or “passionate” makes his shortlist. Surely “unbearable” or “pretentious” won’t cross his mind.

In moments like these and the thinking that comes later we are challenged to consider what words we would like our lives summarised by. What words would we want on our legacy list?  And even more challenging, what are we doing to bring these words to life; to demonstrate them in the here and now.

As Gary Vaynerchuch writes: “Please think about your legacy because you’re writing it everyday.”

And so, my colleague leans down and chooses his word card. His choice? “Resilient”.

This work exercise took place about five years ago, but it has stuck with me. It allowed me at the time, but more importantly on later reflection and reading, to think a lot more about the importance of resilience and how I can cultivate it, model it and help others to grow in this important life quality.

Kavin Rowe writes: “Resilience isn’t reserved for leaders, but it is essential to sustain long-term, healthy leadership”. This is true no matter what your leadership context.

But it’s equally important in all aspects of life, particularly given the pressures and stressors we all live with day to day in our fast-paced world.

I want to keep growing in resilience.

I want staff members I work with to grow in it. In particular, I want younger leaders to learn and practice resilient habits, so they can go the distance and thrive over the long haul.

I want my kids to learn more about what it means to cultivate resilience in their world, particularly as they face challenges and discouragement.

Psychologist George Vaillant writes: “Resilient individuals resemble a twig with a fresh green, living core. When twisted out of shape, it does not break, instead it springs back and continues growing, stronger as a result of experience.”

It’s good to take note of a few of Vaillant’s points here.

Notice the twig has a fresh green, living core. Resilient people understand the importance of staying physically and emotionally healthy – so they are better prepared for what life will throw at them.

And to debunk one of the myths of resilience, it’s not just “bounce back-ability”. Yes, getting back up is important, but Vaillant highlights the key is how we grow stronger as a result of the challenging experience, the life lesson, the stretching season. It’s good to get up, but resilience is about getting up differently and being better prepared for future challenges.

Neither is resilience living with a bullet-proof mentality.

We are all human – we all need to embrace weakness, failure, challenge and vulnerability in our lives. I wish I had learned that lesson earlier. I grew up, all too often thinking I couldn’t reveal weakness. And yet this so much a part of normative human experience. We all carry scars and we grow in resilience as we authentically allow others to journey with us – on the mountaintops, but also in the deep, dark valleys of life.

Resilience answers questions like:

  • Who do some people adapt to stressful situations better than others?
  • Why do some people recover from adversity better than others?
  • Why do some people manifest a capacity to cope better than others with high work demands?
  • Why are some people more optimistic and solution-oriented than others?
  • Why do some cope with change better than others?

In 1914, at age 67, Thomas Edison, one of the world’s greatest innovators and inventors, faced one of his biggest life challenges. His large US-based factory and research centre was destroyed by fire. He lost much of his life’s work.  His son would later recall his father’s reaction.

“Things could be much worse. No one has lost their life.”

We can and will rebuild.”

“This presents a new opportunity for me and my employees.”

As well as destroying his property, the fire could have destroyed the man – but here we see “rubber hits the road” resilience.

Edison chose perspective rather than circumstance. He chose optimism over pessimism. He chose to see opportunity rather than challenge. He chose hope in the midst of despair.  And note the word “we”. He realised he was not facing this tipping-point moment alone; he would rebuild with others by his side and that he did, with no employees losing their jobs.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, paints a similar picture of resilience. Describing the physical and emotional opposition he and his colleagues were facing, Paul writes:

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Yes, life was very hard. He was stretched. He knew he was far from bullet-proof. But again, we see the importance of looking at life through the perspective lens.

As Rowe writes: “Paul highlights that resilience isn’t about toughness, but rather lived hope.”

I love that beautiful expression: “lived hope”.

Yes, Paul could see the challenges, but he also knew he had the capacity to overcome them – not in his own strength, but with the sustaining power and hope that God brought into his life.

Paul embraced “lived hope”.  He understood that in a beautiful, but broken world, life bought joy and sorrow, light and darkness, opportunity and challenge.  And he had learnt from each experience he faced to embrace hope in God and to hold fast to faith. He had seen God help him get back up on his feet in the past and each time he had learnt something new about himself, about his God, about growing through seasons of challenge and change.

And therefore, he could write, confident in God’s presence and strength: “We do not lose heart.”

That’s lived hope! That’s resilience 101. I will not lose heart. I will keep on going. And I will seek to keep growing through each challenge I confront, rather than become pessimistic, cynical, bitter or “the victim”.

As we embrace “lived hope” we can also learn from others –  we can look and learn from research that highlights what allows people to grow in resilience and thrive in life.

I have found the work of the Roffey Park Institute very practical and helpful.

Their in-depth research highlights five key factors when it comes to living a more resilient life. Their focus in on leaders, but I think their findings apply across the board in life.

Their five “resilient capabilities” are:

Perspective

Emotional Intelligence

Purpose and Values

Connections

Physical Energy

There’s good stuff here and you might want to check out their work in more detail online here.

In summary, here’s a snapshot of what they found were common factors in people successfully cultivating resilience in their lives and reporting enhanced wellbeing.

  • Resilient people see life through a perspective lens. They take a long-term view of life and don’t get lost in short-term struggles, losses or setbacks.
  • Resilient people choose to live with optimism, rather than embracing a pessimistic outlook and further when confronted with challenges they look to what they can learn from these times.
  • Resilient people, the Roffey researchers found, appreciate the importance of growing in emotional intelligence. This is important to all of us and essential for leaders. We cultivate resilience and we grow in self and others’ awareness.
  • Resilient people appreciate the importance of purposeful living and aligning their life around their core values. Roffey researchers found people reported higher resilience when their work was aligned with their core personal values.
  • Resilient people report healthy, growing connections. As. Rowe writes: “Resilience rests primarily on relationships.” We were created for relationships; we do life best when we are growing in authentic community.
  • And they found a direct link between resilience and a healthy physical life, including exercise, sleep, diet and relaxation. I would add to this what I like to call “soulful activities”; those things that bring us physical and emotional refreshment and renewal in our lives.

I remember sitting with a counsellor in 2006 when life had taken a most unexpected and painful twist. As we talked about moving through separation and divorce the counsellor gently highlighted that this would be a defining season in my life. He didn’t use the “make or break” cliché, but that is what he wanted me to reflect on.

I had been knocked down. I had the capacity to get back up again [even if in the moment I doubted that]. But how would I be different as I began to walk again was the real question.

Through that season and many others I have learned these four constants.

  • We live in a beautiful but broken world – so there will always be tough seasons [that is part of life and we shouldn’t seek to run from them].
  • Life is uncertain – but God’s strength and hope can be counted on everyday.
  • The choices I make each day will very much be determined by the lens I see life through.
  • Resilience is forged through the joy of community –  with a faithful God on my side and others cheering me on.

Here’s  to each of us continuing to grow as people of resilience. Here’s to each of us helping each other build resilient lives.

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