5 min read

Building Resilience at Work and in Life

A three-step method to help you build resilience: turning adversity into strength!
Resilience: a motorcyclist looking down over imposing mountain passes from above
Who knows how far you can go? | Image James Bellerjeau

Greetings friends!

I learned everything valuable about resilience while working, including my twenty years leading the legal team of a multinational public company.

Then I retired and discovered I wasn’t finished learning about resilience.

If work gave me two key components for building resilience, philosophy was the third piece that helped create a unified whole.

Here’s how I’ll share it with you:

  • I describe what I mean by resilience.
  • I offer a handy lens for making sense of the world.
  • I share a simple method for building resilience.
  • Lastly, we’ll explore the method’s application in three core areas: (1) your person, (2) your planning, and (3) your thoughts.

Resilience Means …

A resilient person is strong, capable, and tough.

When the unexpected occurs, a resilient person is able to deal with every eventuality.

When hit with a setback, a resilient person bounces back quickly, even stronger.

How do you think about resilience? Would you add anything to these descriptions?

A handy lens for viewing the world: What’s in your control?

Understanding the answer to this simple question helps you focus your efforts when building resilience.

Distinguish between things fully in your control, outside your control, and partially in your control.

Fully in our control: what we think, say, and do. (Us, our person)

Outside our control: the world and its random happenings, third parties (what others think, say, and do), and bad luck, such as weather and delays. (What happens to us)

Partially in our control: how prepared are we for what happens, how we respond to what happens, and our good fortune. (How we respond to what happens)

It is an invincible greatness of mind not to be elevated or dejected with good or ill fortune. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it be — without wishing for what he has not. — Seneca
Reframing: a hand holding a purple-tinted lens showing an altered landscape beyond
Reframe how you look at the world | Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash

A Simple Method for Building Resilience: Increase Your Control and Leverage What You Do Control

The more you assume responsibility, the more resilient you will be. If you are not the master of yourself, who is?

  • Who controls your own person?
  • Who controls what you know and can do?
  • Who controls what you feel?

As you consider these questions, remember that things that appear outside your control may not be.

The unexpected is troublesome, true, but you can manage what you plan for. And even when you control little of your external circumstances, you still have control.

Knowing others is to be clever. Knowing self is to be wise. Overcoming others requires force. Overcoming self requires strength. Realizing contentment is wealth. — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Let’s explore your levers.

1. Your Person — Make yourself strong, capable, and tough

You can make yourself stronger in three domains: your person, your abilities, and your attitude.

Your person: Adopt long-term healthy habits.

  • Schedule time for fitness in your calendar
  • Eat healthy, take time for lunch
  • Get up and walk around periodically, e.g. every 90 minutes
  • Get enough sleep, with consistent bedtimes and waking times

Your abilities: continuously improve your skills.

  • Take advantage of continuous improvement opportunities
  • University courses, in-person and online
  • Professional reading, podcasts
  • Zen koan: “to a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day”

Your attitude: Cultivate a positive mindset. Simple habits can shape your personality.

  • Practice gratitude
  • Maintain a journal
  • Meditate briefly
  • Engage with your social network
  • Exercise (supporting the first point above)
You are a combination of your habits and the people who you spend the most time with. Many distinctions between people who get happier as they get older and people who don’t can be explained by what habits they have developed. — Naval Rivikant
Survivor: close-up of mud-covered adventure motorcycle that’s seem some tough times
Yes, you can survive tough environments | Image James Bellerjeau

2. Your Planning — Be prepared for any eventuality

Regain control over the unexpected using three simple tools.

Ask “what if” questions. You cannot be surprised by things you have anticipated.

Prepare contingency plans. You respond more quickly and effectively by giving yourself a head start when a crisis hits.

Here are some examples to illustrate.

Question: What if it rains today? Contingency plan: I will bring my raincoat and an umbrella.

Question: What if my train is late? Contingency plan: I will build extra time into my schedule and leave earlier.

Question: What if my company gets sued? Contingency plan: I’ve interviewed lawyers in advance and I know who I would call for each type of case.

Question: What if we have a problem with one of the products we sold? Contingency plan: I have product liability insurance.

The third tool is to learn to be happy for small crises. When you’ve anticipated and planned, you welcome the chance to practice. Here are the rules of thumb regarding crises:

  • Anything you haven’t planned for has the potential to become a big crisis.
  • Anything that doesn’t kill you is a small crisis.
  • Your test is never the crisis itself, but how prepared you are to respond.
Those whose care extends not far ahead will find their troubles near at hand. — Confucius
Planning: sign with checklist reading “Eat, rinse, be crazy, repeat”
Planning carries you a long way | Image James Bellerjeau

3. Your Thoughts— Become stronger in the face of setbacks

You regain control over your thoughts in the face of setbacks by asking yourself three questions:

  1. Did I plan for this situation? Whenever you encounter a situation you’ve planned for, you have already succeeded.
  2. Is it really so bad? So what if … I get wet, I’m a few minutes late, my flight is canceled, etc.
  3. What’s the upside case?

The first two exercises are relatively easy. Answering the third question advances you from average practitioner to expert.

Make a game of finding the silver lining in apparent misfortune. It gets easier the more you do it.

  • The rain is calming and cleans pollen from the air.
  • My train/plane being late means I have more time to finish that podcast.
  • This massive lawsuit means my priorities suddenly became clear.

Over time, you’ll be able to find the positive in every situation: didn’t get that big promotion, lost your car keys, sprained your ankle.

I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value. — Herman Hesse
Silver lining: a vibrant sunrise over the beach with storm clouds on the horizon
Can you spot the silver lining? | Image James Bellerjeau

Summary of the Three-Step Resilience Method

Start by understanding what’s in your control and what’s not. Seek then to increase your control where possible and leverage the control you do have.

Your three areas of emphasis are as follows: your person, your planning, and your thoughts.

  1. Make yourself strong, capable, and tough by being physically fit, pursuing continuous improvement opportunities, and cultivating a positive mindset.
  2. Be prepared for every eventuality by asking what could happen and putting in place simple contingency plans.
  3. Use your control over your thoughts to turn adversity into an advantage by always spotting the silver lining.

The wonderful news is that building resilience is within our control. When all others are losing their heads, we can be both calm and strong.

Be well.

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