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What Is Resilience and How Do We Cultivate It?

Adina Glickman


We are born resilient. Our bodies and brains are wired for it. From the time we’re tiny, trying to stand up and walk (and repeatedly falling down), we demonstrate our capacity for resilience, learning and changing in response to our failed efforts.

As we move through life, with every incorrectly answered math problem, grammar-challenged essay, failed exam, broken heart and job rejection (failing and falling down in every way possible), our capacity for resilience is urging us up, dusting us off and helping us go again.

Learning Is Everything

Evidence of our resilience shows up anywhere we have learned something. Think of the brain as a muscle that the process of learning strengthens. When you’re building biceps, “feeling the burn” when you lift weights means you’re pushing yourself beyond your previous weight-lifting capacity. That burn is literally the breaking down of muscle tissue, which stimulates the body to produce more muscle.

Intellectual burn recruits our brain cells to stimulate growth. In learning, “feeling the burn” shows up as frustration, disappointment and a host of associated aches and pains like anxiety and self-doubt.

Context Is Everything Else

A simple description of resilience is “bouncing back” after a setback. Picture a basketball bouncing on a solid wood floor. Then imagine that wood floor is instead a soft splooshy mattress. That basketball makes more of a thud than a sharp bounce.

Bouncing back is only possible when the context helps it. School, family and social culture are the contexts of our kids’ lives that can help or hinder their ability to bounce back. A grown-up expressing disappointment in a teen’s setbacks is like a splooshy mattress. School policies that punish rather than teach in response to a poor grade will make that teen go thud. To be the solid wood floor, we need to say, “Oh, you failed! How awesome! Even though that wasn’t what you wanted and you feel bad, what can you learn from it? Let’s go again.”

The Six Elements of Resilience

Over the years, talking about failure and resilience with college and high school students as well as with educators and counselors, I’ve come to see six consistent ingredients that meld to form the delicious cupcake of resilience:

  1. There’s risk.
    For some, that risk may be applying to an elite college. For others, dragging themselves out of bed when they feel like hiding under the covers is a risk. Whatever the action, the fact that a positive outcome isn’t guaranteed is what makes it risky. To build resilience, there must be risk.
  2. It matters.
    The risk has to matter. Risking something that they don’t care about one way or the other won’t exercise the resilience muscle. They’ve got to be invested in the outcome of the risk.
  3. There’s failure.
    Risking something that matters and succeeding is delightful, but it doesn’t build muscle. To cultivate resilience, there has to be a disappointment, setback, rejection or outright failure.
  4. There are feelings.
    And they don’t usually feel good. While some people may feel some relief amidst a setback, the harder feelings of shame, embarrassment, terror, depression, helplessness and so on are most common. Those feelings are important guideposts for the learning process. Moving the dial from bad feelings to better ones is a barometer of resilience blossoming.
  5. There is sharing.
    Telling someone, bringing the experience outside of their own head, invites all kinds of new perspectives. It also allows people around them to remind them of the bigger picture that may be obscured by the Big Deal that has its grip on them in the moment. And the burden of being alone with bad feelings becomes lighter in sharing them.
  6. There is learning.
    Whether your kid fails chemistry and then learns how to study more effectively or whether they realize they failed because they don’t actually want to be a doctor, the net result of the failure is a change in behavior or attitude. If they don’t find meaning from setbacks, the experience yields brittleness rather than resilience.

How to Cultivate Resilience

One of the most potent tools in cultivating resilience is remembering. If you can think back to a time when you failed or experienced a setback, remember what helped you. Identify each of the six ingredients and remind yourself:

  • What was the risk?
  • How much did I care?
  • What was the fail?
  • What did I feel?
  • Who did I share it with?
  • What did I learn/what meaning did I pull from the experience?

Those things that helped then can help always. Recalling what helped is like storing tools in your back pocket. The tools that worked for you will still work if you remember to use them.

Where We Get Stuck

A lot of people get stuck on “what did I feel?” People think they’re supposed to buck up, stand strong, even bury the ache or shame but it’s not going to be a delicious resilience cupcake without the feelings.

Other people get stuck on sharing the experience, which has a direct relationship with feeling the feelings. The more shameful the feelings, the less likely you are to want to tell anyone about it. But skipping past and not sharing the feelings short-circuits the natural grieving process that accompanies failure and bypasses the fruitful process of getting support and perspective.

Why grief? When we fail, we experience loss. We may temporarily lose our sense of self: I thought I was all that but maybe I’m not; my confidence is shaken. Or we may lose opportunities or resources: I didn’t get into the school I wanted to go to, or I failed a class and now I’m doing summer school instead of camp.

Just as there is no defined clock for grieving, there is no set time frame associated with building resilience. In fact, since one of the essential ingredients is learning from setbacks, the perspective that’s needed to find the meaning or the lesson isn’t available until we have some temporal distance. One of the reasons I don’t expect everyone to respond to a multi-year pandemic with resilience is because we’re still going through it. It’s nearly impossible to find the meaning in a prolonged tragedy until there’s been time to be immersed in something other than safety protocols.

Share Your Story

An important process for building resilience is telling our stories of failure. Either by casually letting your child know about your own stories of failure and resilience, or by formally inviting them to write a story about theirs, the process of developing a narrative around failure is powerful. It helps them step back and find perspective, and it helps them contextualize the experience, and the facts of failure and setbacks, as part of the greater narrative of who they are. In other words, telling the story helps them remember that they are more than their failures.

Be Authentic

All us boomers remember the deodorant commercial that espoused “Never let ‘em see you sweat.” I disagree. Sweating is human and we all do it, so let’s let our kids see it once in a while. While I’m not a fan of oversharing, it is enormously helpful for kids to know that adults fail, we fall, we get frustrated, and especially we learn from it.

I recommend talking about real life stuff right now that you are working through. With younger children, tell them about the time you left the restaurant and forgot to pay. Tell your teenager about your own not-so-perfect grades, or all the mistakes you made your first week on the job. Mostly, tell them how awful it felt and how you got through it by getting support, and learning from it.

Offer Perspective

When kids are struggling and think their failures define them, parents need to remind them that they are whole people. Remind them that even though they don’t feel like they read fast enough or understand everything they’re reading, they didn’t used to be able to eat with a fork and spoon but they learned how. Or just because their PSAT scores are disappointing, their patience in teaching their little brother how to tie their shoes is real and it matters. In other words, while one part of a child may feel insufficient or broken, there are other parts that are soaring high and in great shape.

Let Go

As parents, it’s tough to watch our kids feel bad. Remember that feeling the burn (i.e., feeling frustrated, self-doubting, stalled out) is a natural part of growing and learning. Fixing the problem — for example, intervening with the teacher or preemptively rewriting your kid’s paper — undermines their learning. It also tacitly tells them we don’t believe they can do it. If and when your student seems brittle or immobilized, show up with curiosity and love, and be the person holding a flashlight while they navigate the thicket.

Helping your child cultivate their resilience by reflecting on how they have already been resilient in life will go a long way towards helping them stay motivated and engaged. Remind them (and yourself!) that failing, getting it wrong, and being disappointed or frustrated are all necessary parts of learning that everyone experiences. Remind them that they learned to walk and feed themselves. And remind them that you were not always the fearless and confident parent you are today!

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at adinaglickman.com.

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