On Building Resilience: Part Three

‘This is going to be rubbish. I am going to fail. I’ll never be published again. All my words will dry up, forever and ever and ever. And so, what then? Well, I’m still breathing, and life goes on, and I’ll be able to learn, and ultimately I’ll be OK. What was it that Samuel Becket wrote? ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better’. So, let’s write.

See what I’ve done there? A seamless trick of the mind in an ancient blend of ancient stoic philosophy and modern science to teach me a thing or two about resilience.

Curious? Let’s go back in time.

The Stoical Approach

We may think that a concept like resilience is a relatively new concoction, coined by the economic machinery to keep this engine turning, but no, it’s more ancient and nuanced than that. The stoic philosophers, namely Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, took a rather pragmatic view on life. Imagine the worst case scenarios, they advised, and realise that even if you loose everything, you are made of tough stuff and you’ll still be breathing. Their approach was to train the mind to understand and accept that life is intrinsically challenging, and so, when those challenges inevitably hit, we do not go into battle with them, but rather find ways to navigate our way through them. In doing so, we also learn to distinguish between those things which we can control and those things outside our control. This acceptance leads to a steadier mind, focused on our immediate experience and not on the unnecessary worry of a yet unscripted and uncertain future.

Seneca (4BC-65AD) walked his talk. A wealthy and influential man in Rome, he was accustomed to riches and grandeur, and yet he systematically trained himself to live with less. He was, for example, an advocate of regular fasting, and would frequently abstain from food to remind him that he can survive and be happy on much less. His accumulated riches then, were a bonus and not an intrinsic forerunner to happiness. This was his version of resilience training.

Cato, another of the Stoic batch, consciously wore bright and sometimes unsightly robes, so as to be ridiculed. Why? So, that he would be reminded that the ridicule was not so bad at all, and he could do harder things if and when duty called. Prepare for the worst, and when hard things invariably happen, you will be accustomed to them by having developed a set of tried and tested coping mechanisms.

On the one hand, these stoic approaches may seem a little extreme or even silly, but in another spin they could also be deemed the precursor to mindfulness. Seneca, was a carpe diem man. Seize each day, he admonishes in ‘On The Shortness of Life’, and do not let the curse of procrastination steal the life from you. He writes:

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

To procrastinate, to worry too much about a future yet to unfold, to fear ridicule or poverty, were, in the stoic’s eyes, fuel for anxiety. Resilience instead comes in greeting each challenge as part of this unfolding life, mindful of the opportunities for learning and insight.

The Essential Rhythm

It is a mantle that the late and sorely missed Seamus Heaney took up in one of his brilliant commencement speeches to students at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1996- a piece of advice I keep scrawled in the back of my each of my journals, as a reminder of the essential rhythm of what it takes to lead a creative life:

Getting started, keeping going, getting started again- in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.

It is a rhythm which demands the cultivation of a rich internal life, one which only we alone need to have access, and one which will be there for us to draw strength upon whenever we are feeling disconnected or straying from our truth. With his typical flourish of humility, Heaney continued with his own words of wisdom in the same speech,

“I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your own lives. True to your own solitude, your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally to reality and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive at times but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom, and you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier psychic keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.”

To navigate then, is to turn inwards we can then turn and unfold outwards and onwards.

The Role of Mindset

I’m going to make a leap here and suggest that both Seneca and Heaney had a growth mindset, an orientation in our thinking which Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, has found to be critical to our learning and the realisation of our potential, or as Heaney framed it, our ‘radiant individuality’.

Dweck has a keen interest in how we learn and her research is making waves not just in mainstream educational circles, but in corporate and civic ones too. In her research she has uncovered what could be called a bifurcation of mindset; that there are people with a ‘fixed’ mindset, and those with a ‘growth mindset’. The difference is significant.

A fixed mindset is one that has been built on praise, on the ideal of perfection and on getting things right. For people with a fixed mindset have a need to be seen to be the best, and be seen to succeed. Feedback is often taken personally and viewed as negative. A fixed mindset has a singular and static view on intelligence, and in the face of challenges, tends to give up early.

Those on the other hand with growth mindset have a learning orientation, and realise that through risk, trial and error, we can all develop our capacities and skill and get better in all aspects of our lives- from relationships, to leadership, to collaboration, to creativity and innovation. Growth mindset takes the view that intelligence is not static but that the brain is wired for plasticity and so can adapt and learn over time. Feedback is taken constructively and seen as an opportunity to expand our possibilities and skills. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to persist through tribulations and personal setback, emerge stronger and keep going.

“No matter what your ability is’, Dweck asserts in her book, Mindset, ‘effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

Dweck asks us to go further,

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

So, this you see, is why cultivating a growth mindset is so important for resilience- it helps us to see our failures as integral to our progress. Fail better, as Beckett, said, for at the very least it is making an effort.

And the good news is that growth mindset is something we can all learn to cultivate too. It happens when we honour effort over success, for instance, risk over accomplishment, or determination over talent. What is also clear for Dweck is that growth and learning is a process: it takes time, we learn incrementally through successive setbacks and challenges and, through it all, we get to fine tune our abilities and accomplishments. With a growth mindset, we are all a work in progress. Resilience then is not a switch but a practice of continual realignment to the learner within us. We are all students in this thing called life.

So, want of cultivate your own resilience? Well, you have some of the greats to back you up- so, think like Seneca, Heaney, Beckett and Dweck. Think stoically- ‘How bad can it actually be? ‘Think creatively- ‘What can I learn through the experience?’ And think incrementally- progress over perfection, with an understanding that practice makes progress. So why not write, or paint, or swim, or start that company, or sing, or learn to play that instrument, or do whatever it is you want to do, for what’s the worst that can happen and isn’t life this precious thing we have which procrastination only postpones. To seize the day, perhaps it is time to fail again, start over, and tune inwards to that essential and abiding rhythm; the beautiful givens of our lives. Some may even call it poetry.


In this article: 

Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life

Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil your Potential by Carol Dweck.


Next week, the final part of this Resilience series with thoughts on gratitude and the role of rest.


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