What Resilience Looks Like

and How to Build It

Gary Schneeberger

September 20, 2021

No template or checklist exists for moving beyond a crucible experience. The mixture of emotions, actions and mindset perspectives needed to overcome setbacks and failures is as unique from person to person as the nature of the setbacks and failures themselves.

That’s not to say, though, there isn’t a common throughline in the stories of men and women who have been knocked down by life, or by their own decisions and behaviors, and gotten back up to continue their journeys toward lives of significance.

Emerging on the other side of traumas and tragedies is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, but there is something common to all of our journeys down that road: resilience.

It’s so critical, in fact, that we’ve been examining this trait since the last week of August (and will continue until the last week of this month) on our podcast, BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE, in a series called Harnessing Resilience. Warwick and I (I’m his co-host) have interviewed guests who found the resilience to overcome their crucibles, as well as experts whose studies of resilience offer practical insights and action steps to strengthen our ability to rise above those crucibles when they come.

We’ve collected the most meaningful bits of wisdom each guest has shared to help you find the hope and healing that comes from harnessing resilience.

“Resilience is a skill that can be learned just like building muscle in the gym.”

A diving accident at 12 left our guest Stacey Copas a quadriplegic. What followed, she told us, was not pretty – aimlessness and hopelessness fueled by drug use and depression. The “what ifs” and “why mes” were hard for Stacey to sidestep throughout her teens.

Over time, though, she decided she couldn’t feel bad about something she was grateful for. So she began to view her accident as a gift. Not because it left her paralyzed, but because it presented her with opportunities she almost certainly would not have had without her injury.

She continually exercises her resilience muscle by embracing the opportunities adversity has brought. She has built a life of significance born from her accident, inspiring and equipping others as a resilience coach, author and speaker. One of the greatest truths she has learned, she says, is that crucibles are like a trampoline: the lower down you go, the higher up you can launch yourself. That’s great counsel for harnessing resilience.

“If you have access to the resources you need to meet the challenges you’re facing, you’ll be more resilient.”  

Our guest Katie Foulkes endured a crucible with effects so lasting that after she emerged on the other side, she began to conduct research into the building blocks of resilience.

Foulkes was the cox for Australia’s 2004 Olympic rowing team, which was engulfed in controversy when one of its members quit rowing in the midst of a race. So intense was the firestorm that followed that Foulkes and her teammates, in addition to being the subject of derisive global news coverage, were called “Un-Australian” by their nation’s prime minister.

Foulkes emerged stronger after the emotional ordeal by drawing on what she later confirmed through study is an often-overlooked truth about resilience: It’s not found just by digging deeper within for personal fortitude, but also by reaching widely outside ourselves to gather relational resources. Foulkes discovered harnessing resilience, like Olympic rowing, is a team sport.

“You never know when your greatest obstacle will become your greatest opportunity.”

We usually talk about a crucible experience as a setback or failure, but we could also describe it as a “fall.” Sometimes literally. That’s what our guest Heather Kampf discovered in 2008 when she tripped and landed flat-out on the track during a 600m race at the Big Ten championships while competing for the University of Minnesota.

But Kampf is not known for her fall. She is known for what happened after she rose. As documented in a viral video seen by tens of millions, she sprinted the last 200 meters of the race to win her heat in you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it fashion.

The internet is full of copies of the video, many of which title its message as “Never give up.” But Kampf, who went on to a successful career as a professional middle-distance runner, sees her improbable triumph as much more than giving it a gritty go. To her, it’s evidence that resilience is built before it’s needed. The key to picking herself up, dusting herself off and starting all over again was having a plan for the race – to finish, no matter what. That way, she would tally at least one point for her team in the standings, critical to their pursuit of the title. When she tumbled to the track, having that plan propelled her to harness the resilience to turn that obstacle into a great opportunity. 

“Failure is inevitable. How you react to it is what matters.”

Our guest Lucy Westlake is 17 and already holds a world record. She’s the youngest female to ever scale the highest peaks in every U.S. state. A feat like that – climbing mountains that sometimes stretch more than 20,000 feet into the sky – is a breeding ground for falling short. For needing to regather your strength, refocus your mind and craft a new strategy for achieving your goal.

Westlake has learned, inch by inch, that resilience is built from the lessons every failure teaches us. Being mindful especially of those small failures that can teach big lessons is critical when the larger, weightier failures come. For her, the failure that laid her particularly low was her first attempt to scale Denali, at age 13. A combination of nasty weather and emergency circumstances outside her control left her short of ascending her 50th peak. It would be four years before she tried again.

But she did try again. And this time, she succeeded. That satisfaction would not have been possible, she told us, without the disappointment that preceded it. You’ve heard the phrase “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat”? Lucy Westlake harnessed resilience from her refusal to allow a devastating outcome to be her final outcome.

“Avoidance is a roadblock to resilience.”

Our final guest in the series is Dr. Craig Dowden, who describes his coaching practice as bridging the gap between what science knows and what leaders do. He ties an eye-opening bow on the package of our discussion of harnessing resilience, noting that it is, at its core, a two-part process: first, finding our way back to baseline – i.e., where we were before the crucible hit; and second, charting a course to move beyond that point. Not to merely bounce back, but bounce forward.

Dr. Dowden did not specifically say the words at the top of this section, but he did stress the necessity of facing the emotional and circumstantial fallout of our crucibles if we hope to find the life of significance that lives beyond them. It was from his astute observations that Warwick and I were inspired to compose the pithy statement about avoidance.

It is our hope you will be similarly inspired, by what all our guests share, in your own efforts to move beyond your crucibles by harnessing resilience.

Reflection

  • What does “harnessing resilience” look like to you?
  • When has an obstacle turned into an opportunity for you?
  • Have you ever avoided facing the aftermath of a crucible experience? Why? How did you eventually harness resilience in order to face it?

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