How to Become Mentally Strong: The Practice of Resilience

How to Become Mentally Strong: The Practice of Resilience

What is Resilience?

Resilience: the ability to stay creative and motivated in an environment of chaos and change.  

Personally, I faced a huge time of chaos and change in late 2008.  My company was going bankrupt and my family was falling apart.  It is from this time of great difficulty that I learnt most about myself and about what it takes to get me out of bed with energy to make a positive difference during the day.  I gave a talk recently about resilience.  This post is a summary of my notes on becoming resilient.

There are 3 ingredients of Resilient Human Beings:

These are three ways of being that resilient human beings possess:

  1. They Face Reality
  2. They Find Meaning
  3. They practice Resourceful Action

1. Face Reality

Self Aware, highly open to feedback

“Hope is not a strategy” Colin Powell

Victor Frankl said that the only group with survival rates worse than pessimists were the optimists.  Neither see reality as it truly is.  Both distort reality.  The pessimists were dead in 1 week, optimists were dead in 1 month. The conditions in the camps were not going to get better.

Humans have a natural tendency to claim credit for gains and blame bad luck for losses.  We win a bet on a horse race – we attribute it to our knowledge of horses and racetrack conditions.  We lose a bet on a football game – we attribute it to a lucky goal against the run of play.  In both cases, we distort reality.  This distortion means that we cannot learn effectively from experience.

It requires discipline and practice to maintain an emotional state that allows us to act positively after a loss, and to learn how to improve ourselves for the next time.

Diapositiva04When I spent a day with Kilian Jornet, one of the most striking elements of his personality was his ability to see success and failure, winning and losing from a humble, ego-less perspective.   In a race, if his ski binding were to break, there is no anger…  he says “anger is an indulgence” – each second of anger is a second where the other competitors are making progress while I engage in self-indulgence.

I have been part of an Entrepreneurs Organisation forum group for 9 years.  Each month I spend 4 hours sharing experiences of life.  There are 3 rules to the group – total confidentiality, proactive sharing and only share personal experience.  Nobody gives advice.  I share a challenge I am facing and I receive feedback that helps me see where I am not seeing the situation clearly.

All emotion is a distortion of reality.  Emotion arises when reality is different from my expectation of how reality should be.  The greater the emotion, the greater my refusal to accept that the world is not the way I would like it to be.  Great joy?  I expected less from the world.  Great frustration?  I expected too much from the world.  It is my expectations that are blinding me to the objective reality.

Tony Robbins says “there are no unresourceful people, only unresourceful emotional states”.  Resilient people cultivate resourceful emotional states.

Doctor John DeMartini says that the universe is always in balance.  The problem is that our perception is only of a small part of the universe.  If we observe one part of an experience and feel proud of ourselves – it is because we are not observing the negative impact of our action.  DeMartini believes that no action is good or bad.  Only actions that align with my highest values are inspiring.

2. Find Meaning

“I am a necessary part of something”

Victor Frankl tells of his first revelation of the importance of a meaning in one’s life.  One morning in Auschvitz he was walking out to work.  His thoughts: “should I trade my last cigarette for some soup? how will it be to work with this new foreman?”…   Suddenly he noted “How banal!  I will not survive unless it is for more than this.”  He spent time imagining a future that would inspire him.  The vision of the future that gave his life meaning was a vision of himself lectures on lessons from camps to hundreds.  He worked to create a meaning for himself.  There was an important human project that only he could complete.  He must survive to publish his book and share his experiences and lessons with the world.

Around the age of 50, Carl Jung visited the Plains Indians of New Mexico. He spent some days with a tribal elder called Mountain Lake. Mountain Lake believed that if the tribe stopped performing their rituals, the sun would stop rising in less than 10 years. Imagine the sense of connection he must have with the world – to so deeply believe that the universe needs him and his people in order to keep functioning.

I was in the bank earlier today to open an account for my daughter. Three people work in the branch. They didn’t look like people who feel that the universe needs them. They don’t even act like the bank needs them. They act like they are not necessary for the world, and that the only thing that matters is accumulating a safe pension fund.  Their approach to their work was more characterised as “waiting for 5pm”

The book Sapiens helped me understand that there are three types of truth – objective, subjective, inter-subjective.  Objective truths are true in the world – one plus one equals two, this is an Apple Macbook Pro.  Subjective truths are true for me – I am warm right now, I feel engaged and excited by the ideas of this blog post and look forward to hearing other’s comments and questions.  Inter-subjective truths are particularly special for humanity – they are beliefs that are not objectively true, but enough people believe them that they work as objective truths.  Money is an inter-subjective truth.  A dollar or euro bill is a piece of paper with some marks on it.  However, I know that you will accept it as valuable.  Given that I believe that you believe that it is valuable, it is valuable.  (There is definitely a future blog post coming on the idea of the inter-subjective truth)

For the purpose of psychological resilience: subjective truth matters most.  Subjective truth is not restrained by objective truth (There is another whole blog post on the degree to which subjective truth can diverge from objective truth).  Resilient people cultivate belief in ideas that serve to give you peace of mind.  Reincarnation is not an objective truth.  It is impossible to prove objectively in the world.  However, subjective truths are essentially a matter of choice.  It is important to be careful about what beliefs we are willing to accept.  If I cultivate a belief in reincarnation will it make my anxiety about this life less?  Is that a good thing?

We are creatures in need of meaning in a universe without intrinsic meaning.  We are blessed in that we each individually have the capacity to create meaning for ourselves.  The meaning does not come from outside.  The meaning comes from a decision inside ourselves to cultivate a sense of purpose for myself.  How to find this purpose?  I have 2 questions:

  1. Who inspires you?  What do they do or have that makes them inspirational to you?
  2. Who do you want to inspire?  What do they need from you?

3. Resourceful Action

Ritual Ingenuity

A quality of resilient people is that resourceful action is a habit.  It can be thought of like the bounce of a ball.

Lets imagine a ball.  You drop the ball, it hits the floor…  it rebounds.  Bounce is an intrinsic property of a ball.  Resilient people make the habit of “bouncing back” a natural part of their response to situations.   Resilient people constantly gather resources, seek out small opportunities where you are out of control (speaking to strangers, giving a presentation, dancing, sports); Under pressure we collapse back to our practiced habit.

Resilient people practice resourceful action as a daily habit.  Daily ingenuity in little challenges leads to habituated ingenuity when faced by major challenges and stresses.

cal-fussman-on-the-tim-ferriss-show
Cal Fussman on the Tim Ferriss show

I recently enjoyed a 3 and a half hour podcast interview.  Tim Ferriss interviewing Cal Fussman.  Initially I thought “3 and a half hours?  that must be a mistake”.  However, 200 minutes later I was still gripped by the interview.  Tim asked Cal how he learnt to interview people so well.  Cal spent 10 years backpacking around the world…  with very little money.  Every time he got on a bus or a train, he needed to find a person on the train that might invite him to stay.  He would walk down the aisle looking at strangers thinking “is this someone who might invite me to stay?”  He then had to have a conversation that was sufficiently deep so that the stranger invited him to stay.  Over 10 years he became very successful in having conversations that led to an invite to stay.  Years and years of practice connecting with strangers led him to be able to connect in seconds to Mikail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Mohammed Ali…  some of the hundreds of world leaders that he has interviewed for his column in Esquire magazine.

The company UPS has a motto: “do what it takes to deliver”.  They expect individual drivers to be resourceful.  Within 2 days after Hurrican Andrew in 1992, UPS drivers were delivering packages to people in their cars, in hotels, in civic centres.  No manager could have given them instructions on how to find people – the drivers were operating in their habitual mode – “do what it takes to deliver”.

Victor Frankl speaks of the resilient being on constant lookout for resources.  They collected string, wire, cigarettes, spoons… anything – knowing that it might come in useful in future.

You can practicing Fertile Inventiveness with 5 daily habits.  C.H.A.I.M.

Practice the 5 Steps of C.H.A.I.M. –

  1. Connect – make a human connection today.  Meet a stranger.  Reconnect with an old friend or family member.  Make connecting to others a daily practice.
  2. Humour – laugh at crazy situations, even better: laugh at yourself.  Remember Rule #6.
  3. Assistance – get someone to help you today.  Even if you don’t need their help, get in the practice of allowing others to help.  Develop a deep sense that you can trust that others will help you.
  4. Inner World – take time to imagine and visualise.  Remember your dreams.  Write a journal that captures the images, ideas and symbols that have an importance to you.  What images inspire you?  What faces inspire you?  Take time to live in this inner world.
  5. Mastery – what are you excellent at?  If you can’t answer you must start working.  Pick anything, but become a master in something.  Music, theatre, greek history, drawing, film reviews, medieval travel, kung fu…

Resilience

[update] Iñaki sent me these words of Marcus Aurelius that sum up these 3 aspects:

Objective judgment, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need. MARCUS AURELIUS

Resilience summarised by Iñaki:

“See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must.”

These are the three characteristics of mentally strong people.  I think the poem “If” is a wonderful summary of the attitudes that allow for resilience.

This is a workshop I teach:  Becoming Psychologically Resilient:  The 3 Practices of High Performance.  Get in touch if you are interested in running this session for your company or team.

Another note: Resilience is neither good nor evil.  It is the capacity to keep going in the face of challenge.  I would prefer that you work on goodness and personal integrity before you become resilient.  Sadly, evil people and selfish people can be resilient and keep sharing their nastiness even as times get hard.

5 years ago I explained my ideas about The Psychology of High Performance in a short video:  Watch it here on the blog:

Past Writing on Resourceful Resilient People

Over to You, dear Reader…

I’d love your feedback.  How do we teach these practices?  How do I help students develop resilience?  Do leaders need special types of resilience (is it harder to stay resilient as an individual marathon runner, or as the leader of a tribe?)  I’d welcome your comments, questions and reflections.