Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
We all face setbacks at some point in our lives, but why is it that some people can overcome adversity, and become “strong at the broken places,” while others break under the strain?
To understand why some people are more resilient than others, I turned to Al Siebert’s books, The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality. Siebert (1934 — 2009) was the founder and director of The Resiliency Center, and an ex-paratrooper with a PhD in clinical psychology.
What is Resiliency?
In The Resiliency Advantage, Siebert wrote, “Resilient people are those who consciously decide that somehow, some way, they will do the very best they can to survive, cope, and make things turn out well.” He defined resiliency as the ability to:
- Cope well with high levels of ongoing disruptive change
- Sustain good health and energy when under constant pressure
- Bounce back easily from setbacks
- Overcome adversities
- Change to a new way of working and living when an old way is no longer possible
- Do all this without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways
Can Resiliency be Learned?
The number one question I had when combing through Siebert’s books is whether resiliency can be learned, or if it’s just something you either have or don’t have.
I’m happy to report that research shows resiliency can be learned, and in fact, the belief that it can be learned is essential to becoming resilient in the first place. Siebert quoted Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology:
“After seven years of experiments,” Martin Seligman said, “it was clear to us that the remarkable attribute of resilience in the face of defeat need not remain a mystery. It was not an inborn trait; it could be acquired.”Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage
Why Believing You Can Learn is Essential to Becoming Resilient
The reason believing you can learn to become resilient is part of being resilient, lies in the difference between what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the ‘growth mindset’ and the ‘fixed mindset.’
In her research, Dweck discovered that people who believed that their abilities were inborn — as something they either had or didn’t have — handle failure badly. When people with a fixed mindset failed, they believed that it was because they weren’t smart enough or good enough.
On the contrary, those who believed that abilities could be learned, accepted failure as a part of their learning process. People with a growth mindset saw failure as a stepping stone towards becoming better at something.
It turns out that highly resilient people are incredibly curious. This curiosity allows them to see the world as a classroom, and events — even negative ones — as learning opportunities.
Experiences that feel like failures can break you down or be converted into growth experiences. A big resiliency breakthrough comes when you define resiliency as a learning opportunity.Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage
The Number One Barrier to Becoming a Resilient Person
Siebert believed that all of us are born resilient, or have the potential to become resilient.
But if there’s one massive barrier to becoming a resilient person, it’s what psychologists call having an ‘external locus of control.’
Studies have shown that people who don’t cope well in difficult situations believe that nothing they could do would make the situation better. They believe that things happen to them, and their lives are mostly the result of other people and external forces.
On the other hand, people who cope better in tough situations believe that they are responsible for how well their lives turn out. They believe that they can make things happen, and that they have some control over events. These people have an ‘internal locus of control.’
We are all victims of circumstances at some point, but those don’t stay victims believe that their response to their circumstances can make a difference.
Why It’s Not Just about a Positive Mental Attitude
Is resiliency just about having a positive mental attitude then? Not really. Siebert revealed that the oddest thing about highly resilient people is that they often have opposite traits.
A highly resilient person can, for example, be optimistic and pessimistic about the future at the same time. She uses her optimism to imagine a better future, and then makes plans to get there. She then uses her pessimism to troubleshoot where things can go wrong, and adjusts her plan accordingly.
Instead of feeling confused or conflicted by different points of view, she can use opposing perspectives, to work out the best possible outcomes for herself.
This agility helps highly resilient people to adapt and stay flexible when massive change happens.
When Siebert asked survivors if there was any one quality that contributed most to becoming a survivor, they usually answered, “Flexibility.”
Instead of having only one way to deal with a situation or staying stuck to one perspective, Siebert discovered that, “Having a variety of responses is critical when handling unpredictable, chaotic, or changing conditions. Successful people in every profession know that it is better to have many possible responses than to be limited to a few.”
Adaptation is the key to survival in all of nature … When someone does not handle life’s challenges well, it’s often because this person always thinks, feels, or acts in only one way and would never consider the opposite.Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage
Why Your Expectations Matter
Researchers Charles Carver and Michael Schemer explain, “… optimists are people who expect good things to happen to them; pessimists are people who expect bad things to happen to them.”
Optimism and pessimism tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Whether you believe good things or bad things will happen, you tend to be right!
That’s because when you believe good things will happen, you tend to work towards making them happen, and you also notice good things happening. This creates a positive loop between belief and action. When you believe that bad things will happen, you tend not to work towards good outcomes, because what’s the point? You also notice more bad things happening, and this also creates a negative loop.
Siebert wrote, “The terms ‘hopeful’ or ‘optimistic’ are less important than understanding that there is a connection between what you expect and do, and how well your life goes.”
That’s why expectations — whether you call it hope or optimism — matter when it comes to resiliency. When you expect good things to happen, it inspires you to take action to make them happen.
What to Do When There is No More Hope
How about people who are trapped in impossible situations where there seems to be no way out? How does anyone stay resilient in times like those?
In The Survivor Personality, Siebert quoted researcher Terrance Des Pres, who reached this conclusion after studying Holocaust survivors, “The chances for survival and freedom were so logically improbable that no hope, as we know hope, could be allowed into consciousness … They might make it, they probably won’t but they will not stop trying.”
Even when the situation seems hopeless, resilient people decide that even if it’s not likely that they’ll make it, they’ll keep trying anyway.
The commitment to somehow, some way survive, to live through the experience if at all possible, gives a person an extraordinary capacity to adapt and keep going.Al Siebert, The Survivor Personality
The Secret is in the Way You Explain Life to Yourself
The one thing that becomes clear from reading Siebert’s books is that resilient people explain the meaning of setbacks differently to themselves. Instead of seeing a problem in one way, resilient people remain curious and look at it in different ways, which gives them more options.
Siebert wrote that resiliency often starts with questions. When something difficult happens to resilient people, they ask:
- What’s good about this?
- How can I turn this to my advantage?
- What unusual opportunity has this created?
When a major setback happens, the last thing anyone wants to consider is what could be good about it. But it’s questions like these that help you see setbacks differently. Siebert called this ability ’serendipity’, the highest-level resiliency skill of all.
Serendipity is an art to be mastered. Serendipity is when you purposefully use your internal mental and emotional abilities to convert what could be a loss or setback into a positive or beneficial incident.Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage
Get the Resiliency Advantage
Siebert emphasised that just reading about resiliency doesn’t make you a resilient person. You need to practice resiliency skills to become resilient, and it’s important not to wait until crisis hits to practice. Instead, by becoming more resilient to the small problems of life, we can strengthen our resiliency to face bigger challenges when they come.
Survivor qualities and a survivor spirit develop out of everyday habits that increase chances of survival should it become necessary.Al Siebert, The Survivor Personality
Here are seven things you can do to become more resilient in your everyday life:
1. Develop a growth mindset
Believe that you can learn to become more resilient, just as you can learn any skill.
2. Gain an internal locus of control
Take responsibility for your life, and believe that what you do can make a difference in how well your life turns out.
3. Use both optimism and pessimism to your advantage
Resiliency comes from your ability to adapt to change, and this flexibility comes from the ability to look at events in different ways.
4. Expect good things
Expect that good things will happen, and work to make them happen.
5. Decide to keep going
Even if the odds of success look slim, decide to keep trying no matter what.
6. Explain life in useful ways
Instead of seeing events only in one way, explain them to yourself in ways that help you. You can do this when you …
7. Ask better questions
Ask yourself how you can possibly make use of any setback.
Al Siebert covered much more ground in his books than I can in this summary. The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality are similar in places, but The Resiliency Advantage focuses on staying resilient in everyday life, while The Survivor Personality delves into surviving under extreme conditions. If you only have time for one, I recommend his later book, The Resiliency Advantage.
One last thing. Siebert stressed in The Survivor Personality, “People trained to act, think, and feel as instructed do not cope with life’s unexpected challenges as well as a person with self-developed abilities because life’s best survivors have each developed a way of coping that is unique to them.”
Resiliency is a skill that you need to teach yourself, and not something which somebody or something else can give you. All he could offer, Siebert said, was guidelines, and:
True self-improvement, self-confidence, and spiritual development come out of real-life, everyday experiences, not from books or workshops.Al Siebert, The Survivor Personality