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Resiliency and the Advantages of Disadvantages

Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out titled “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” In it, he explores whether we accurately understand advantages. He shows how presumed disadvantages, some even horrendous (e.g., parental loss at a young age), can offer strength and embolden people to achieve tremendous success. For example, Gladwell explains that an inordinate number of successful political figures lost a parent at a young age. Twelve presidents including George Washington, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama lost their fathers when they were children. 67% of British prime ministers from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s experienced parental loss. As another example, consider dyslexics. While many suffer and experience a lot of resistance as they try to get ahead in life, interestingly, they are highly represented in successful professions, particularly entrepreneurial roles. Again, it seems that intensely challenging experiences can build character and spur great achievement. As Nietzsche would say, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Gladwell recognizes, though, that people do not always make lemonade from lemons– some crumble in the face of these kinds of stressors or come out slightly dysfunctional. Gladwell does not say this explicitly, but it seems that the key distinguishing feature between these groups of people is their resilience.

Resilience is peoples’ capacity to adapt to change and adversity. Truly resilient people not only recover from these experiences, but find opportunity in the struggle and emerge stronger than before. Many scholars and business leaders insist that resilience is a key individual difference between those who make a powerful impact with good ideas and those who don’t, those who those who succeed and those who fail.

In our work building effective leaders and high-performing organizations, TRACOM is developing a way of measuring, thinking about and improving resiliency.  We’ve found that there are several fundamental characteristics of resilient people that allow them to adapt gracefully to difficulties. For one, resilient people have an active approach to challenges. In the face of difficulty, rather than seeking social distractions or trying to avoid decision-making, resilient people approach their stressors – they seek guidance and support and they problem-solve. Resilient individuals are also self-composed, goal-oriented, optimistic but grounded in reality, and courageous in their interactions with others, among other things.

If it seems that these are not qualities that describe you, don’t fret – resiliency is developable. We know, through recent research in neuroscience, that the brain is very flexible and that resiliency can be cultivated through certain habits including mindfulness, goal-setting, and cognitive behavioral therapy initiatives. The latter technique involves becoming aware of and challenging unrealistic negative self-talk, a kind of thinking pattern that is deeply ingrained in our mindset. The goal of this is to help individuals not only navigate a turbulent work climate, but draw strength from it.

To learn more about TRACOM’s Adaptive Mindset for Resiliency click here.

View our Adaptive Mindset Research Library here.

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