Four Strategies for Developing Resilience

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

Resilience involves two related abilities: the ability to resist being affected by difficulties and, when we cannot help being affected, having the ability to recover or ‘bounce back’ from the negative ways in which difficulties affect us. We could describe the former as robustness and the latter as adaptability.[1] In psychology, resilience is sometimes defined as the ability to deal with adversity.[2] To be resilient is to be robust and adaptable in the face of adversity.

What strategies can we employ to develop resilience among students? Here are four connected strategies.

1. Practise resilience

Resilience is a character trait; and, like all character traits, its development requires practice. Many occupations and everyday activities require and develop resilience.

Consider campaigning. This usually involves repeated rejection. Trying to garner support for a cause in the face of repeated rejection requires much resilience. Another occupation requiring much resilience was outlined in an earlier blog post, on the importance of resilience in character education, using an example from a podcast on resilience by State of the Human: working in a call centre. Most of you reading this will have experienced ‘cold calls’ from companies trying to convince you to buy things you don’t need. Most of you will have rejected all of the sales pitches, and on occasion you’ve probably hung up the phone quickly or interrupted the caller mid-pitch to tell them you’re not interested. The salesperson is likely to be working in a call centre where they’re monitored in various ways to ensure they’re working at the respective company’s desired efficiency level: staff and technology monitoring how long their phone has been off the hook, how long they’ve spent away from their desk, and their sales success rate (on the basis of which they’ll receive commission). They’re probably working in an open-plan office, but not in order to promote collaboration or office camaraderie, but, rather, so it’s easier to check they’re working.

All of this monitoring and incentivizing is implemented partly because the work can be incredibly humdrum, but also because it’s extremely difficult to motivate yourself to try to fulfil a goal in the face of repeated rejection. Much resilience is required just to do this job, let alone succeed in it. It requires sustained, persistent effort, despite repeated rejection and slim chances of success.

While such occupations can be beneficial for developing resilience, students don’t need to take up these roles to develop this character trait. There are many activities in which students regularly engage that require much resilience. Competitive sports or games involve winning and losing. The journey towards the end result often involves setbacks from which we must recover. In chess, players lose pieces; in tennis, players concede points, games and sets. Players and teams have good and bad performances; go through periods of good and bad form; and often fall behind their opponents and have to recover. Succeeding in games and sports requires much resilience.

Students regularly complete assessed work, and many neither get the results they desire nor expect from the work or tests they complete. Resilience is needed to motivate yourself to ‘try to do better next time’.

For the engagement in activities such as those above to develop resilience, they need to be approached with a particular attitude. If we don’t care about our results in whichever task we’re undertaking, our performance is unlikely to be affected in the kind of way that requires or develops resilience. Approaching a task with the attitude of, “I’ll try to do better next time” requires a particular attitude, or mindset. This brings us onto the next strategy.

2. Adopt a ‘growth mindset’

Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindset suggests that individuals tend to adopt two types of mindset: ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’.[3] A fixed mindset involves beliefs that one’s abilities are fixed, whereas a growth mindset involves beliefs that one’s abilities can develop. Encouraging a growth mindset involves trying to replace students’ beliefs that their abilities are fixed with beliefs that their abilities can develop. A growth mindset involves interpreting perceived failure or rejection as an opportunity for growth. It aims to change students’ underlying beliefs about learning and intelligence such that they develop their ability to recover from setbacks, and thereby develop resilience.

Students with a fixed mindset tend to believe that their abilities cannot be changed. Students with a growth mindset tend to believe that with hard work and effort, they can improve their abilities. By encouraging a growth mindset, students can develop their resilience in the face of, for instance, receiving results they are not happy with, interpreting this as an opportunity for growth rather than a sign that they should give up. Some studies suggest that growth mindset interventions among students increases their resilience.[4] Other studies suggest that teachers adopting a growth mindset can develop resilience among students.[5]

In a forthcoming article on mindsets and their relationship to student motivation and academic achievement,[6] Catherine Lutz outlines several strategies to help promote a growth mindset. These include the kind of feedback students are given. Lutz writes,

In order for critique to lead to improvement, evidence suggests that the way students are critiqued should be constructive and encouraging with an emphasis on success being accomplished through hard work and the application of different strategies to find paths that lead to success.[7]

Throughout the discussion so far, I’ve been prefixing the words ‘failure’ and ‘rejection’ with ‘perceived’. This is because the way in which we perceive failure and rejection is connected with the kind of mindset we adopt. Important to adopting a growth mindset is to not always perceive failures or rejections as failures or rejections. By this, I mean that when we don’t achieve a goal, we should avoid jumping to the conclusion that continuing to try to achieve that goal is hopeless. We should, rather, see the (perceived) failure or rejection as an opportunity for growth. Failing at something should not be automatically interpreted as evidence that we can’t do something, in the sense that we’ll never be able to do it; such an attitude is indicative of a fixed mindset. Adopting a growth mindset towards failure and rejection is to approach it with the attitude of, “I can’t do it, yet”. This brings us onto our next strategy: learning how to fail – or, rather, developing perseverance.

3. Learn how to fail – or, rather, develop perseverance

We all want to be successful. Among the aims of education is nurturing this desire among students and helping students fulfil it. But no matter how brilliant a student is, at some point they will face a difficulty they have to overcome. University and job applications; interviews; career setbacks and changes; having performances assessed in various ways; trying to get others to support causes; and so on.

Some of those examples involve failure. You can fail to be shortlisted for a job; if you are shortlisted, you can fail to be appointed. You can fail a test or as a friend. We need to learn how to fail, because at some point we will experience failure, and we need to be able to cope with that.

Several of the above examples above often involve rejection. Everyone faces rejection at some point. Resilience enables us to face up to and overcome rejection, rather than becoming demotivated by it.

One way of handling failure is to shift our perception of failure from entirely negative to both negative and positive. Any failure involves something negative; but failure can also be positive. A failure can be understood as a failed attempt at success.

2015 Forbes article describes failure as ‘not a step backward’, but ‘an excellent stepping stone to success’. Adopting this perspective towards perceived failures can help us to bounce back from them, to potentially succeed in the future. This does not mean always ignoring failures or abandoning the notion of failure. It means embracing failure and understanding it as a path that can sometimes lead towards growth, rather than a sign that one should give up. This is consistent with adopting a growth mindset: “I can’t do it, yet”.

It can be inspiring to observe that many extremely successful people failed many times along the paths to their success. Such people feature on Elizabeth Day’s podcast, How to Fail, where she interviews celebrities about the ways in which they’ve failed in their lives, how they’ve bounced back and how they understand and see the importance of resilience. Before each interview, Day asks her interviewees to come up with three examples in their life when they felt they had failed and that they are willing to discuss. In a 2018 article by Day in the Guardian, ‘Why we should learn to embrace failure’, she writes that the idea that motivated her to start the podcast was that of ‘failing well’: how, for example ‘one becomes strong because of weakness; how one is more likely to succeed if one has learned from failure’.[8]

If ‘learning how to fail’ still sounds negative, we can, alternatively, express this as the development of a virtuous character trait: perseverance. Enduring and bouncing back from perceived failures requires resilience and perseverance.

One of Day’s interviewees is author Malcolm Gladwell, proponent of the influential ‘10,000-hour Rule’, which holds that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to gain expertise in a discipline.[9] This involves regular failure – or persistent perseverance – because to continue improving to the point where we reach expertise, we must persistently aim outside our comfort zone, where failure is always likely. A stand-up comedian, for instance, cannot succeed in their career unless they learn how to handle situations where no one laughs in response to their show and how to bounce back after a show that receives few laughs. Practising with the aim of gaining expertise involves occasions where we need to bounce back and recover, and so requires and develops resilience.

While we should persistently aim outside our comfort zone if we are to make significant improvement in whatever skill we’re practising, it’s important to the development of resilience that we not venture too far outside. This brings us onto the next strategy.

4. Get outside your comfort zone (but not too far)

To develop resilience, there needs to be a chance we’ll experience adversity. If we’re within our comfort zone, it’s unlikely we’ll face adversity. By moving outside our comfort zone, to an environment where we might not succeed to the degree we’d like, we enter a space where we might face adversity and thereby where we need to practise resilience and persevere. By students moving outside their comfort zone, they are also stretched and challenged so as to stand a better chance of reaching their full potential.

It’s important, though, that students don’t move too far outside of their comfort zones. Doing so can over-­stretch and challenge, and the risk of failure becomes so high that it can risk damaging confidence, which is another character trait important to develop to be successful.

Neil Pasricha, author of several bestselling books including You Are Awesome, which offers guidance on how to develop resilience, explains the importance of setting the bar high but not too high in an interview with the Knowledge Project. It’s sometimes said that to get the best out of yourself, you should avoid being a ‘big fish in a small pond’. But, on the contrary, Pasricha argues that being a big fish in a small pond is an important and effective means of building resilience and confidence. A ‘key to resilience’, Pasricha argues, is ‘finding a small pond’.

One of the problems in our hyper-competitive 21st-century world is that, Pasricha argues in that interview, we often don’t feel good enough, no matter how much we achieve or how well we perform. It’s difficult to stand out in such a competitive world. ‘In this global community’, he says, ‘it’s important to develop resilience by giving ourselves games we can win’, because it can help us to feel better about ourselves. In other words, put yourself in games you can win and gradually move upwards, because that helps to develop resilience without risking shattering confidence – indeed, it can build resilience and confidence. The confidence and energy we can gain from succeeding can inspire us to continue, striving further and higher, while nonetheless encountering situations that require and develop resilience.  

Pasricha gives an example of this technique through his experience of improving his public speaking skills. Following the popular reception of one of his books, Pasricha was invited to give talks by public speaking bureaus who suggested placing him in the highest fee category, where speakers were paid $10,000-15,000 a talk. Pasricha asked who else was in that category, and the list included New York Times bestsellers and gold medal-winning Olympians. Pasricha asked to go in a lower fee category, alongside speakers he’d never heard of. Of this, he recollects:

This meant I was practising … in ballrooms of fifty people, rather than Vegas casinos for a thousand. So, my ability to think I could do it shot up. … And it stayed up as I kept up moving to higher and higher stages.

Parischa is now one of the most popular TED speakers; his first TED talk has over 3 million views.

So, move sufficiently outside your comfort zone, where you face the possibility of adversity but not too much of it. This can put you in a position to develop resilience and confidence, without risking shattering your confidence.

To develop resilience, then, it helps to:

  1. practise being resilient;
  2. adopt a growth mindset;
  3. learn how to fail – or how to persevere; and,
  4. get outside your comfort zone, but not too far.

As we’ve seen above, these strategies are connected with one another and complement one another, in several ways. And they all involve learning other things important to developing resilience, such as identifying our strengths and weaknesses. These strategies are among those that can be employed to help students develop resilience.

[1] See the final of the five senses of ‘resilience’ offered by the OED, which is closest to how we use the word today in the context of human activities: ‘The quality or fact of being able to recover quickly or easily from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, illness, etc.; robustness; adaptability’.

[2] See, for example, the definition by the American Psychological Association: ‘Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress … It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences’.

[3] See Carol Dweck, Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2006).

[4] See D. S. Yeager, K. H. Trzesniewski and C. S. Dweck, ‘An Implicit Theories of Personality Intervention Reduces Adolescent Aggression in Response to Victimization and Exclusion’Child Development84(3) (2013), pp. 970-988; discussed in Catherine Lutz, ‘Mindsets and Motivation: An Introduction to Potential Influencers on Academic Achievement’, in J. Harrington, J. Beale, A. Fancourt and C. Lutz (eds.), The BrainCanDo Handbook of Teaching and Learning (forthcoming, Routledge, 2020).

[5] See R. Brooks and S. Goldstein, ‘The Mindset of Teachers Capable of Fostering Resilience in Students’, Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 23(1) (2008), pp. 114-126, discussed in Lutz 2020.

[6] Lutz 2020.

[7] For the relevant evidence, see C. S. Dweck and E. L. Leggett, ‘A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality’, Psychological review, 95(2) (1988), pp. 256-273 and E. S. Elliot and C. S. Dweck, ‘Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(1) (1988), pp. 5-12, discussed in Lutz 2020.

[8] Day has recently published a book inspired by her podcast, How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned from Things Going Wrong (HarperCollins, 2019).

[9] See Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London: Penguin, 2008). On Gladwell’s theory, ‘deliberate practice’ and the importance of failure to the 10,000-hour rule, see Gordon Stobart, The Expert Learner: Challenging the Myth of Ability (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2014), pp. 3-4.

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