Resilience Isn’t Who You Are, It’s What You Do
After living in San Francisco for many years, my friend and her husband decided to relocate to New York City. Jessica (not her real name) is an Asian American woman in her early 30s. She began her first shift as a nurse practitioner at the psychiatric ward of an NYC hospital in March of 2020, just as the COVID-19 crisis was intensifying.
It was a rocky start: During her occupational health clearance the week before her first official day, Jessica was rattled to see that no one was wearing personal protective equipment. In fact, the chief of psychiatry explicitly told her not to wear a mask—and shortly thereafter became infected with COVID-19 himself. In her first 10 days, both of the other psychiatric providers in Jessica’s unit were out sick. Many of the patients Jessica treated had clearly been struggling for a long time, and she could see how their mental illnesses had been exacerbated by racism and institutional neglect.
“It was scary on a couple levels,” she told me. “Professionally, I wasn’t getting any orientation, and the people who were supposed to help were gone. And from a safety perspective, it took a long time for us to get enough masks and receive training on how to wear them properly. For weeks, people would touch their face without sanitizing and reuse the same mask all week.” Jessica returned home each night drained, wondering if she had made the right decision.
Like Jessica, many of us have been thrown off balance by the pandemic, burdened with new demands and asked to work through situations we never would have imagined. Many of the coping mechanisms and support structures we’ve relied on—daycare, in-person gatherings, recreational travel—are gone or diminished. Any sort of future planning feels fraught with risk and uncertainty.
What does resilience look like in these turbulent times? Jessica’s story offers us some clues. At a precarious and unsettling moment in her life—new city, new job, pandemic—Jessica found her stride. Not by relying on a preternatural store of courage and resolve, but by taking a thoughtful and practical approach that anyone can learn from. In other words, she practiced the art of resilience.
The term resilience first emerged in the public consciousness in the 1970s and ’80s as a trait possessed by certain children living in adverse environments. Pioneering work by developmental psychologists such as Norman Garmezy and Emmy Werner found that most children who grew up with ongoing or acute stress such as poverty or domestic violence experienced learning, mental health, or behavioral problems as teenagers and adults. But around a third of them were still able to succeed in school, work, and domestic life. Further study on these “resilient” children found external factors such as a supportive connection with a parent or caregiver and internal character traits such as independence, optimism, and taking ownership over their lives.
This early work on children led many people to think of resilience as an innate quality: You’re either born resilient or you’re not. When you’re going through something difficult, that’s not a helpful thing to hear. What if instead of seeing resilience as only a trait, we saw it as a skill to be developed? How do we practice resilience? What are the behaviors and habits that allow us to adapt to difficult events?
As a serial tech founder and former elite gymnast, I’ve faced a number of bad breaks, whether it be a season-ending injury or a crucial financing that fell through. These setbacks were often quite painful and demoralizing, and they were a struggle to resolve. As I’ve encountered more and more of them over my career, I’ve developed a personal toolkit of resilience strategies that I take pride in and have come to rely on. Part of me almost relishes the challenge of hardship—though I also recognize that pursuing entrepreneurship or athletics is a choice, while dealing with a pandemic is not.
I believe that everyone, from CEO’s, to community leaders, to recent grads, needs to learn how to develop greater resilience to face challenges ahead
It’s clear that the public health crisis, economic turmoil, and social unrest that blindsided Americans this year will continue through the end of 2020 and beyond. I believe that everyone, from CEOs, to community leaders, to recent grads, needs to learn how to develop greater resilience to face challenges ahead. In looking at my own experience, speaking with people such as Jessica who have endured difficult trials, and poring through the latest social science research on resilience and post-traumatic growth, I’ve come to see the act of resilience as being composed of three distinct skills. In handling her own moment of adversity as a new psychiatric nurse, Jessica demonstrated all three:
Jessica faced the challenge directly, taking decisive action to prevent further harm. When the hospital gave Jessica PPE and peers weren’t taking precautions seriously, Jessica dipped into her own stash of leftover N95 masks acquired while traveling in Asia before her move.
Jessica gave herself space to heal and recover physically, mentally, and emotionally while seeking to grow from the experience. Every day, she reminded herself not to take negative patient reactions (insults, screaming) as personal affronts. She saw a therapist once, sometimes twice, a week and prioritized getting to bed early enough to feel rested the next morning.
Jessica accepted that her move was not what she had hoped and adapted her mindset and outlook as she pursued new goals. While unable to access many of NYC’s cultural offerings such as Broadway shows or museums, she tried to seek pleasure in small joys, such as taking trips to the beach or people watching while dining outdoors.
I’ve found these three skills valuable when facing not just personal challenges, but organizational ones. When my startup’s product metrics tanked in the spring, I had to respond quickly, rallying our team onto a user research effort around a potential pivot. I was transparent with our financial position and created new rituals such as weekly gaming sessions to restore a sense of normalcy and optimism. After our user research revealed promising new market opportunities, we soon began rebuilding business, taking the product in a new direction.
I don’t want to overly emphasize resilience as a cure-all. Doing so runs the risk of making it “indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic” as New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal argued, “placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.”
Many of the struggles Americans now face are due to leaders who downplayed or directly exacerbated the problem through neglect, misinformation, and poor policy. The fallout has impacted people differently across the lines of race, industry, and socioeconomic status, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. That context can’t be ignored, because practicing resilience doesn’t magically bring back a loved one, regenerate customer demand, or erase an expensive medical bill.
That said, developing the skills of resilience—pragmatic response, wholehearted restoration, purposeful rebuilding—will prove useful now and in the future. You might already be quite capable in at least one of them. But there’s probably also room to grow.
While we may yearn for a time when the coronavirus is a distant memory, it’s reshaping of our economy and society cannot be undone. We will still encounter setbacks and hardship. Rather than feel daunted that your fixed store of resilience might not be up to the task, remember that you’ve worked through tough challenges before and have valuable experience to draw upon.
In reflecting on the last few months, Jessica felt one of the most “psychologically taxing” things about the pandemic was its interminable nature: “A lot of my patients were barely keeping their heads above water before the crisis and don’t know how long they’re going to have to white-knuckle it,” she said.
Despite wanting to take care of everyone, she’s learning the importance of also letting go. “I can pour my heart into the work but I still can’t control patient outcomes. At some point I owe it to myself and my loved ones to turn off my ‘work brain’ and find joy in my own life.”
This article first appeared in Fast Company
Jason Shen | Cultivating Resilience Newsletter
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