Given the choice, I would choose struggle over the softer, easier way each and every time. Now before you accuse me of insanity, permit me the chance to invite you to reframe the way you approach adversity in your life.
As an elite endurance athlete, I’m accustomed to brushing up against physical and psychological thresholds—the uncomfortable feeling that comes knowing that the difference between success and disappointment lies on that razor-thin edge bridging the gap between self-exploration and complete annihilation.
Like many athletes competing in extreme endurance events, I arrived to the sport well honed in the skills necessary to successfully navigate the landscape of adversity. A childhood tempered with physical and sexual violence fostered in me an unbreakable will to survive, something that I continued to draw upon well into my thirties in order to weather serious issues with addiction and precarious mental health. Today, it makes no difference if I’m giving a talk to a group of students or delivering a keynote at a conference, I always return to the same refrain: “I would not wish my life experience on anyone else, yet at the same time, I would not wish for another life because it has delivered me to a place of immense self-knowledge and inner fortitude.”
I think it’s safe to say that as a society, we are rather risk-averse. We are eager to walk a smoother path, and are naturally drawn to life hacks, shortcuts, and workarounds. But are we doing ourselves, and more importantly our children, a disservice by sidestepping the lessons of adversity? Friedrich Nietzsche referred to what he called “the discipline of suffering”, something he credits with propelling most human advancements and enhancements. He talked about the lesson of strength that can be mined in the discomfort of adversity: “That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness—was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”
I’m currently at work on a book about resilience, and part of the research for this project has involved interviewing a broad cross section of individuals from around the world who exhibit and possess sustained resilience in their lives. One of the questions I hope to answer in this book is whether or not it is possible for someone to nurture and ‘default to resilience’ even though (s)he has not experienced trauma, devastating loss, or extreme adversity in life. Not surprisingly, the responses from the people I’ve interviewed vary greatly on this point, but one theme appears to be reverberating throughout these interviews—an acceptance that there are indeed practical steps each of us can take to become more resilient.
- Surround yourself with ‘gritty’ people.
In her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth describes grit as a twofold quality embodied by individuals who are not only hardworking and resilient but also determined and direction-oriented in life. I’ve come to believe that having the ability to survive adversity has little to do with whether or not a particular person is resilient. For me, resilience lies in the echoes of adversity, and it comes into fruition once we make a conscious decision to make meaning out of, and ultimately, take direction from the adversity or trauma. Therefore, one of the surest ways to foster resilience in your own life is to surround yourself with others who are willing to fearlessly look into the depths of their pain, defeats, and adversity.
- Reconnect with your body.
In his groundbreaking book The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk investigates the interaction of the mind, brain, and body and the role they each play in the healing of trauma. Bezel points out that, “We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives… [by using the bottom up approach, we allow] the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.” This has most certainly been the case in my experience as a long distance runner, particularly in that it has allowed me to reconnect with my body on a physical and I would add, spiritual level—something that time and again proves difficult for survivors of sexual violence. The same can be said for those who turn to other sports and practices such as yoga that compel us to become more in tune with the fluidity of movement in and around our body.
- Learn to fail better next time.
In our drive to be become risk averse, and in an attempt to insulate ourselves from adversity and loss, we inadvertently lower the bar on our true potential and opportunity for self-discovery. One of the examples of a ‘gritty mindset’ that Duckworth turns to in her book is that of Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seatle Seahawks of the NFL. In addition to being instrumental to the sustained success of the Seahawks, Carroll is also credited with making the fateful decision that lead to the Seahawks’ heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XLIX. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Carroll does not shy away from owning the outcome of his decision. In fact, he suggests that we embrace the successes and failures of our life because each “becomes a part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!” A while back I was chatting with a former U.S. Olympic marathoner who told me that, he no longer fears failure. Instead, whenever his training or a big race becomes derailed, he takes in the entire experience and asks himself “How can I fail better next time… What can I do right now to make sure that next time I fail, I will be in an even better place to learn from it?”
- Compare inwards not outwards.
Resilience is analogous to growth, and I believe it is a finite resource that must be consciously replenished. One of the ways in which we unnecessarily deplete our reservoir of resilience is to continually compare our life to those around us. This can take many forms; for instance, we have a tendency to diminish the resonance of our trauma and pain in our own life by comparing it to someone else’s that we believe to be much more impactful. Moreover, instead of acknowledging the growth and change within us, we negate these stepping-stones by comparing where we are to where someone else is. I’ve heard this beautifully described as “comparing your low lights to someone else’s highlights.”
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at [email protected].