Resilience: why you need it and how to get it

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In 1984 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in the fight of her political life. In 1979 she inherited a Britain divided not only by crime and terrorism but with the twin challenges of astronomically high inflation and unemployment. This meant that, each day, people’s money was becoming increasingly worthless and there were no jobs for millions of Britons.

Pinnacle to her challenges, however, was a coal industry that was unproductive, costing huge amounts of taxpayer money and acting as a drag on the British economy. Each time Thatcher proposed putting more people into work, or shutting down an unproductive mine, she encountered furious union opposition and ‘outrageous displays of union muscle.’ In 1984 she wanted to shut twenty (and eventually seventy) mines but came across the same expectations of union friction – picket lines, disruptions to businesses, mass strikes and police clashes.

A stalemate ensued but eventually the unions – used to having their way and bringing down previous governments – voted to return to work. Thatcher, as many say, eventually won ‘the war of attrition’ and turned around the British economy by her free-market reforms, tax cuts, privatisations and reigning in government spending. She is a pivotal figure in world history not just for these reforms but for helping to defeat the Soviet Union – hardly a small feat – and crushing Argentina’s military aggression in the Falkland Islands.

Her performance during the 1984 miners’ strike is an instructive lesson in adversity but not in the way you might think. Thatcher clearly needed huge amounts of personal resilience to deliver the reforms she believed in. However, central to her strategy in the 1980s was to build up coal reserves in advance. This meant that the unions could strike for as long as they wished but they could not hold Britain hostage.

Life, I cannot help think, is like that. When hitting bumpy patches we need to call upon our own reserves to weather the storms. But many young people today, it seems, don’t ‘do’ bumpy patches well. Terrified of hurting young people’s feelings, we’re accustomed to a climate where ‘everyone gets a medal’ and participation is usually rewarded over performance.

To build resilience it’s fundamentally important to get comfortable with failure. Literally every person that has enjoyed success knows, and continues to know, failure in some way. The earlier we can learn this lesson the better.

Giving up or walking away, when you think about it, is actually the most logical response to defeat. ‘It’s human nature to quit when it hurts,’ writes Seth Godin in The Dip. ‘But it’s that reflex that creates scarcity.’ Since leaving school I’ve learned that rewards come if you stay in the game and double down, work harder, smarter and continue to improve.

When I was in high school I had the publically trivial but personally crushing experience of not being selected for the Australian Schoolboys Water Polo Team. I had trained much harder than anyone in my team, was one of the fittest players at the tournament, top-scored, and played out of my skin. I was shocked and humiliated when my name wasn’t called out for selection.

Thankfully the support of strong parents and a sports mentor dragged me through the short-run pain. But I learnt some important lessons here useful for later in life – take nothing for granted, work hard and make every post a winner because, even when you’ve thrown everything at a challenge, there are things that are simply out of your hands.

And from here evolves another great lesson to learn – you can’t control other people’s decisions but you can control how you react to them. It certainly doesn’t take the sting out of defeats. But feeling like you’ve made a choice enables you to approach bad news with a sense of confidence as you push forward to your next setback or challenge.

In the years that followed I trained harder, got smarter and improved. It wasn’t until four years later that I won a national water polo championship. It was a surreal feeling – better, I think, than making the Australian Schoolboys Team. Again, rewards come to those who stay in the game and double down, work harder, smarter and continue to improve. I’ve replicated this approach to everything I’ve achieved so far.

Many young people will face their own unique challenges. They are, in the end, your own and many will not understand the fuss. But how you respond, says the former slave and American Presidential adviser Booker T Washington, ‘is the ultimate determining factor between success and failure.’

Another way to build resilience, on top to learning from failure, is through relentless ‘preparation’ and ‘hard work’. The saying that ‘most battles are won when people aren’t watching’ perfectly sums up the role of preparation and its link to resilience. By preparing day after day you’re ready for the tough challenges that lie ahead. And by working hard you’re used to plugging away, even when no one’s watching or patting you on the back.

The future will reward young people that have boundless resilience. ‘You learn ten times more in a crisis,’ says Procter and Gamble CEO AG Lafley, ‘than during normal times.’ So, like Thatcher building coal deposits to save Britain, young people must build resilience by drawing upon their resources, learning from failures, preparing and working hard.