The importance of resilience and the ability to adapt

When you look at the most successful people in the world, whether they’re business tycoons or world-class athletes, have you ever wondered what they have in common? It’s not talent or intelligence – although they certainly come into it. One of the most important skills that anyone can possess  is resilience, and the ability to adapt to change. But what exactly do we mean by this and what can you do to boost your own resilience?

What is resilience?

Resilience, in a nutshell, is what gives people the psychological strength to cope with adversity and failure. There are many other words used to describe this unique type of strength – endurance, grit, determination – but they all refer to mental toughness, which is the ability to overcome misfortune and come bouncing back, often stronger and more determined than before.

Resilience comes in many forms. It’s what makes us go back to the boardroom after yet another rejection. It’s what makes us finish a race even though our legs are screaming. When we stumble, resilience is what makes us rise, and when we fail, it’s what makes us try – again, and again, and again, if necessary.

Why is resilience a key skill to have?

Resilience will always be important, because in life there will always be setbacks. People lose jobs and fail exams. We will get sick, we will lose loved ones and we will encounter financial hardship. Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, the world has entered into an unprecedented and uncertain period –  so being resilient, and able to adapt to change, has never been more important.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill

We probably all know some friends who lose their head in a crisis – and equally, we probably all know some people who remain calm, even when life is giving them a battering. These people are resilient. This doesn’t mean they’re not also experiencing shock or distress over what’s happened, but rather that they’re not allowing themselves to be overcome by it.

As Psychology Today wrote, “Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.” When people are resilient, they’re able to handle hardships and not only recover from them, but come back swinging.

Learning to Adapt

This is where adaptability comes into the equation – because resilience and adaptability are entirely entwined. Resilience relates to our ability to recover from difficulty and continue, whereas adaptability is learning from these experiences and using them to create a new, more positive outcome. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is actually “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

When we think of resilience and adaptability, often we think of the most extreme examples: people who remain strong after losing their homes in a disaster, or people who learn to walk again after an accident. But resilience and adaptability are important traits to have in our day-to-day lives too – personally and professionally.

Digital transformation has reshaped the working world faster than many of us could have imagined. Technology is constantly adapting and changing, and as it evolves, so does the modern workplace.

This means that we ourselves have to adapt too – and faster than we ever have before. A 2019 IBM study found that due to automation, 120 million people worldwide may soon need to be reskilled. Skills we spent decades refining may become obsolete in a few short years, and companies of the future will need people with skills that don’t even exist today.

This is why a person’s “Adaptability Quotient”, according to Harvard Business Review, is what will provide the real “new competitive advantage” in the future. Most of us will already have heard of IQ – intelligence quotient – which has been used to calculate how intelligent people are. Some of us might also know about EQ – emotional intelligence quotient – which relates to our interpersonal and communication skills. But it’s AQ that’s proving to be of increasing importance for the future – because the faster we can adapt to change, the better we can accept and embrace whatever life has in store around the corner.

It is often said that change is the only constant in life. We can’t avoid it – and we need only look to our present day situation for evidence of this. Much as we may dislike it, we have no choice but to adapt to lockdown…while still hoping it will end soon. We must adapt professionally, working from home where we can, and personally too, only leaving the house for essential journeys. We must be resilient and adapt – collectively and as individuals – simply because there’s no other alternative.

“If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. ” Mary Engelbreit

How can I develop resilience and adaptability?

Of course, adapting to change is often easier said than done. No one wants to feel like they can’t bounce back from setbacks, and no one wants to feel like they might be left behind, but adapting to the upheavals of life can be hard. The good news is that resilience and adaptability are like any other skill: they can be learned and developed – at any age and at any point in life. So how do we do this?

1. Seek Support. Resilience doesn’t mean facing hardship alone. Connecting and confiding in people you trust won’t make your problems disappear, but it will make you feel supported. Discussing things with people you care about doesn’t just offer you new insights, it also helps validate your feelings, which in turn helps to build resilience.

Do you have friends who inspire you, or loved ones who have overcome serious adversity? Connect with them – and anyone else who has a positive impact in your life. Many people find that being active in groups helps them find a sense of purpose and regain hopefulness – two traits that are key for building resilience. Consider joining a group locally or online – it doesn’t matter what it’s purpose is, as long as you find meaning in it.

2. Think positive. Resilient people are not blind optimists, but they’re also not negative thinkers. If something doesn’t go to plan, they don’t tend to dwell on things that they  can’t control, or seek to blame. Instead, they try to focus on the small steps they can take that will help tackle the problem. We can’t control everything in our lives, but we can control how we react to situations . Try to identify any irrational thoughts – e.g. a tendency to think the world’s out to get you – and focus on forming more balanced, positive thoughts based on evidence.

Remember that it’s normal to feel fear when something disrupts our normal lives and we’re thrust into the unknown. The unknown is scary, and because our subconscious likes to live in it’s comfort zone, it will resist stepping out of it. But all of us have the power to adapt and stimulate positive change in our lives. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

3. Focus on what you can control. After a negative event, it’s normal to focus on things we can’t control. We might wish we could go back in time and do something different. We might become consumed with regret. But regrets are extraordinarily unhelpful when it comes to building resilience and learning to adapt. They only serve to hold us back.

You can’t change what’s happened in the past. The only thing that’s in your control is whether you can accept what happened and move on, or not. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t allow them to overwhelm you, and don’t allow yourself to be tormented by what could have been. You could try some exercises for letting go of regret, and then focus on the things that are in your control.

4. Look after your mental and physical health. Things like getting enough sleep and exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet and practising mindfulness can all help to improve your general well being, and make you better able to cope with challenges that come your way. Whilst we can’t always control changes to our mental and physical health, making positive lifestyle choices can increase your chances of staying fit and well.

5. Find your purpose. We all need a sense of purpose to help us get out of bed in the morning, and to carry us through the day. Sometimes we may lose our main purpose temporarily – for example if we get made redundant, or the kids grow up and leave home – which can leave us feeling lost and unsure who we now are. It’s important to acknowledge any feelings associated with a loss of purpose, because this can be a helpful first step towards getting your sense of purpose back. These feelings can help to drive you towards your next venture, and there is often plenty of opportunity for self-discovery along the way. 

A person’s journey towards finding their purpose can be daunting, but also exciting – it’s a chance to try new things, work out what your likes and dislikes are and challenge yourself to do something you perhaps never thought you could. This could be anything from making a career change through to helping others through volunteering. For many people, a sense of purpose comes from giving back in some way and making a difference to others.

How can adaptability and resilience help me?

If you do manage to build resilience, and learn to adapt better, how can this help? The American Psychological Association says that resilient people possess the capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out. They also have a positive view of themselves, confidence in their strengths and abilities; skills in communication and problem-solving, and the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

One specific example where these traits can help is during a job search. Let’s say for example, that someone has been out of work for a while, and they’ve applied for countless new positions but have only had rejections back. Without resilience and adaptability, it could be easy to doubt yourself – to feel like you’ll never get anywhere, no matter how many applications you send. You might feel like it’s all pointless and give up.

But resilient people don’t give up. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel frustration and disappointment – they absolutely do. But they manage these feelings. They talk about these difficulties to people and gain insights or new ideas that might help them. They don’t allow their self-worth to be determined by potential employers they’ve never met. They’re confident in their abilities, but self-aware enough to realise they might need to adapt. They ask important questions – how can I get better? And what do I need to do differently? They are then able to take proactive steps to achieve this – perhaps by trying a new CV, applying for different types of roles, or searching for jobs in different places.

It’s true that sometimes, for whatever reason, certain goals may no longer be attainable. While this will always be disappointing, remember that change is part of life. Things don’t always go the way we want – but often it’s these times of adversity that present us with new opportunities. In the Chinese language, the word crisis is even composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other representing opportunity. Try not to focus on things that are out of your control, and instead look for opportunities for self-discovery, for chances to grow and evolve. As JFK famously said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future”.

How have resilience and adaptability helped you? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected] or on the community forum.

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10 thoughts on “The importance of resilience and the ability to adapt

  1. Avatar
    Don on Reply

    A really useful and encouraging piece, especially in these exceptionally difficult times when many of us are facing challenges we never anticipated.

  2. Avatar
    Roman Haluszczak on Reply

    I have just been appointed to the British Standards Institite committee on business continuity and resilience which focuses on organisations rather than people.

    Both are important.

  3. Avatar
    Larrychris on Reply

    Thankyou for this massive insight, i feel i almost got through,but hearing of others,comments,experiences,this will cement that iam on the right path,
    Many thanks

  4. Avatar
    Jackie on Reply

    Thank you for this article, it has been so uplifting to read.
    In the past 12 months my life has changed immensely, I have had retirement, bereavement, and social upheaval.
    This has helped to put my situation into perspective so I can carry on feeling positive!

    1. Avatar
      Helen on Reply

      Hi Jackie. I’m glad to hear you’ve found the article helpful (and hopeful) in what must be a challenging time for you. Wishing you all the very best.

  5. Avatar
    Helena Butcher on Reply

    Excellent piece and particularly applicable in current times. I will reflect more on this to nurture my resilience

  6. Avatar
    Helen on Reply

    My Dad told me that an inconvenience is an opportunity rightly conceived. He never practiced his advice but I have and it’s always worked and I’ve led a very exiting life!

  7. Avatar
    Sally on Reply

    I found this very uplifting and reassuring especially in these changing times. Positive thinking is a great thing. Thankyou…

  8. Avatar
    sarah on Reply

    thankyou for this , ive been on a long journey of upset and very troubled time and didn’t think i was resilient, however, after reading this i know i do have it as i’ve ‘carried on regardless’ through times i’ve been almost paralysed with fear , so thankyou for showing me i’m doing the right thing but to work harder on it ,

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