Are You Resilient Enough?

With the economy failing, companies making cutbacks, and your financial future at stake, you might be feeling pretty grim. But don’t even think about throwing in the towel. There are lots of opportunities out there – opportunities to make loads of money and put more happiness and love back in your life.

When you’ve been beaten down by anything, it’s natural to want to quit. But quitting is a blind alley that leads to failure and despair. There is another way to go. A way that will take you past your troubles and toward your best life yet.

A few years ago, I read about this topic in the Harvard Business Review. A company called Adaptive Learning Systems did a pretty comprehensive study of the qualities it takes to be successful in life. They looked at all the expected things: education, motivation, connections, etc. But they concluded that resiliency deserved to be on top of the list.

The ability to bounce back from disappointment and even disaster, Adaptive’s CEO Dean Becker said, “counts more than education, more than experience, and more than training.”

Resilience has been an important factor in my career. In the early 1980s, my partner and I took on more debt than we should have. I woke up one day and realized that I owed a lot more than I owned. My net worth had dropped from a meager but healthy $50,000 to a negative quarter of a million dollars.

That realization freaked me out. I imagined losing the little house I had just bought. I imagined living in my car or, worse yet, living in the street. It was hard to concentrate on work. All I could think about was running away from my responsibilities. I had this fantasy about changing my name, moving to a different state, and getting a job as a check-out clerk in a supermarket.

In short, I was beaten down and I wanted to quit.

Luckily for me, I had an experienced partner who had suffered several major setbacks in his business career and knew how to help me get through this one.

“The first thing you have to do when times are tough,” JSN told me when he saw the dark circles under my eyes, “is take care of your body.” He reminded me of the famous line “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” and encouraged me to get back to my exercise program and get plenty of sleep.

He also reminded me of my responsibility to our employees, and shamed me into adopting a better attitude. “I’d rather you not come to work at all than come in looking like you do now,” he told me. “Think of how it affects our employees. They know things are tough, but they don’t know how tough. They are looking at us for clues. We have to keep them motivated.”

I vowed to act chipper and fake a good mood. It was difficult at first, but within days I found that I was actually feeling better from the inside out. My smile was genuine. I was joking with my employees. They picked up on my improved spirits and began working with more energy and optimism. That, in turn, made it easier for me to work hard.

Recognizing that I was now mentally and physically ready to deal with the challenge we were facing, JSN said, “Okay, now we’re going to draw up a ’survival and prosperity plan.’”

Just the sound of it filled me with hope. “Where do we begin?” I asked – and he laughed. “I have no idea,” he said, “because this is the first time I’ve been in this particular situation. But I’m sure if we put our heads together we can come up with something.”

For the better part of two days, we sat in his office and worked on our plan. As near as I can remember, it included the following elements:

  • Keep a stiff upper lip, regardless of what happens.
  • Fire unnecessary or unhelpful people.
  • Get rid of unprofitable products.
  • Eliminate wasteful habits.
  • Focus on core marketing strengths.
  • Keep working.

Gradually, we started to see results. Some of our marketing efforts began to pay off. Then, about three months after the bottom, one of our advertising campaigns hit big. A week after that, another one did. A year later, I was a relatively wealthy young guy.

That was my first lesson in the value of resilience. But it wasn’t my last. In the 30 years that have passed since then, I’ve run into trouble dozens of times. But having overcome adversity once, I was able to bounce back again and again.

Still, my first reaction is often “Screw it.”

Just last week, for example, I headed up what I hoped would be a brilliant brainstorming session. For four hours, I did my special thing with seven very bright and creative people – pushing and prodding, asking questions, and making comments. The session began strongly but started losing steam halfway through, and was barely moving when time ran out.

It was an embarrassing, dispiriting experience. I felt as if I had made a bit of a fool of myself, trying out a newfangled brainstorming technique that I should have known wouldn’t work.

But the next morning, I woke up with a new resolve. “I have to try again,” I thought. “Bring the group back together and try something else. Forget about the failure and my leading role in it, and get back to what we were there for – to create a breakthrough promotion.”

So I wrote a memo suggesting just that. And since then, the ideas have been coming – better ways to get the work done, different approaches, new questions. The anguish immediately started to subside, and a sense of positive expectation set in.

Faith, guts, and the willingness to work. That’s the combination you need to overcome obstacles and bounce back from failure.

But where does the faith come from? For Andrew Carnegie, one of the world’s biggest successes, it came from an overriding belief in the power of God to intervene in men’s lives. For me, the faith must come from myself – from the self-confidence developed by making success a habit.

Carnegie said, “The first thing to do about an obstacle is simply to stand up to it and not complain about it or whine under it but forthrightly attack it. Stand up to your obstacles and do something about them. You will find that they haven’t half the strength you think they have. Just stand up to it, that’s all, and don’t give way under it, and it will finally break. You will break it. Something has to break and it won’t be you, it will be the obstacle.”

But not all obstacles can be extirpated. Some are best dealt with in more subtle ways. A wise man once said, “If I can’t get through a trouble, I try to go around it, and if I can’t go around it, I try to get under it, and if I can’t get under it, I try to go over it, and if I can’t go over it, I just plow right through it.”

That’s the course of action I recommend.

  • First, ask yourself if the obstacle can be ignored. Eighty percent of the problems you face will go away the moment you stop paying attention to them.
  • Next, see if you can get around the obstacle by using your wits. If you can accomplish the same goal by using cleverness instead of brute force, why not?
  • If you can’t get over, under, or around the obstacle, stand up to it firmly. This won’t be easy, particularly if you are not used to confrontation. But the more you do it, the easier it will become.

Thomas Jefferson had a similar idea about how to handle difficult situations. He put it this way: “Always take hold of things by the smooth handle.”

This resilience thing is something you may have to struggle with all your life. As I write this, there is a wooden paperweight on my desk that JSN bought for me from Levenger. It must have been more than 20 years ago… soon after that that time we worked together to turn our failing business around. It’s a quote from Winston Churchill: “Never give in. Never give in, never, never, never…”

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • Hi Michael,

    thanks for the great advice.

    Having grown up in a low-income German family, my natural inclination to problems has always been to use brute force.

    Having recently relocated to Thailand, I find that to be a very ineffective and harmful way of solving problems – because in this culture, it really is the absolute last resort. And it’s very difficult to “go back to normal” once you have lost it in front of others, and you will have permanently lost respect with those people.

    So, I grabbed some Lao Tze Tung, some books on Thai and Chinese culture and dugg into it… and I went to a temple and had a chat with a monk (which was really cool… these guys spend decades trying to attain wisdom, and you can just walk up to them, ask them questions and they’ll share their insights with you) and am SLOWLY beginning to understand a very different way of handling problems.

    I found the “be like water” approach a lot more effective and pleasant, but much more challenging than just going the “Rambo way”.

    Specially because it’s very difficult if on the inside I’m cooking steaming hot, acting like water on the outside.

    So I intervened at another point – before I actually got angry, I directed my emotions in more productive ways and transformed them into positive feelings. (I don’t want to get all touchy here, but this is a fascinating experience).

    And then it’s really fun to be confronted with challenges and problems. It becomes almost like solving a riddle, or trying to guess who’s the murder in a crime novel.

    But even that’s not all: it’s so much less energy intensive. It’s almost like comparing a loud and noisy old car with one of those silent, smooth, low-energy consumption cars.

    I really feel like I’m in a transition phase of my life, from “emotional infancy” to (hopefully) some level of maturity. And a pleasant side effect of that is that it’s a lot easier to laugh about myself these days.

    And as far as the “fake it till you make it positive attitude” goes, I have had similar experiences like you. You really can FORCE yourself to be happy, and while in the beginning it’s difficult, after some time it becomes the standard modus operandi.

    Joe Paz the “Memory Improvement Man”