By Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, Eton College
Keywords: resilience; rejection; challenges; failure; perspective; character;
optimism; confidence; success; perseverance; adaptability; robustness
Resilience involves two abilities: robustness – resisting being affected by difficulties, and adaptability – when we cannot help being affected, ‘bouncing back’. Resilience is sometimes defined in psychology as the ability to deal with adversity. To be resilient is to be robust and adaptable in the face of adversity.
What strategies help students build resilience? Here are four connected strategies.
1. Practise resilience
Like all character traits, developing resilience requires practice. Many activities in which students regularly engage develop resilience.
Many students receive results they neither desire nor expect from assessed work. Resilience is needed to ‘try to do better next time’. Competitive sports and games involve winning and losing. Players and teams have good and bad performances; go through periods of good and bad form; and fall behind their opponents, needing to recover.
Our performance is unlikely to be affected in a way that develops resilience if we don’t care about the result. To develop resilience, then, such activities need to be approached with a particular attitude. “I’ll try to do better next time” requires a particular attitude, or ‘mindset’. This brings us to the next strategy.
2. Adopt a ‘growth mindset’
Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindset suggests that we tend to adopt two types of mindset: ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’. A fixed mindset involves beliefs that abilities are fixed; a growth mindset involves beliefs that abilities can develop. Students with a fixed mindset tend to believe that their abilities can’t be changed. Students with a growth mindset tend to believe that with hard work and effort, they can improve.
Encouraging a growth mindset involves replacing students’ beliefs that abilities are fixed with beliefs that abilities can develop. A growth mindset interprets failures as opportunities for growth. This requires and develops resilience. Studies suggest that growth mindset interventions among students increase resilience.
The kind of feedback we give students can promote a growth mindset. In a forthcoming article on mindsets and their relationship to motivation and achievement, Catherine Lutz outlines strategies to promote a growth mindset, including giving feedback:
In order for critique to lead to improvement, evidence suggests that the way students are critiqued should be constructive and encouraging with an emphasis on success being accomplished through hard work and the application of different strategies to find paths that lead to success.
The way we perceive failure is connected with mindset. A student with a fixed mindset might interpret failure as evidence that they’ll never be able to do whatever it is they’ve failed at. A growth mindset involves the attitude, “I can’t do it, yet”. This brings us to the next strategy.
3. Learn how to fail
No matter how brilliant a student is, at some point they’ll face difficulties they have to overcome. University and job applications; interviews; career setbacks; having performances assessed; trying to garner support for causes; and the vicissitudes life throws their way.
Some of those examples involve failure. You can fail to be shortlisted for a job; if shortlisted, you can fail to be appointed. You can fail a test or as a friend. Resilience involves learning how to recover from failure.
One way of handling failure is to shift our perception from negative to negative and positive. Failure can also be positive. It can be understood as a failed attempt at success, providing opportunities for development. If ‘learning how to fail’ still sounds negative, think of it instead as the development of a virtuous character trait: perseverance.
A 2015 Forbes article describes failure as ‘not a step backward’, but ‘an excellent stepping stone to success’. This doesn’t mean ignoring failure; it means embracing failure as a path towards growth. This is consistent with a growth mindset: “I can’t do it, yet”.
Many extremely successful people failed many times along their paths to success. Such people feature on Elizabeth Day’s podcast, How to Fail, where she interviews celebrities about how they’ve bounced back from failure. In a 2018 Guardian article on learning to embrace failure, Day writes that the podcast and her subsequent book were inspired by the idea of ‘failing well’: how ‘one becomes strong because of weakness; how one is more likely to succeed if one has learned from failure’.
One of Day’s interviewees is author Malcolm Gladwell, proponent of the ‘10,000-hour rule’, which holds that 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ are required to gain expertise in a skill. This involves regular failure – or persistent perseverance – because to reach expertise, we must persistently move outside our comfort zone, where failure is always likely.
It’s important for the development of resilience that we don’t venture too far outside our comfort zone, though. This brings us to the next strategy.
4. Get outside your comfort zone (but not too far)
To develop resilience, there needs to be a chance of experiencing adversity. Adversity is unlikely to be confronted within the comfort zone. When students move outside their comfort zones, they’re also stretched and challenged, so stand a better chance of reaching their potential. But moving too far outside the comfort zone can over-stretch and challenge, and the risk of failure can become so high that it can damage confidence.
Neil Pasricha, author of You Are Awesome, which offers guidance on developing resilience, explains the importance of not setting the bar too high in an interview with the Knowledge Project. It’s sometimes said that to get the best from yourself, you should avoid being a ‘big fish in a small pond’. By contrast, Pasricha argues that being a big fish in a small pond helps build resilience and confidence. A ‘key to resilience’, Pasricha argues, is ‘finding a small pond’.
In that interview, Pasricha argues that a problem with the hyper-competitive 21st-century world is that no matter how much we achieve, we often don’t feel good enough. ‘In this global community’, Pasricha says, ‘it’s important to develop resilience by giving ourselves games we can win’ because it can develop resilience and confidence. The confidence and energy we gain from succeeding in situations just outside our comfort zones can motivate us to continue further, while nonetheless confronting situations that develop resilience. Put yourself in games you can win and gradually move upwards.
Pasricha gives the example of improving his public speaking skills. Pasricha was invited to give talks by public speaking bureaus who suggested placing him in the highest fee category, where speakers were paid $10,000-15,000 a talk. That category included New York Times bestsellers and gold medal-winning Olympians. Pasricha asked to go in a lower category, alongside speakers he’d never heard of. He recollects:
This meant I was practising … in ballrooms of fifty people, rather than Vegas casinos for a thousand. So, my ability to think I could do it shot up. … And it stayed up as I kept up moving to higher and higher stages.
Pasricha is now one of the most popular TED speakers; his first TED talk has over 3 million views.
So, to develop resilience:
- practise being resilient;
- adopt a growth mindset;
- learn how to fail – or how to persevere; and,
- get outside your comfort zone, but not too far.