I recently ran a workshop on resilience for the School of Social Entrepreneurs Hampshire. It was the first time in over a decade that I’ve run a workshop on anything not related to food and it felt good to delve into something a bit different, especially about a topic that has been so important to me.

The importance of staying resilient is something I first properly became aware of while on the Clore Social Leadership Programme. I remember that at the time the thing that really struck me was the importance of thinking differently about failure - the fact that failure is part of the journey towards success. I remember someone suggesting that we should think of failure as a verb rather than an adjective (a passing phase rather than a permanent label).

A little while ago I read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, a worthwhile read if you need to be persuaded of the value of thinking differently about failure - ‘Self-esteem, in short, is a vastly overvalued psychological trait. It can cause us to jeopardise learning if we think it might risk us looking anything less than perfect. What we really need is resilience: the capacity to face up to failure, and to learn from it. Ultimately, that is what growth is all about.’

As Thomas Eddison said, ‘I have not failed, I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.’

Look online and there are thousands of suggestions for what makes a person resilient and how resilience can be boosted. I’m sure everyone will have their own strategies that are personal to them too. Personally, one of mine is to give myself a short break from work every 90 minutes (as I largely work on my own I don’t have the option to chat to a colleague about life) and another is to take a swim in the local river (cold, wild water is always preferable).

One of the standout articles I found while carrying out research for the workshop was a Harvard Business Review article by Diane Coutu called How Resilience Works.

Diane talks about the three main characteristics she believes resilient people have:

  1. Optimistic realism - do I truly understand and accept the reality of my situation? This struck a chord with me - as much as it’s important to stay positive, blind optimism is unhelpful even though facing up to reality can be gruelling.

  2. A deep belief that life is meaningful - finding meaning in present day hardships to build bridges to a fuller, better constructed future. Diane explains that knowing our personal values helps us find meaning in these darker times.

  3. An uncanny ability to improvise - Diane describes this as ‘the ability to make do with whatever is at hand.’ An inventiveness that enables us to improvise a solution to a problem.

In the workshop I focused on the second characteristic, asking everyone to map out their school and work lives to date, visually showing the peaks and troughs. Mine is below (not to scale or perfectly accurate but a rough representation!):

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After the group shared these with a partner, I asked them to focus on one or two of the lower points and think about the positive meaning that emerged from them, in hindsight.

Finally, I asked them to think about challenges they are currently facing in developing their new social enterprises and to think about what meaning they can find in those situations and how this might help them in the future.

In her article Diane refers to an old Sufi tale about a man and his son who alternately and repeatedly were confronted with bad luck and good fortune. Diane tells how neighbours clustered around them each time to commiserate over the former and offer congratulations on the latter. Each time the man would retain his poise and pose the same question - ‘good thing, bad thing, who knows?’ As much as I can look back on my career and find meaning in things that felt bad at the time, I can equally think of times when I got over-excited about something that turned out not to live up to my expectations. This story reminds me of the importance of staying level-headed.

I’ve been asked back to run a similar workshop for a cohort on SSE Hampshire’s Community Business Trade Up Programme for community businesses that have started and want to grow.  It will be interesting to see if that cohort are facing different challenges now that their enterprises are up and running.

Want to find out more about resilience? Check out my interview with community leader Ian Solomon-Kawall. Also visit The Resilience Institute website.