Stronger: Developing Personal Resilience and Becoming Antifragile

How is it that some people come back from crushing defeats while others simply give in? Why does adversity make some people and teams stronger and render others ineffective?

These are the questions that George Everly Jr., Douglas Strouse, and former Navy SEAL Dennis McCormack explore in their book Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed.

According to them, there are five factors of personal resilience.

1. Active Optimism. Optimism is more than a belief, it’s a mandate for change. It’s the inclination to move forward when others are retreating. This mandate can be so strong that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Decisive Action. Optimism is not enough. You must be decisive and act in order to rebound. As Clare Boothe Luce observed, “Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount.” You must acquire the courage to make difficult decisions.

3. Moral Compass. Use honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethical behavior to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances.

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. Persistence can be omnipotent. As comedian Jonathan Winters once quipped, “If your ship doesn’t come, swim out to meet it!” Be persistent, while at the same time knowing when to quit.

5. Interpersonal Support. Who has your back?

Resilience, as you’d expect, has a biological as well as psychological background.

Before you can develop resilience, however, you need to know yourself.

Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist, wrote, “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”

Increasing Decisiveness and Taking Personal Responsibility

The authors talk about how to overcome indecision and increase personal responsibility.

1. Problem: Paralyzing fear of failure

Solution: Never forget this simple guiding principle: Anything worth having is worth failing for. And don’t forget the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

As I wrote in my post on mistakes: “Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond.”

2. Problem: Fear of ridicule for being different. It’s no fun to be laughed at.

Solution: Most people ridicule what they do not understand. In his 2008 bestselling book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell makes a cogent argument that extraordinary success is often predicated upon being different. Gladwell describes people who were not only different but possessed what many thought of as liabilities.

3. Problem: Procrastination. Waiting too long to act. The desire to wait until the moment of absolute certainty before making a decision can be compelling.

Solution: What we too often fail to understand is that almost all opportunities come with time limits. As we wait for that moment of absolute certainty, we also see the window of opportunity become smaller, until the opportunity is lost. In the words of Mark Twain, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

If you are procrastinating because a task seems overwhelming, simply use the “Swiss cheese” technique. This is a method recommended by time management expert Alan Lakein in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Rather than avoiding something because it seems overwhelming, break it into smaller, more manageable, component tasks and do the more manageable tasks at a time.

I’ll skip a few and hit on information overload.

6. Problem: Being overwhelmed by too much information, too wide a scope, or too little time.

Remember the 80/20 Rule: 80 percent of your problem comes from 20 percent of the potential sources. It’s a derivation of the skewed (non-Bell-shaped) distribution of Power Law statistics. For example, 80 percent of all healthcare costs come in the last 20 percent of your life. Eighty percent, or more, of polluting vehicle emissions come from only 20 percent of all vehicles. Eighty percent of casualties in a terrorist attack will be psychological as opposed to physical. You get the point. So rather than view problems as being universal and paralyzing, search for the applicability of the 80/20 Rule. Focus on the minority of potential sources that may account for the majority of the problem. Then, if appropriate, apply your resources to the 20 percent. Malcolm Gladwell concludes that if you use this approach, you may actually be able to solve a problem rather than simply palliatively manage it.

Try practicing Occam’s razor (a.k.a. the law of simplicity): When faced with competing alternative courses of action or competing conclusions, choose the one that rests upon the fewest assumptions.

Also consider whether the problem is a mystery or a puzzle.

In the end the authors sum up the lessons they’ve learned on human resilience.

The seven characteristics of highly resilient people are:

1. Optimism
2. Decisive action
3. Honesty
4. Tenacity
5. Interpersonal connectedness
6. Self-control
7. Calm, innovative, nondogmatic thinking.

The authors spend a great deal of time on the first 5 factors which they see as sequential.

Coming back full circle to the five factors they now re-write them:

1. Active Optimism. Active optimism is more than a hope or a belief. It’s a mandate to bounce back, to be successful, to avoid being a victim. Active optimism is the belief that you can be an agent of change. Optimism breeds self-confidence that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it is honed with a dose of realism. Optimistic people are often viewed as more attractive to others than are pessimists. But the optimistic mandate to be resilient alone is not enough. It must lead to …

2. Decisive Action. You must act in order to rebound. You must learn to leave behind the comfort of the status quo and make difficult decisions. To paraphrase Mark Twain, if all you do is sit on the right track and wait for something to happen, it will. You will get run over. Or, perhaps at least an opportunity will be lost. Being decisive is hard. That’s why it’s rare. But by being decisive you distinguish yourself from others, usually in a positive way. As such you may then become the beneficiary of the halo effect, a lasting positive regard in the eyes of others. Making hard decisions to act is made easier when based upon a …

3. Moral Compass. There are four points to our moral compass: honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethics. Use them to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances. Simply do what is right and just. Your actions always have consequences. Consider the consequences of your actions not just for you but for others as well. Once your decisions have been made, employ …

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. In 1989 Woody Allen was credited with proffering the notion that about 80 per cent of success is showing up. We can modify that notion somewhat and say success often comes to those who not only show up but tenaciously show up. Show up and carry with you a relentless defiance of failure (but keep in mind that success may have to be redefined occasionally). Marine General Oliver Smith is quoted in Time magazine about his change of direction during the Korean War’s Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” To find hidden opportunities and aid in physical and psychological energy, rely upon . . .

5. Interpersonal Support. Remember, no person is, nor ever should be, an island. Great strength is derived from the support of others. Going through life alone means no one has your back. Surround yourself with those of a compassionate heart and supportive presence. Knowing when to rely upon others is a sign of strength and wisdom. Supportive relationships are most commonly earned, however. Give to others. Be supportive without any expectation of a return. It will be the best external investment you can ever make.

Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed goes on to explore these five aspects in greater detail.