Resilience and failure are symbiotic, meaning the two exist because of one another; they grow as a result of each other. Your ability to build resilience relies on your ability to fail, and vice versa.
Imagine two children in a classroom. One is a classic high achiever. She scores well on all tests, comes first in sport and athletics and is a talented art student. For her consistent achievements, she receives consistent praise from teachers and parents.
The other student is a little more average. She’s not dux of the class, doesn’t come first in school sport and isn’t often singled out for her artistic abilities. If resilience is the key to success, and the ability to fail is the key to resilience, then the second child is far more likely to succeed. The second child will enter adulthood knowing she won’t always get things right the first time, and she’s comfortable with that.
Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, has illustrated the symbiotic nature of resilience and failure in a study. Across 14 years Arnold examined the career trajectories of 81 high school valedictorians. She found that while these classic high-achieving individuals went on to obtain university degrees and enter stable professions, they weren’t very likely to be innovative, to drive change, or to take risks.
When interviewed about her findings Arnold said, ‘Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries … they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.’
“In order to become more resilient, you must get friendly with failure. In getting friendly with failure, you must be open to taking risks.”
It may feel daunting to suddenly welcome risk and failure into your life with open arms, so it might be best to start by thinking about the differences in risk. We tend to view risks as bigger leaps of faith with correspondingly huge consequences. Things like:
Should I leave my job for something else?
Should I set off on a round-the-world trip?
Should I start my own business?
These are certainly worthwhile risks but they aren’t the best place to start out. Give yourself permission to recognise all the many ways in which you can take positive risks in your life, starting out small and gradually working your way up.
Start by taking an emotional risk
It’s helpful to consider all of the different types of risk-taking behaviours that will build resilience and which are most challenging for you. For some of us, physical risks feel terrifying. For others, personal, professional or emotional risk-taking is difficult because it means embracing our own vulnerability.
Try the following tips to build resilience.
- Confide in a family member or friend about something you normally keep hidden away, something that upsets you or plays on your sense of shame.
- Dedicate time to empathy to forge stronger connections with the people in your life. Spend time in their shoes and explore their feelings so you can better understand them and their behavioural patterns.
- Meditate and self-reflect when you have the time. It may feel uncomfortable to sit and do nothing. Give yourself permission to feel that way at first, then try to embrace the discomfort.
- Put your trust in someone new when you perhaps otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe allow a new partner to care for you when you’re sick. Consider giving your children new responsibilities or encourage a family member to assume control of something you have difficulty relinquishing.
- Be open-minded about ideas and experiences you would otherwise reject or dismiss. This could be a political ideology, a lifestyle or a set of values you don’t know much about. Listen to those who are different to you and attempt to connect with their views.
If your first risk-taking experience doesn’t go well and the whole thing’s a failure, then remember: for now, that might be a good thing.
This is an excerpt from Kate’s new book, Build Resilience and Free Yourself from Fear (due for release in bookstores this month).