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What is resilience?

In this article, Associate Professor Marcus O'Donnell asks what is resilience and why is it so important to 21st century professionals?
As I describe in this step, the standard definition of resilience is about bouncing back from adversity. And the question the early researchers puzzled over was, why do some people bounce while others, when confronted with pretty much the same circumstances, seem to just fall down with a thud? The early studies showed this was because of a mix of individual and external factors, and we’ll explore them in more detail in future steps.
As you’ll also discover, I think resilience is actually more complex than just bouncing back from adversity. But one thing I take from the bounce back metaphor is a key notion of flexibility. Take a rubber ball, for example. The reason it bounces is because it’s flexible. It’s pliant. And it’s also incredibly strong. Because of this, it regains its shape very quickly. As we explore more about resilience in the next few steps, hold this metaphor of the pliant, flexible, but strong rubber ball in mind. Ask yourself how flexibility and adaptability fit in with the various ideas we encounter. Perhaps resilience is not just about being flexible and adaptable in the face of adversity.
Perhaps it’s about a general openness in our lives, being flexible and adaptable in our thinking, flexible and adaptable in our relationships, flexible and adaptable in our career. I’m really looking forward to hearing what you think in the comments.

Resilience is commonly defined as the capacity to ‘bounce back’ after an adverse event.

This idea comes from early psychological studies of resilience.

When psychologists first began to study resilience in the 1950s, they looked at groups of people who had experienced troubled childhoods and tracked those who managed to thrive into adulthood.

Pioneers of this early research, such as Dr Emmy Werner, went looking for what they called ‘protective factors’ in these children’s lives.

In her studies, Werner found that about a third of children who had grown up in troubled families thrived into adulthood while many others developed problems of their own. Werner called the group who thrived ‘vulnerable but invincible’.

What enabled these individuals to overcome the difficulties of their childhoods and go on to lead healthy, productive lives in adulthood?

Some protective factors were put down to temperament: the children who later thrived were described as affectionate and good natured from an early age. They tended to be intelligent and didn’t experience any significant developmental difficulties.

But there were also strong links to external factors. For example, children who survived and thrived tended to find a key member of their family, often a grandmother, who they bonded with. They also sought out and connected with role models in their community (such as a favourite teacher).

A key insight we can draw from this research is that resilience is not just something you’re born with; it happens in connection with others.

Your task

What do you think of the phrase ‘vulnerable but invincible’ used by Werner to describe children from troubled backgrounds who thrived into adulthood?

Do you think being resilient and being invincible are the same things? Why or why not?

Share your thoughts in the comments and discuss with other learners by replying to their comments.

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Professional Resilience: Building Skills to Thrive at Work

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