Career Coaching Series: how to develop a resilience mindset
June 15, 2021
NOTE from CLiGS: We have asked the Center’s Career Coaches to share their thoughts on a variety of career and career-development topics that will be beneficial to our students, alumni, and the wider community of sustainability professionals.
By Kathy Miller Perkins*
Resilience is the ability to recover from misfortune or adjust to change. Highly resilient people endure hardship and adapt when facing adversity, trauma, or threat. And while genetics may play a small role in resilience, it is primarily dependent on our way of thinking. With discipline, most can develop the required mindset, according to the long-term research on the topic. Here are three strategies to consider:
1. Adopt optimism but accept reality
Undeniably, an upbeat outlook is critical to our well-being. However, resilience requires more. Optimism, the tendency to anticipate the best possible outcomes, helps us face the future with hope. Nevertheless, neither naïve optimism nor rose-colored glasses serve us well when we face threats. To truly meet difficult challenges, we must tackle reality squarely.
Optimism tends to follow calendar cycles—Mondays are particularly popular for starting a new life—but especially the beginning of each year, with resolutions galore to start healthy habits, leave dead-end jobs, and otherwise improve our lot in life.
Meet Jan, a small business owner in the Midwest. She intends to enter the new year confidently. Yet, she knows that the conditions for success will continue to be dicey. Jan's end-of-year resolution is to put her anxiety aside and envision and plan for the opportunities and the threats that could come her way.
While imagining a bright future can alleviate her tendency to fret, she understands she must not deny the risks that continue to cloud the next year. She resolves to reflect, envision, and plan for the contingencies she might face. She will remain optimistic and plan realistically.
2. Avoid catastrophizing
A resilient mindset requires the avoidance of catastrophizing—that is, the distortion of reality accompanied by a tendency to jump to the most damaging possible conclusion.
For example, on her worst days, Jan imagines that the vaccines developed to protect us from the current virus will not be useful, and we will return to total lockdown. She envisions the market for her company's services evaporating; thus, she believes her bankruptcy is inevitable.
To avoid these destructive thoughts, Jan must stop her downward spiral into anxiety before it inevitably leaves her depressed and paralyzed.
Jan could focus on the probabilities rather than the possibilities. Here is the difference: even though the potential of all vaccines failing exists, the likelihood is low. And if this most unlikely scenario occurs, her company's demise is far from certain. By shifting her attention from mere possibilities to probabilities, Jan can gain a more realistic and less anxiety-arousing perspective.
Resilient people control destructive and intrusive thoughts and images, according to positive psychology expert Martin Seligman. Instead, they view trauma as a fork in the road.
In an old Harvard Business Review article, Diane Coutu suggests those who are the most resilient refuse to be victims of their circumstances. Instead of allowing potential adversity to overwhelm them, they seek to make meaning out of their situation. They lean into their robust values systems to interpret and shape events.
3. Foster the habit of improvising
Resilient minds are always improvising. They make do with what is at hand rather than dwelling on what they have lost. While they may grieve their losses, they can still act with confidence, creativity, and decisiveness. According to Coutu, they recreate their identity, seek perspective, and always choose to move forward.
Return to the example of Jan, the small business owner. Suppose her worst-case scenario occurs. The vaccines become less effective than predicted or take more time to create a robust turnaround in the marketplace.
Instead of labeling this scenario as unbearable, Jan could create a new business model to increase her company's survival probability. Those with a resilient mindset accept circumstances that cannot be changed, keep a longer-term perspective, and work creatively with what is available to them in the meantime.
Resolve to cultivate resilience. While you may not be able to leave all your challenges behind, you can realistically and optimistically turn to a new beginning filled with promise. Sure, the future is still uncertain. Nevertheless, most likely, you are stronger than you think. Give up worrying about what you can’t change. Act on what you can. Learn to improvise. Concentrate on turning current circumstances to your advantage.
In the words of Charles Schultz, American cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Peanuts, "Worrying won't stop the bad stuff from happening. It just stops you from enjoying the good."
Kathy Miller Perkins is a psychologist and a leadership and career coach. In her role as the owner and CEO of a consulting firm, she has assisted leaders of global corporations and educational institutions. Kathy directs a research program exploring the culture and leadership characteristics of successful purpose-driven organizations. She authored the book, Leadership and Purpose: How to Create a Sustainable Culture, and writes regularly for Forbes.com. Kathy obtained her B.A. and M.A. from Indiana University and her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Kentucky. She is currently pursuing B Corps certification—a designation for businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
*Article reprinted and adapted with author’s permission from its original version in Forbes.