How To Be Resilient: 5 Secrets To Success When Life Gets Impossible


You’re dropped off in the middle of a forest with nothing but the clothes on your back. You’re going to need to live off the land to survive. (Hope you paid attention during all those Bear Grylls episodes.)

Oh, and you’re being hunted. Dangerous people are trying to capture you. You know: your average Sunday.

And even if you do manage to survive this, the next phase is even worse. You’re caught, blindfolded, and locked in a cell. Music blasts 24-7 to disorient you. You’re deprived of sleep. Repeatedly interrogated. And they tell you all this stress can end if you just give up and tell them what you know…

No, this isn’t “real.” It’s what soldiers going through the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training program deal with. It simulates what you might deal with when caught behind enemy lines.

So how would you do in this scenario? Yeah, you’d freak out and pee-pee yourself. (If you listen closely, you can hear me calling for my mom.) You and I aren’t alone; the vast majority of soldiers fail. 96% experienced “dissociative symptoms” – they were so stressed their minds fled reality.

The military realized this program was fine at vetting for the elite, but was horrible at teaching your average soldier anything. And so the military changed their protocols. They consulted researchers about mental strength and resilience. And they learned that many of our ideas about toughness were wrong…

You and I deal with stressful situations too. (Okay, nobody simulates torturing you but it often feels like it.) Giving up at the first sign of difficulty doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume. So what can we learn from the new science of resilience?

Steve Magness combed the research on toughness for his spirited new book, “Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.”

It’s a Dungeon Master’s guide to hanging in there when we feel overwhelmed. And it has the answers we need. Let’s get to it…


Embrace Reality

When times get hard, we feel we should just dismiss any doubts. Fill ourselves with bravado to push through. But this is rarely the smart choice. When difficulties turn out to be extreme, you’re left like Wile E. Coyote glancing down to realize there isn’t anything beneath your feet – and you’re holding an anvil.

Studies done on military survival school participants found a consistent pattern in those who succeeded – they were realistic about the situation. An accurate appraisal of what they faced combined with an accurate appraisal of their abilities was key.

Ouch. That level of remorseless clarity feels like it will give you cancer of the enthusiasm. But without a clear vision of what you’re facing you can’t make good decisions.

So how do you do this the right way? First, set appropriate goals. We’re often told to dream big but that can lead to crushing disappointment. You want to set goals that are just beyond your reach. A stretch — but do-able. Break the problem into smaller, more realistic steps and slowly increase the difficulty. This allows for progress without the potential for breaking your spirit.

The second pattern researchers noted was people who persisted saw difficulties as challenges, not threats. A challenge is difficult but manageable. Like a game. Perceiving obstacles as threats narrows your focus too much. You concentrate on mere survival and performance tanks.

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But your current “challenge” might feel more like a threat. “I can’t do it” might be tattooed on your consciousness. You’re looking at things realistically – and it’s killing your confidence. How do we handle that?


Boost Confidence

So your confidence levels are a disaster, to the point where they may be eligible for federal funding. Should you “fake it till you make it”?

A study of over twelve thousand subjects found faking it beats doing nothing – but it performed miserably compared to real confidence. Faking it only helps on easy tasks when you just need a bit more motivation to get going.

So how do you feel positive so you can get to work? Actually, it’s the reverse: you act and then you feel positive. Confidence comes from accomplishment, not from telling yourself you’re awesome. Confidence is when meeting goals revises your internal narrative.

To increase confidence while under the gun, pave the way to the progress that produces confidence. First, make an accurate, vulnerable assessment of yourself. When weaknesses are acknowledged you can do something about them.

Next, focus on your average performance, not your best. Benchmarking against your best days leads to disappointment.

When you know what problems you need to solve and what you can realistically expect, you can better prepare, shift your strategy or ask for help.

Admittedly, this is far from a magic bullet. Negative feelings mount and you no longer feel grounded. You’re emotionally caught in an M.C. Escher picture and the stairs always go in a circle…

How do you get your head straight so you can move forward?


Find Control

When you don’t feel you have control over a situation, motivation goes into an apocalyptic tailspin. It’s a quick slide down apathy road to the cul-de-sac of “Why bother?” Meanwhile, a feeling of control offers powerful relief. Had-to-pee-for-a-half-hour-and-finally-found-a-bathroom relief.

Neuroscience research has found that feeling control kicks your prefrontal cortex into gear – your “thinky brain.” It dampens emotions and starts the problem-solving engine going.

So how do we get that feeling of control? Start small. Can I slow my breathing down? Something that small can steady you enough to take the next step.

But maybe you still think you don’t have control. That’s okay. This isn’t about whether you objectively have the resources to handle the situation; it’s an issue of how you feel. And when you feel you have a choice, you feel you have control.

Steve gives an example that sounds crazy – but makes sense. He was coaching a runner who would always get so worried before a race that she would vomit. Sure enough, before the next big meet she said, “I’m going to puke.”

“Great! When do you want to do it?”


“We’ll schedule it. When do you want to puke?”

Ummm… 9:45?

“Good, I’ll set an alarm.”

The time came to vomit and… she didn’t need to. It was the first time this ever happened. She was still nervous, but she’d gained a sense of control over it. It was her decision now. Her choice. And she ended up running her best time of the year.

When we build choice into the system, we get a feeling of control. This is the same reason diets often include a cheat day. No, there’s not a physiological benefit to them. Your metabolism is not so easily tricked. But by making isolated failure a part of the system, it stops being failure. It becomes a choice, and you don’t give up.

So create a ritual for yourself. Athletes often have crazy rituals – like wearing the same color socks on game day. Yes, it’s superstitious but it’s not crazy. Rituals give you an early feeling of control, even if it’s illusory. This allows you to confidently get started. And then once you make progress, the control and confidence become real.

Alright, you’ve got tools to be more confident. But when the pressure is on, your brain can feel woven from crooked branches of pessimism. The emotions keep coming…

But that’s a good thing — if you know the right way to deal with them…


Respond Instead Of React

Old school toughness says feelings should be ignored. But the research shows this is so ineffective you might mistake it for homeopathy.

Truly tough people like top athletes don’t do this. They know ignoring emotions means losing valuable information. “Interoception” is awareness of how your body is feeling. A study of stock traders showed those who had better interoception made more money. It wasn’t better credentials that predicted who was profitable; it was who could listen to their body.

But the bigger problem with feelings is they can convince us that we have to obey them. When things get hard and negativity escalates, your brain starts dishing out hot nonsense on a scale that is nothing less than mythic. It’s like a haunted house but the ghosts are in your head.

How do you strike a balance between listening to your body and not listening? Remember that emotions are messengers, not dictators. This prevents your brain from seeming like a good friend who is trying to kill you. Your feelings are employees offering you options, not the CEO giving you orders.

Yeah, easier said than done. What’s the secret to making it work? Create space. No, you don’t need to move furniture. Accept whatever emotions come in. When you wrestle with feelings your brain says, “This must be important.” It turns into a “Don’t think about white bears” problem. By accepting feelings, you don’t amplify them.

Next, label the emotions. This mystically transforms feelings into thoughts. And once you’re thinking, your thinky brain takes the wheel. Don’t say, “I’m tired.” Say, “I’m experiencing tiredness.” It doesn’t define you. It’s just information you can use to make a better decision.

Instead of amorphous feelings warping your mind, you have suggestions coming from your body. And then you can have a calm internal conversation with them over tea and biscuits:

“I’m experiencing tiredness.”

Noted. But we’re on mile twenty of a marathon right now so we’re supposed to be tired. Thanks for the tip, Brain, but we need to keep running.

This takes us a long way toward where we wanna be. Problem is, if the threat challenge is substantial enough, your mind hauls out its biggest weapon:


And that will kick a hole in your soul. But this leads us to the most powerful motivator of them all…


Transcend Discomfort

When you look at all the studies on persistence, something comes up again and again. The people who perform best aren’t motivated by fear, money, image, or anything external. The royals of resilience are those driven by something internal. Purpose. Meaning.

But how does meaning reduce the pain of serious stress? It doesn’t. One time I needed to have a root canal and I asked the dentist for nitrous. I told him I didn’t want to feel the pain. He corrected me with what might seem like a minor distinction: “With nitrous, you’ll still feel the pain. You just won’t care.

And that’s what meaning does. Being a parent is stressful as all get out. It can feel like an endless parade of difficulty. But you persist because you know that taking care of your kid is more important.

Some feelings are powerful and motivating. (Looking at you, Confidence.) But some feelings are hard to come by and fleeting. (Still looking at you, Confidence.) But deep meaning says, “It doesn’t matter how I feel right now – I’ve got bigger fish to fry.” And you keep going.

So think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why is this important at the big picture oh-my-god-this-is-my-one-life level?

And if you don’t have a good answer to that, you can find deep purpose someplace else. No, you don’t have to join a creepy, disturbing cult like Satanism or CrossFit. Look to the people you care about…

In 2010, the awesome Dacher Keltner studied over 300 players’ behavior during games of the 2008-2009 NBA season. He found that the number of high-fives and chest bumps predicted team cooperation and better performance.

So you need more high-fives? No, you do not need more high-fives. It’s what they represented. They were signs the players cared about one another. They were in it together. And they not only persisted, they won.

There are stressful times when you don’t feel like you’re “in it together through thick and thin.” It can feel like you’re “in it together through thin and thinner.” But when we feel support from others, we stay in it. Together.

Alrighty, time to round it all up and learn the real value we get from resilience over the long haul…


Sum Up

Here are the secrets of toughness:

  • Embrace Reality: It can be harsh, but you’re not going to make better driving decisions by blocking the windshield. Set appropriate goals and don’t see threats, see challenges.
  • Boost Confidence: We don’t feel confident and act, we act and feel confident. Be honest about your weaknesses so you can compensate for them. Focus on your average performance to make progress without disappointment.
  • Find Control: Without a feeling of control, we lose motivation. Realize you always have a choice. Create a starting ritual.
  • Respond Instead of React: Don’t ignore your feelings. Accept and label emotions. See feelings as information, not dictators.
  • Transcend Discomfort: In the end, the only motivation that matters comes from meaning. A greater purpose or the support of others. Gimme a high-five, willya?

The old version of toughness doesn’t work. I’m not saying recent science has euthanized that concept. No, no, the research has, um, moved old school toughness to a big farm! Yeah, where it can run and play with all the other outdated concepts. It’s very happy there. We got you a new version of toughness right here, darling…

Real toughness is being realistic, finding control inside yourself, accepting feelings as information, and having a sense of meaning that keeps you going.

No, this isn’t going to be a mental luau. Yes, there will be struggle. I know, more struggle doesn’t sound fun. You may already be tenured in struggle.

But you don’t want to just quit. On the mental purchase page for “quitting” it says: Amazon shoppers who purchased quitting also purchased regret, sadness, and lack of fulfillment.

Look, I’m not one to judge… out loud. But I’d argue if you’re not doing enough things that occasionally make you want to quit, you’re not doing enough important things.

In the end, it’s not about the challenges or accomplishments. It’s about how all those little choices shape the person you are. Your character. Becoming the kind of person who is resilient in the face of stress. So don’t give up…

Just schedule the vomiting for 9:45.


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