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Jun 20 / Kristine Peterson

Find Your Resilience and Success Will Follow

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

Academia is often associated with the archetypal disgruntled graduate student, the beaten down postdoc, and the disheveled, overextended assistant professor. And for good reason—research is hard and oftentimes, thankless. But it is also the perfect paradigm for developing resilience. Sometimes described as “grit” or “moxie,” resilience is a quality that refers to how we can bounce back after disappointment. Think of it as a kind of elasticity; you get knocked down, but instead of shattering, your sense of self remains intact, or transforms into something stronger and more knowledgeable than before.

Why does resilience matter? Why shouldn’t you go home and wallow after a failed experiment, a rejected grant, or an unpleasant encounter with a difficult advisor? Because wallowing won’t help you in the long run. Ruminating on the little failures will only drain your resolve. Someone who is resilient, instead, will focus on what she can learn from the failure, tweak her technique, and with a renewed optimism, move forward.

Easier said than done, I know.

If you’re thinking right now that you’re not very resilient, know that you’re not alone. In fact, a 2011 study found that disadvantaged students in the U.S. were less resilient than those from other countries. This is a problem since resilience is often touted as one of the most important traits required for a successful life. But self-awareness is a first step you can take toward shedding the victim mentality and embracing a resilient outlook.

A recent TED article outlined the steps you can take to become more resilient. Perhaps the most resonant was to stop waiting for the situation to change itself. This is the difference between the active wondering what you can do to rectify your problem versus the passive hoping that the problem will just disappear. In other words, be proactive about finding a solution instead of just waiting for some outside force to change your situation. Chances are if you choose the latter approach, you’ll be waiting for an awfully long time.

In general, experts agree that resilience requires a shift in perspective from an overarching negative view to a positive one. Dr. Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, professor of management at California State University and author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain writes that our brains did not evolve to create happiness as much as to wish it so. Part of this may be that in order to survive, our brains constantly scan for obstacles that could impede our progress. As a result, we gloss over the good as we try to preempt the bad. Breuning advises training our brains to build a positivity circuit by spending one minute three times a day looking for good things in our lives. She also suggests that when your efforts produce disappointing results, adjust your expectations and take another step while reminding yourself that most great achievements take effort that does not bring immediate results. That latter bit sounds a lot like resilience.

Academia can be extraordinarily stressful, especially these days. But know that what may seem like an unwelcome grind that consistently toys with your feelings of inadequacy, can be a wonderful opportunity to practice exercising that resiliency muscle. Doing so will help propel you forward to your goals faster and with greater purpose. Daydreaming and hoping are not necessarily bad qualities, but they are far less likely to produce results. So the next time you’re faced with an obstacle, whether tiny or gargantuan, try your best to assess what you can learn from the situation, and what steps you can begin to take to overcome it. Remember, even minuscule steps count; just keep moving forward. In the end, it will make your success all the more delightful.

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