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Personal Development

Resilience Required: How to Succeed in a Chaotic World
By Dan Chenoweth, MBA/CPA
Aug 10, 2007 - 11:19:00 AM

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Not long after 9/11, I read about a group of people trapped in a World Trade Center elevator during that catastrophic event. Inside were business executives and a window washer with a long pole. The window washer immediately laid out a plan to pry the elevator doors open using his pole. Once opened, the elevator's occupants realized they were on a service elevator that did not access every floor - and they were stuck between floors! Again using his pole, the window washer devised a way to dig through three layers of dry wall to reach the interior hallway leading to a stairway. All were saved.

Regardless of education, training, previous success or status, why is it that some individuals, when confronted with unthinkable circumstances, immediately size up the situation and proactively move toward a solution while others are immobilized by fear? The key differentiating factor appears to be something called 'resilience.' Resilience is the ability to demonstrate both strength and flexibility when faced with dramatically changed expectations. It is not only the capacity to absorb high levels of change but to do so proactively.

Resilience is one of the key characteristics separating successful people from the unsuccessful, yet it is one of the most elusive of human qualities. Many times you don't know you have it until you need it, such as when dealing with an unexpected job layoff, being turned down for a long-awaited job promotion, the death of a loved one, going through a divorce or other setback.

I'm often asked if resilience can be learned or if it's something you are born with. Research indicates that there are certain behaviors of resilient people that can be learned. These characteristics are from Daryl Conner author of the book, Managing at the Speed of Change:

- Positive outlook: A sense of security and self-assurance; realization that life is complicated and full of danger but also full of opportunity and teachings.
- Focused: A clear vision of what one wants to accomplish in life.
- Flexible: A willingness to change course as necessary and as circumstances warrant.
- Organized: Following a structured approach to deal with and manage ambiguity.
- Proactive: Making change work for you instead of resisting or fighting it.

An article by Diane L. Coutu in the May 2002 Harvard Business Review, titled "How Resilience Works," delineated three primary characteristics of resilient people:

- Acceptance of Reality: Able to objectively assess the parts of reality that really count for survival and on-going success. Truly understanding your personal strengths and weaknesses and how they can work for or against you in a given set of circumstances.
- A Deep Belief that Life Has Meaning: Looking for patterns, meanings or key learnings in adverse circumstances. Ability to work through today's situation as a springboard to a better tomorrow.
- Ability to Improvise: Like our window washer, using whatever tools are at hand to get out of a jam. A sort of inventiveness or creativity which may result in familiar objects being put to unfamiliar uses to make things happen.

How can you learn to be more resilient in a post 9/11, Enron-scandalized and chaotic world? First, realistically assess yourself against the previously mentioned characteristics of resiliency. For weak areas, consciously make an effort to exhibit resilient behaviors the next time you are faced with a significant and unexpected setback. Second, understand that change is a comprehensible process with phases that can be worked through. If you are already faced with a setback, develop and implement a plan to move from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. And one way to hold that resilient posture is to remember it is the uncertainty of change that causes people the most discomfort, not necessarily the new destination for which they strive.


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