The secrets of resilient people

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Did you know it took 5,127 different tweaks and modifications over six years to invent the Dyson vacuum cleaner?

Now it’s one of the world’s most well known inventions and  has spawned a multi-billion company. Sir James Dyson said, “Failure is interesting – it’s part of making progress. You never learn from success, but you do learn from failure. (When I created the Dual Cyclone vacuum), I started out with a simple idea, and by the end, it got more audacious and interesting. I got to a place I never could have imagined because I learned what worked and didn’t work.”

Are you guilty of beating yourself up when you have a setback and calling it a failure, letting it halt your progress, rather than an opportunity to learn? John Lees, careers expert and author of Secrets of Resilient People, says that resilience is the key to thriving under pressure and coping with setbacks.

When we experience a setback, it’s easy to just give up. How do we overcome that instinct?

I heard a good description about fishing  – people actually spend a lot of time fishing without getting any results, which is why it’s called fishing and not catching. So in other words, how you overcome setbacks is to have a mindset that says you’re going to spend a proportion of the time hearing ‘no’ for an answer or not getting a result. So it’s almost playing a mental game about how we predict and record occasional failures, like writers collecting rejection slips. You predict setbacks and turn it into a game. If you know you’re going to have to jump a number of hurdles why would you give up?

If you know you’re going to have to jump a number of hurdles why would you give up?

Can stress be a good thing?

Stress is a natural part of life and because it focuses us it brings out a tension and creativity and adrenaline which tends to improve performance. So managed right and in the right doses, stress can bring out above average performance. Managed badly it can depress performance because we become overwhelmed with anxiety. A really good indicator [of the right dose] is where you’re looking, because if it’s too much stress then you’re looking at yourself, saying “I’m stressed.” If it’s the right amount of stress then you’re focused on the task and getting results, saying “I’m working under pressure but I’m hitting the deadline.”

What qualities should you cultivate to develop resilience?

Strangely enough resilience increases with experience anyway, simply because your brain recognises that you’ve dealt with this situation before. So in terms of qualities, I think maybe that’s the wrong thinking because that says I’ve got to find some resources within myself and I’ve got to improve my character. It’s better to change your behaviour. For example, not allowing yourself to be pushed into a decision or not reacting on the spot to criticism. The other thing to do is to develop strategies, and that’s very personal but it will often involve things like taking time out or finding somebody else to process the event with.

Why is failure a good thing?

Catastrophic failure doesn’t always help people in the short term although we can learn from any kind of failure. A lot of inventions have been the result of a long succession of failures. Failure is negative if you’re just processing it and reprocessing over and over again you’re not really learning from the experience and you’re just dwelling on it. Instead you should use a scientific mindset that says if that doesn’t work then what’s the next ingredient or the next approach? That’s where failure becomes a good thing, when it encourages you to learn.

Do we fall into the trap of thinking success looks a certain way?

It’s a good question. I think what that means is that we have one fixed idea of what it means to be strong, or effective, or successful. And it’s a good idea to look around for different examples of the way people do things. So a good example would be to look at somebody more senior than you who is happy to express their vulnerabilities or talk about their mistakes while at the same time is still effective and confident. It’s easy to be distracted and attracted by high-performing extroverts who make a lot of noise and never seem to make progress, but it’s good to find a high-performing person who is more like you so that you can tap into that kind of behaviour.

How do I get support from those around me?

One of the things that people need to understand is what their best time of day is for absorbing information. For some people that’s 6am and for some people its midnight, and then try to ring-fence that time and negotiate with others. So it’s working out a deal where you say I need this hour, not just any hour but this time because that’s when I’m working at my best and I need the energy. Rather than being resentful that you never have time to study [or work on your projects], it’s usually better to see where you can find smaller amounts of time to do critical things.

Turn failure into growth

  • Think of something that you’ve considered a failure. Now apply ‘a scientific mindset’ to the experience and recognise that your ‘failure’ is just a step on the way to success. Ask yourself:
    • What you’ve learned from it
    • What you need to do next

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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