The Paradoxical Traits Of Resilient People

Resilient people develop a mental capacity that allows them to adapt with ease during adversity. Like bamboo, they bend but rarely break. How resilient are you?

Journalist Hara Estroff Marano once wrote in a Psychology Today article "The Art of Resilience":

"Resilience may be an art, the ultimate art of living…

At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself—yet also a belief in something larger than oneself. Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs."

She argues that it is possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It's possible to fortify your psyche. It's possible to develop a sense of mastery.

For most, sooner or later life throws us a major curve ball or two. And if you happen to be an entrepreneur like me, you will most likely have to survive personal and professional adversity repeatedly.

Marano’s remarks about being resilient and surviving adversity resonate well with me. I think that no matter what we do, pursuing anything worthwhile takes a tremendous amount of resiliency.

Resilient people develop a mental capacity that allows them to adapt with ease during adversity. Like bamboo, they bend but rarely break. Resilient people possess a set of paradoxical traits.


It is difficult to understand how you can control your destiny when the very nature of adversity takes away your control.

Laurence Gonzales, author of Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience in an article writes:

"Julian Rotter, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, developed the concept of what he calls 'locus of control.' Some people, he says, view themselves as essentially in control of the good and bad things they experience—i.e., they have an internal locus of control. Others believe that things are done to them by outside forces or happen by chance: an external locus. These worldviews are not absolutes. Most people combine the two.

"But research shows that those with a strong internal locus are better off. In general, they’re less likely to find everyday activities distressing. They don’t often complain, whine, or blame. And they take compliments and criticism in stride."

This internal locus allows us to create options and scenarios based on instinct, the situation, and foresight. It allows us to create alternative plans in anticipation or in the midst of adversity. It is your personal exit strategy. Fostering your internal locus takes an enormous amount of devoted practice of self-leadership and a certain mindfulness.


As humans, our instincts are to fight bitterly against the adversity we are faced with. The most resilient among us will often find a way to fight it by embracing it.

On my desk, I have a copy of The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Very few have talked about embracing adversity like him. He was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a husband and father of three. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. He gave his Last Lecture on September 18, 2007. His story, and in particular this final lecture, are a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit.

"It's not about how to achieve your dreams, it's about how to lead your life ... If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you." —Randy Pausch

Randy decided to accept his situation and live out the days he had remaining by making a difference. He died on July 25, 2008, and now he lives on not only through his family but also through the millions he inspired. I am certainly one of them.

If you haven’t seen the Last Lecture or read the book, then you must.

I think, once we accept our situation and let go of the outcome, it allows us to adapt and even thrive in the face of adversity. As he explained:

"Another way to be prepared is to think negatively. Yes, I'm a great optimist. But, when trying to make a decision, I often think of the worst case scenario. I call it 'the eaten by wolves factor.' If I do something, what's the most terrible thing that could happen? Would I be eaten by wolves? One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist, is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of things I don't worry about, because I have a plan in place if they do."


"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable." —Helen Keller

Sometimes, if we pay close attention, we will see that adversity can come into our life to guide us to our true destiny. It certainly did for Helen Keller.

Helen Keller fell ill, lost her sight, her hearing and fell mute while she was a child. Today, her name is known around the world as a symbol of courage, strength and determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Through the tutelage of her teacher Ms. Annie Sullivan and other great supporters, she used her adversity to find her vision, her voice, and a calling for herself that led to great benefits to others. She wrote:

"For, after all, every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill of Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire."

And when all else fails to keep myself resilient, sharing other people’s stories like these helps me find motivation in the face of my own adversity. Happy trails my friends.


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[Image: Flickr user Lyle Vincent]

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  • Tom Pryor

    Excellent insight on a very important topic that is not taught in school. My favorite book on the topic is The Resilient Life by Gordon MacDonald. He lists the principles of resilience as being (a) practice it, don't profess it; (b) practice secretly & humbly; (c) practice lifelong; (d) don't coast at any age; and, (e) its a lifelong investment, much like looking at an old redwood tree in the forest.

  • Leanne Faulkner

    A great article.I would add to that the ability to fail well. Resilient people embrace failure. They know how to learn from failure, to separate themselves from the failed event and to move on. People who fail well become unstoppable.

  • Suzanne Adair

    The first time I encountered this concept of resilience was in Jim Collins's book GOOD TO GREAT. Collins discusses how Admiral Jim Stockdale, imprisoned and tortured for eight years in the "Hanoi Hilton," survived his ordeal. "The Stockdale Paradox" is what Collins labels the psychological duality that enabled Stockdale to survive.

    The Stockdale Paradox looks like this: "Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

    In an interview with Stockdale, Collins asked him who didn't make it out of the Hanoi Hilton. Stockdale said, "The optimists." These people were unable to deal with the brutal facts of their reality. They kept expecting to be rescued by Christmas, by Easter, by Thanksgiving. And when they weren't rescued, they died of broken hearts.

  • Jayden Chu

    Thank you for this article. Everyone has the ability to be resilient, we just choose how to do it. In life, many challenges will come our way and the best way to win is by being strong.

  • Erika Awakening

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. When I look back on the successes of my life, I noticed something common in all of them. They were all times where I found what I call my "inner Rosa Parks." Most people are familiar with Rosa Parks. She's the one who one day finally got so sick and tired of racial segregation that she refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. What she went through due to that choice would to most people be totally overwhelming and lead them to back down. Yet it seems she simply had made up her mind that she wasn't going to take it anymore. And so it didn't matter that she got arrested, fired, harassed, and everything else. She had found a place within herself that no external circumstance could conquer. That's how I think of resilience now. When I find that truth within myself, I become unstoppable. Cheers :)

  • David Hain

    Brilliant as usual Faisal! We own a small business and as it was getting started we were obsessed by fee rates and finding new clients, often at the expense of enjoying life with a young family. We made a conscious decision to stop worrying and live life as it was afforded us. You know what happened, of course - we made more cliets at higher fee rates! Applied acceptance at work?

  • syntress

    Great article! Totally right on what it takes to face adversity. I like to tell other folks just getting started that the world is rubber. I believe it's our job to find out how far we can go in molding our version of it.

  • Tammy Wieloch

    Wonderful article. This struck me 'I think that no matter what we do, pursuing anything worthwhile takes a tremendous amount of resiliency.' I definitely agree that when we dare to do, be or have something different or be catalysts for change, it requires courage and resiliency. I also believe that our sense of purpose or mission and a commitment to action actually cultivate resilience. It's a paradox. To be resiliient, I think we may have to choose a courageous and daring path. That bold choice creates the well from which we will draw our daily waters of resilience.

  • Tanya Sardana

    For a 19 year old girl trying to climb the ladder of life, resilience is a skill that I want embedded in me for good. I had heard these terms; adversity and resilience before, but the internal locus of control was more than enlightening. I am a strong believer of destiny and karma which makes me grateful to whoever wrote this article. I now am clearer about the kind of person I want to be, thank you.

  • Moe Carrick

    Indeed, it is often our hardship that creates our strength and wisdom. I have so very much respect for the courageous people out there facing hardship every day!

  • Sherry McKinley

    I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you for putting into words what I've practiced during my life. As an entrepreneur with a 35 year old business, I've seen my share of ups and downs. But nothing took me down like losing my adult son to suicide last year. I jumped on the road to "recovery" within a few weeks, finding support resources for "survivors of suicide" and working on pulling myself out of the dumps daily. While others in the group were there to figure out how to "survive" such a tragic loss, I made it my mission to regain joy and do more than survive -- I wanted to find a way to thrive again. I never lost my faith during the process. I found ways to reconcile the loss, even accepting that I agreed to these ups and downs before swooping into my human body… and telling myself that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be. Nobody gets out alive, nobody gets out pain-free. It's all in how we choose to live life. Resiliency is my favorite tool in the toolbox:)

  • Doyle Buehler

    I'll have to say that being resilient is a huge factor of the world we call entrepreneurship. Yes, life is hard, but the people who want to change it can decide to become more "entrepreneurial". This is where you have to be able to pull out all the stops, keep going when others would call you crazy. Why? Perhaps it is avoiding the sense of defeat? "Resilience may be an art, the ultimate art of living..."… I believe that it is core to being an entrepreneur - ""Resilience may be an art, the ultimate art of Entrepreneurship"… Doyle Buehler