5 Ways to Build Resilience and Conquer Adversity
A couple of weeks ago, I was doing market research on mental health apps, downloading anything onto my phone related to relieving stress, anxiety, depression, and so on. I wanted to see what’s going on in that part of the industry and if maybe I wanted to drop a bunch of money into a sinkhole trying to make one myself.
Most of the apps advertise themselves as “self-care” apps. They have cute and fancy names intentionally misspelled by one letter. They promise to reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, and help you destress in difficult situations. And they all assure us that they’re based on the latest, greatest science.
I doodled around with them for a couple of days. Some were interesting and had cool features. Many did not. Some gave decent advice. Most did not. I made notes and then moved on.
But what I forgot was that I had left notifications on for all of them.
For the next week, I woke up to a steady stream of banal platitudes and feel-good nonsense cascading across my phone:
- “You have a beautiful smile, Mark. Don’t forget to share it with the world today.”
- “Whatever you want to achieve today, you can do it, Mark. All you need to do is believe in yourself.”
- “Every day is an opportunity and today is yours. I’m proud of you for being you.”
Without fail, these notifications immediately put me into a sour mood. How can a phone know what my smile looks like? And how the fuck can you be proud of me when you don’t even know me? Is this what people actually sign up for? A digital device licking their balls each morning with a bunch of narcissistic fluff?
I logged back into the apps and was quickly bombarded with affirmations and positive statements telling me how special I was, how I had a unique gift to share with the world, how I should share something I was proud of at that moment. Please sign up for $9.99 per month.
I’m sorry, but if this is what passes for “mental health” advice these days, then we’re just pouring kerosene on a goddamn dumpster fire. Because this doesn’t promote emotional stability. It promotes self-absorption.
Table of Contents
Developing Resilience Doesn’t Mean Feeling Good All the Time
It’s no secret that there’s a growing “mental health” crisis occurring right now. Rates of anxiety and depression are at all-time highs.1 Stress levels are through the roof.2 Suicide rates have been climbing in most countries the past few decades.3 And what’s worse, people are starting to experience anxiety disorders and depression at younger and younger ages.4
Put another way, we are becoming less psychologically resilient as a culture. The word “crisis” used to be reserved for at least a million people dying—usually in a gulag or concentration camp. Now the word “crisis” gets thrown around like a football at Thanksgiving.
Everything’s a crisis. Everyone’s having a fucking crisis. Timmy got an F on his term paper. It’s a crisis! Call his parents! Call his grandparents! Dig up his great-grandparents! His confidence is in crisis. His self-esteem is in crisis. Hurry, sign him up for an app that tells him how beautiful his smile is!
Our aversion to pain and struggle in any capacity has become so ingrained in everything we do that it’s compromising our ability to learn, grow, and function as healthy and stable adults. It shocks and appalls me that companies and products that are supposed to help alleviate this issue are only making it worse.
You don’t build psychological resilience by feeling good all the time. You build psychological resilience by getting better at feeling bad.
This point strikes me as so obvious that I’m still regularly stunned when I come across books, courses, articles—and now apps—that take someone who has a crack-like addiction to receiving empty validation and then just sell them more empty validation. Timmy’s problem isn’t that he’s sad that he got an F. His problem is that he’s too busy feeling sorry for himself to fucking study for once.
In our culture’s constant pursuit for optimum convenience, for whiz-bang gizmos that obey our every whim, for constant positivity and applause in everything we do, we’ve made ourselves fragile and weak. We catastrophize everything. We are offended by everything. And we’re so far up our own asses with self-importance that we actually think being offended means something. It doesn’t. Fuck off.
If I made a mental health app, the notifications you would wake up to would say things like:
- “Congratulations, you now have one less day to live. How are you going to make it count?”
- “Think of the person you love most in this world. Now imagine them being attacked by a swarm of killer hornets. Okay, now go tell them you love them.”
- “Andy Dufresne literally swam through three hundred yards of piss and shit for the opportunity to have freedom. Are you sure you’re not wasting yours?”
I wonder if anyone would download it.
96 people had breakthroughs last week. This week, will one of them be you?
No spam or unexpected emails. Ever.
How to Build Resilience in Your Life
Psychological resilience doesn’t come from positive feelings. It comes from leveraging your negative feelings. Resilience is the ability to create positive adaptations to negative events.5
It’s the ability to take things like anger and sadness and make them useful and productive. It’s the ability to experience failure and self-loathing and use them to improve yourself. It’s turning lemons into a fucking pina colada. It’s taking a paint can full of shit and rolling a perfect bowling strike with it. When you are sufficiently resilient, you become unstoppable.
Yet, this appears to be an ancient skill, a forgotten art. But fear not my intrepid shit-can bowlers, for I shall walk you through a few of the best ways to do it.
1. Care About Something Other Than Yourself (For Once)
On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former marine suffering from a complete mental breakdown, climbed to the top of the 27-floor University of Texas tower in Austin, Texas with a sniper rifle, and began firing on civilians on the street below.
Over the next 96 minutes, he shot 45 people. Some died instantly. But many were left out in the blazing 100-degree (40 degree celsius) Texas sun for hours before medical personnel could get to them.
A college freshman named John Fox had been playing chess with his friend that afternoon when the shooting began. Thinking the shots were fireworks left over from the Fourth of July, he went outside to see what was going on. Soon, he found himself pinned behind cover, fearing for his life.
Minutes dragged on like hours. Terror and heat engulfed the city. John started having a panic attack. He became dizzy, his vision went blurry. He had trouble breathing. Desperate, he crawled underneath a bush to keep cool and hopefully calm himself down.
Minutes passed. Then, he looked out across the mall—the large extended walkway in front of the tower—there were half a dozen victims who had been shot lying there on the sizzling concrete.
That’s when he saw Claire Wilson, a pregnant woman who had been shot. What’s more, from his new vantage point, he could tell that she was still alive and moving. But barely.
At that moment, something came over John. Just as quickly as the panic and anxiety had consumed his body, something else consumed his body. “I just knew I had to do something,” he said. It was courage.
John collected himself, got up from underneath the bush, sprinted out onto the mall, and while putting himself directly in the sniper’s line of sight, he and another student managed to carry Claire to safety, saving her life.6
There are countless examples of heroism like this in the world. But what I love about this story is that it presents a nice dichotomy:
When we are focused on ourselves in a crisis, we become overwhelmed and we panic. When we are focused on others, we rise above our fear and act.
A lot of what drives people’s anxiety today is the constant rumination and focus on the self. We get a new job. Then we wonder if people will judge us for our new job. Then we wonder if we should be worried about people judging us or not. But if we don’t worry, then would we be insensitive? So, maybe we should care. But what if we’re overthinking whether we should care? And what if we’re overthinking that we’re overthinking? And what if our overthinking is making us care too much and—aghhh!!! Quick, where’s the valium?
When we are anxious, we become obsessed with preventing pain in the future. Instead, we should be preparing for pain in the future. Guess what? Little Timmy is going to get an F some day. Every child fucks up one way or another. The question is, are you going to be prepared to help him learn from his mistakes? Or are you going to be one of those parents leaving angry voicemails for his teacher?
The way we orient ourselves towards preparation for pain rather than prevention is to simply have a larger goal in life than feelings or pain. If you make your career the top priority in your life, then you don’t fucking care if people judge you for leaving this job or that. If you make your child’s maturity your chief mission, then a failed paper can help you on that mission rather than hinder you.
The easiest way to overcome that anxiety is not to get rid of risk, it’s simply to make the risks worth something. Find some cause, some mission, some deeper purpose to your actions.
As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’”7
On that smoldering day in Austin, Texas, John Fox didn’t get rid of the risk of being shot. Rather, he merely found something worth getting shot for. And that’s what gave him the courage to move.
2. Focus on What You Can Control
Okay, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
The bad news is that you pretty much control nothing that goes on in your life. You can’t control what other people say or do or believe. You can’t control your genetics, the circumstances you were born into, or whether your mom was depressed and your dad was an alcoholic when you were growing up.
You can’t control the weather, the year you were born, the cultural values you inherit or the people you grow up around. You can’t control almost anything that happens to you—freak car accidents, lightning strikes, flash floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, solar flares or meteor strikes.
You cannot fully control whether or not you contract cancer, diabetes, lupus, Alzheimer’s, or Hashimoto’s. You can’t control whether your kid dies, your sister dies, your friend dies, your friend’s friend dies, or that guy you slept with in college dies in a freak ice fishing accident.
You can’t control how people feel about you, what they hear about you, how they think about you, the way they see you, hear you, smell you, or even touch you.
You cannot fully control basically anything that goes on in this crazy ass world around you.
But here’s the good news. The one thing you do control is far more important than all the others.
You control your thoughts. You can always control your thoughts.
The Buddha once said that when you get struck by an arrow, you are injured twice. The first injury is the physical injury, the arrow piercing your skin causing you to bleed. But the second arrow is our beliefs and thoughts around the injury. We decide that we didn’t deserve to get struck by the arrow. We think about how much we wish we didn’t get struck by the arrow. We wish the arrow had never happened. And for those thoughts, we suffer.
This second injury is purely mental. And it is optional.
Psychologists often talk about something called “pain catastrophizing.”8 Pain catastrophizing is when someone takes something small—like someone disagreeing with their point of view—and blows it up in their mind to the point where they believe their whole life is over. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, because in the age of social media people do it all the fucking time.
There are a few reasons people can be motivated to catastrophize. The first reason is simply that they’ve become so coddled and lazy and have nothing meaningful happening that the slightest inconvenience strikes them as a legitimate crisis. This is the explanation I explored in the second half of my book, Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope.
But there are other reasons we catastrophize. One reason is that we can be socially rewarded for it via sympathy, attention, and a sense of importance. Many argue that social media has created a “victimhood culture” where people are emotionally rewarded for their grievances. Therefore, people unconsciously try to be as aggrieved as possible.9
I’ve written before how our culture is currently dictated by the extremes of human experience. Catastrophizing could easily be another way that we convince ourselves that we are living with those extremes.
Catastrophizing can even be adopted as our identity—look at us, we’re that person who always has sOmeThInG cRaZyyyy going on! That’s how our family knows us. That’s how our co-workers know us. That’s how we know ourselves. And, like any identity, we become attached to it and protect it. It provides us a sense of security and knowing.
The problem is that catastrophizing fucks us all up. It’s making Buddha’s second arrow far larger and more painful than the first. When the Buddha’s point was that there is no second arrow—that it’s invented in our minds—we’re like, “No thanks, check out how many likes I can get on Facebook if I turn this into the biggest fucking brouhaha the world has ever seen!”
One thing I try to remind myself is that there is nothing in this life that I have suffered that millions (billions?) of other people have not also suffered and survived before me. Pain catastrophizing, much like obsessive rumination, conceals a narcissistic core. It operates on the assumption that your experiences are singular and special, that no one could possibly understand the pain and hardship you’ve endured, that somehow the world has conspired against you and only you.
You cannot control your pain. But you can control how you think about your pain. You can control whether you believe your pain is insurmountable or whether it’s a trifle. You can control whether you think you will never recover and be the same again, or whether you think you will bounce back fine.
Because pain is inevitable, but suffering is only in the mind.
3. Inward Optimism, Outward Pessimism
Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-king who ruled at the height of the Roman Empire, wrote of his daily routine, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I will deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.”10
Well, put that in your morning gratitude journal and smoke it!
Marcus Aurelius is one of the most well-known Stoics. Unlike a lot of modern focus on happiness and optimism, the Stoics believed that one should practice visualizing the worst possible outcome of a situation as a way to mentally prepare yourself for hardship. The thinking went that if you could be comfortable with the worst, then everything else would be a pleasant surprise.
It turns out that there is some wisdom to this. While it is important to be optimistic about the things you control, being optimistic about the world outside of your control often just sets you up to suffer that much more when things don’t go your way.
Another way to think about this is that it’s best to be pessimistic about the actions of the world around you, but optimistic in your own ability to surmount those obstacles—outward pessimist, inward optimist.
An extreme example of this happened during the Vietnam War. Admiral James Stockdale was captured as a prisoner of war and taken to the infamous P.O.W. camp, “The Hanoi Hotel” in Vietnam. There, along with his fellow prisoners, he was chained, tortured, and forced into slave labor for many years.
Reflecting back, Stockdale later said that he never expected to escape. He didn’t expect to be released or liberated any time soon. He expected to be there for many, many years.
Meanwhile, the soldiers around him remained optimistic and hopeful. They always believed that their liberation was right around the corner. Then when it didn’t come, they were grief-stricken. As Stockdale later put it:
“The optimists were the ones who died. The optimists were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out of here by Christmas.’ Then Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ Then Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving. And then Christmas again.”11
In the end, those prisoners didn’t die from the torture or hardship, Stockdale said, “They died of broken hearts.” They lost hope.
Meanwhile, Stockdale accepted his fate. He planned to be in prison for the long haul. And he decided, if he was stuck there, he might as well make the most of it. Over the next eight years, he developed coded communications, covert intelligence networks, and methods for smuggling supplies in and out of prisoners’ cells. He’d later win the Medal of Honor for his courage.
“I never lost faith… I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into a defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
Those who are prepared for pain are the most resilient in the face of pain. Those who expect challenges are the most ready to face challenges. Therefore, an optimal mindset towards life is a dual-sided approach: an outward pessimist—”Life is fucking hard and the world is shit”—but internal optimist—”yet I can handle it, and I’ll be better for it.”
This seems to be the magical combination that wins at life.
4. Find Your Inner Masochist
The sick and twisted truth about human nature is that as much as we crave feeling good all the time, there’s a small part of us that kind of likes the pain and struggle.
This is because the process of overcoming pain and struggle makes us feel as though we have lived meaningfully.
The most important and defining moments in our lives are often also the most unpleasant: near-death experiences, lost loved ones, divorces and break-ups, winning an excruciating battle, or excelling through a nerve-wracking ordeal. It’s through the hardship that we grow and change and later look back and become incredibly grateful for what we went through.
When I think about the most resilient people I’ve ever known, what strikes me about them is that they don’t just invite struggle into their lives, they adopt an identity around their struggles. They allow themselves to be defined by their struggles.
Looking back, I think this is something I managed to do in my own life around work. I remember when I first started my business in 2008, I would work twelve, fourteen, sixteen-hour days. I remember I used to fall asleep in bed with my laptop on my stomach at night, and then wake up the next morning and immediately pick up my work where I left off.
Originally, I worked these insane hours out of pure terror and necessity. I was broke. The economy was in the toilet. I had nowhere to go. I lived on a friend’s couch and then later was supported by my girlfriend. Most months I couldn’t help out with rent. Some weeks I could hardly even feed myself. But I was determined that if I failed, it would not be because I didn’t try.
It sucked, but as time went on, these insane work marathons began to feel normal. Then I realized that I had unintentionally developed a kind of superpower that I’ve had ever since.
I remember a few years later, staying with some friends in a co-working house at the beach, realizing that I was up before anyone in the morning and the last to close my laptop at night. I would work through weekends and holidays without knowing they were weekends and holidays. With time, it became something that I took pride in, a facet of my identity that I enjoyed indulging. I was the guy who would outwork anybody, who was tireless, who would fall asleep at the keyboard.
Now, obviously there are downsides to workaholism. But these days it’s something I’ve learned to turn on and off, like a switch. It’s there when I need it. And I’m still proud of it. I still get a sick pleasure out of it. To this day, I’m strangely proud when I cordon off an entire day in my weekend to work. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. But I know, and I care. And it makes me feel good.
It’s my little piece of masochism. The voice inside myself that says, “Yeah, choke me, bitch! Fucking choke me!” as I sit down for a six-hour work sprint on a Sunday afternoon.
We’ve all got that masochistic voice for something. Athletes find it in testing their physical threshold. Scientists find it in obsessively analyzing data. Soldiers and police have it for putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others.
Where is it for you? In what way are you secretly a masochist? What pain do you get a sick pleasure out of? And how can you leverage that to benefit you when the challenges come?
5. Never Suffer Alone
Everyone knows that the first lesson of investing is to diversify. You don’t want to put all your money into Apple because if Tim Cook goes bonkers and decides to release iToothpaste, then your retirement savings are screwed.
Instead, you’re supposed to spread out your investments across dozens or even hundreds of investment vehicles. That way if something unexpected happens—*cough* like a pandemic *cough*—not all your money goes down the same toilet.
You can kinda think of human relationships the same way. Each of us is forced to be invested in ourselves. If good things happen to us, we feel good. If bad things happen to us, we feel bad.
But as we go through life, we can also build relationships with others. Building relationships is like investing a small percentage of our happiness in this other person, and receiving an investment of some of their happiness in us in return. This allows us to diversify our happiness across many people in many different aspects of life. And this diversification makes our own emotional health more resilient when difficulties in life come.
You want a strong network of relationships because when life comes along and knocks you on your ass—and trust me, it will knock you on your ass—you want an emotional safety net of people who can step in and share a bit of the emotional burden with you.
You want people who will listen and care and sit there and drink eight beers with you even though they know they’re going to feel like ass in the morning. You want people who will call and call again, even when you’re being a dickhead and wallowing in your own self-pity.
Because no matter how big of a badass you think you are, none of us can stand up forever on our own. As human beings, we are evolved to be somewhat emotionally dependent on each other, to rely on each other and need each other, especially in our most trying times.
If you are currently suffering, the most valuable thing you can do is reach out and connect with someone, talk about your problems, and share your pain. It’s the most necessary ingredient to coping with any sort of psychological trauma.
And if life is fucking great and you’re kicking ass right now—awesome! But use this time to build those connections, to share in the ass-kicking goodness, to diversify your emotional investments and create that support network. Because the good times never last. And the next time a crash comes, the last thing you want is to be down in the hole, all alone.
- G. L. Klernman and M. M. Weissman (2009) Increasing Rates of Depression, Journal of the American Medical Association. 261, pp. 2229-35.↵
- Cohen and D. Janicki-Deverts, (2012) Who’s Stress? Distributions of Psychological Stress in the United States in Probability Samples from 1983, 2006 and 2009. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, pp. 1320-34.↵
- See: Our World in Data, “How Suicide Rates Have Changed”↵
- J. M. Twenge, “Time Period and Birth Cohort Differences in Depressive Symptoms in the U.S., 1982-2013,” Social Indicators Research 121 (2015): 437-54.↵
- See: Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist, 18(1), 12–23.↵
- This story comes from the excellent documentary Tower (2016). I highly recommend it.↵
- This famous line (and many others) comes from the opening section of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (1889).↵
- See: Sturgeon, J. A., & Zautra, A. J. (2013). Psychological Resilience, Pain Catastrophizing, and Positive Emotions: Perspectives on Comprehensive Modeling of Individual Pain Adaptation. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 17(3).↵
- See: Campbell, Bradley & Manning, Jason. The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars. (2018) Palgrave MacMillan.↵
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated by Gregory Hays (2002), Modern Library, p. 17.↵
- These quotes come from Jim Collins’ interview of Stockdale as written in his classic business book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (2001) Harper Business, pp. 84-85.↵