Given the choice, I would choose struggle over the softer, easier way each and every time. Now before you accuse me of insanity, permit me the chance to invite you to reframe the way you approach adversity in your life.
As an elite endurance athlete, I'm accustomed to brushing up against physical and psychological thresholds -- the uncomfortable feeling that comes knowing that the difference between success and disappointment lies on that razor-thin edge bridging the gap between self-exploration and complete annihilation.
Like many athletes competing in extreme endurance events, I arrived to the sport well honed in the skills necessary to successfully navigate the landscape of adversity. A childhood tempered with physical and sexual violence fostered in me an unbreakable will to survive, something that I continued to draw upon well into my 30s in order to weather serious issues with addiction and precarious mental health.
Are we doing ourselves, and more importantly our children, a disservice by sidestepping the lessons of adversity?
Today, it makes no difference if I'm giving a talk to a group of students or delivering a keynote at a conference, I always return to the same refrain: "I would not wish my life experience on anyone else, yet at the same time, I would not wish for another life because it has delivered me to a place of immense self-knowledge and inner fortitude."
I think it's safe to say that as a society, we are rather risk-averse. We are eager to walk a smoother path, and are naturally drawn to life hacks, shortcuts and workarounds. But are we doing ourselves, and more importantly our children, a disservice by sidestepping the lessons of adversity?
Friedrich Nietzsche referred to what he called "the discipline of suffering," something he credits with propelling most human advancements and enhancements. He talked about the lesson of strength that can be mined in the discomfort of adversity:
"That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness -- was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?"
I'm currently at work on a book about resilience, and part of the research for this project has involved interviewing a broad cross section of individuals from around the world who exhibit and possess sustained resilience in their lives.
One of the questions I hope to answer in this book is whether or not it is possible for someone to nurture and "default to resilience" even though (s)he has not experienced trauma, devastating loss or extreme adversity in life.
Not surprisingly, the responses from the people I've interviewed vary greatly on this point, but one theme appears to be reverberating throughout these interviews -- an acceptance that there are indeed practical steps each of us can take to become more resilient.
Surround yourself with 'gritty' people
In her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth describes grit as a two-fold quality embodied by individuals who are not only hardworking and resilient, but also determined and direction-oriented in life. I've come to believe that having the ability to survive adversity has little to do with whether or not a particular person is resilient. For me, resilience lies in the echoes of adversity, and it comes into fruition once we make a conscious decision to make meaning out of, and ultimately, take direction from the adversity or trauma. Therefore, one of the surest ways to foster resilience in your own life is to surround yourself with others who are willing to fearlessly look into the depths of their pain, defeats, and adversity.
Reconnect with your body
In his groundbreaking book The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk investigates the interaction of the mind, brain and body, and the role they each play in the healing of trauma. Bezel points out that "We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain's own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives... [by using the bottom up approach, we allow] the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage or collapse that result from trauma."
This has most certainly been the case in my experience as a long-distance runner, particularly in that it has allowed me to reconnect with my body on a physical and I would add, spiritual level -- something that time and again proves difficult for survivors of sexual violence. The same can be said for those who turn to other sports and practices such as yoga that compel us to become more in tune with the fluidity of movement in and around our body.
Learn to fail better next time
In our drive to be risk averse and in an attempt to insulate ourselves from adversity and loss, we inadvertently lower the bar on our true potential and opportunity for self-discovery. One of the examples of a "gritty mindset" that Duckworth turns to in her book is that of Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seatle Seahawks of the NFL.
In addition to being instrumental to the sustained success of the Seahawks, Carroll is also credited with making the fateful decision that lead to the Seahawks' heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XLIX. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Carroll does not shy away from owning the outcome of his decision. In fact, he suggests that we embrace the successes and failures of our life because each "becomes a part of you. I'm not going to ignore it. I'm going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I'm going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!"
A while back I was chatting with a former U.S. Olympic marathoner who told me that he no longer fears failure. Instead, whenever his training or a big race becomes derailed, he takes in the entire experience and asks himself "How can I fail better next time... What can I do right now to make sure that next time I fail, I will be in an even better place to learn from it?"
Compare inwards, not outwards
Resilience is analogous to growth, and I believe it is a finite resource that must be consciously replenished. One of the ways in which we unnecessarily deplete our reservoir of resilience is to continually compare our life to those around us.
This can take many forms; for instance, we have a tendency to diminish the resonance of our trauma and pain in our own life by comparing it to someone else's that we believe to be much more impactful. Moreover, instead of acknowledging the growth and change within us, we negate these stepping stones by comparing where we are to where someone else is. I've heard this beautifully described as "comparing your low lights to someone else's highlights."
If you or someone you know exhibits a high level of resilience and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Use this four-step process when you're curious about a reaction you had, don't like a reaction you had, or simply want to find a new way of looking at a problem. This technique is based on the work of Drs. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, and can help you better understand why your react the way you do to certain situations. First, describe factually what pushed your buttons (who, what, where, when); second, write down your reaction -- both what you did and how you felt (I felt angry and yelled); third, write down exactly what you were thinking in-the-moment during the challenge; and fourth, ask yourself whether your reaction helped or hurt your ability to find a solution. If you find that your reactions are harming your leadership ability, relationships, or other aspects of your life, target your thinking, which is where we have the most control.
Kids have zest in abundance, but as we age, societal and organizational pressures quietly tell us that having fun and being serious don't go together. Not surprisingly, zest is a strong predictor of work and life satisfaction. In addition, fun helps you socialize, provides an outlet for learning and creativity, and has great health benefits. The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor posts numerous resources, including research, about the benefits of fun.
Research by Dr. Christopher Peterson and his team shows that using your strengths in new ways every day for a week increases happiness and decreases depression. In addition, Harter et al. found that those who get to do what they do best at work on a daily basis have increased loyalty, retention, and productivity. Two strengths tests are the StrengthsFinder by Gallup and the VIA Inventory of Strengths.
When you hear the word "optimism," do you think of a big smiley face, Pollyana, or an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand? That is not the kind of optimism that builds resilience. Optimism as a resilience ability is about a thinking style and not about a personality trait. Optimistic thinkers are able to identify what's in their control during a setback. Second, optimistic thinkers know "this too shall pass." They know that a stressor might be around for awhile, but it likely won't be around forever. Finally, optimistic thinkers know how to compartmentalize. For example, if they have a setback at work, the fallout does not bleed into other areas of their life. Conversely, pessimistic thinkers think the cause of a problem will be around for a very long period of time, affect many different areas of their life, and they fail to see where they have any control.
Remember the children's book The Little Engine that Could? The phrase the engine kept uttering was, "I think I can, I think I can." That is self-efficacy -- your ability to believe you can accomplish what you want to accomplish. The tendency to remember and dwell on only the times when you've failed or done less than your best often thwarts your ability to remember what you've accomplished. To build your self-efficacy, keep a journal of "wins." Write down all of the times in your life when you have exceeded expectations, accomplished tough goals, and were in control of your life. Review this list often and keep adding to it. Encourage your kids to start building their list now. In addition, don't be afraid to start small. Small victories create momentum, which is a great foundation from which to succeed at more complicated tasks.
Shelly Gable's research shows that how you respond to a person's good news actually does more for building a relationship than how you respond to bad news. This applies across the board, from personal relationships to business interactions. Responding in an active and constructive way -- that is, helping the bearer of good news savor it -- is the only response that builds good relationships. Killing the conversation by offering a terse response or hijacking the conversation by making it about you are quick ways to weaken a relationship.
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