Building Resilience

Everyone faces some kind of adversity on life’s path. One character trait that distinguishes successful individuals (including entrepreneurs, athletes, and musicians) is their ability to effectively cope when they face those setbacks and move forward. They use failure as a feedback mechanism to get better and keep going through tough times. Many of those who are able to overcome difficulties and achieve success possess the character trait of resilience.

As an important character trait (perhaps one could call it a virtue), resilience should feature as an important part of a family governance and education program. Many wealthy families in the United States are entrepreneurs who may personally be resilient. However, they may not be adequately passing on this trait to their children, who are growing up in entirely different circumstances. This article is intended for members of the rising generation and contains ideas that a family office could incorporate as part of a family governance and education program. It highlights the importance of resilience and some ways in which resilience can be cultivated.

Examples of Resilience

Most of the famous characters we know throughout history were resilient individuals, even the notorious ones. (Resilience should obviously be combined with ethical behavior!). For example, consider a former president of the United States whom most people consider to be one of the best in US history, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln suffered numerous major political defeats up to and throughout his presidency. And yet, he persisted.

Abraham Lincoln’s Political Career
1832Defeated for state legislature 
1834 Elected to state legislature
1838Defeated for speaker of state house 
1843Defeated for nomination for Congress 
1846 Elected to Congress
1848Lost renomination for Congress 
1854Defeated for Senate 
1856Defeated for nomination for Vice President 
1858Defeated for Senate 
1860 Elected President of the United States
Source: Lucas Morel, compiled from Selected Speeches and Writings/Lincoln, Don. E. Fehrenbacher, ed., 1992.

Lincoln pushed forward despite repeated personal and professional setbacks, displaying resilience. For a list of twelve more famous people who overcame adversity, read here

Generally speaking, resilient people take the actions described below. Rising generation members should seek to build these qualities, as it is rare for people to be automatically resilient without training and life experience. A personal learning plan can help make these actions become habits.

Be Positive

Is the glass half full or half empty? Do you concentrate mainly on what is going well for you, or do you focus intently on how things did not work out as you hoped they would? Humans tend to see the negatives. There is a good biological reason: foreseeing disaster (and occasionally avoiding it) is a lot more likely to keep someone alive than living in a carefree manner. Unfortunately, this way of thinking also makes us a lot less happy. When negative thinking makes us give up or stop trying, then it is counterproductive.

Along the same lines, truly resilient people tend to avoid thinking in catastrophic terms. For example, they do not obsess about all the ways an upcoming situation could go horribly wrong. That doesn’t mean they’re being blindly optimistic. Rather, they rationally evaluate the circumstances and think in more reasonable terms about what various likely outcomes could be.

  • Put it in perspective. What is the likelihood of my worst fears being realized? If the chance is not high (or not remotely quantifiable) then do not devote more mental energy to this outcome than other possible outcomes. 
  • Prioritize action. Is there anything I can do about it? If not, focus on what can be done and do not fixate on something that is entirely out of your control.

Go with the Ebbs and Flows

Resilient people understand that life is a combination of wins, compromises, and losses. By accepting that you will not-that you cannot-always come out on top, you can be in a better position mentally and emotionally to handle setbacks as well as full-on losses.

There will be times when you lose for reasons beyond your control. Fortune does indeed play a role in our success. Sometimes you will lose just because you were unlucky. There will also probably be times when your failures are the product of your mistakes and bad judgments.

Often, hard times come that are not our fault. These are perhaps the most difficult because there is no apparent reason for what happened, and no obvious fix for the situation. Paradoxically, gaining command of the situation means letting go first. The ancient Stoic philosophers urged acquiescence to the flow of “what is.” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

In an old fable, there was an oak tree and a reed. The oak was proud of his strength and criticized the reed for bending whenever there was even a light breeze. Then a hurricane came, and the oak was uprooted, while the reed bent and swayed, but returned upright once the storm passed.

The Role of Grit

There is another aspect to this, which is “grit.” Grit is the combination of perseverance and passion that Andrea Duckworth describes in her well-known book. The basic idea is that successful people are not the smartest or the most intense, but the ones who keep coming back time after time, ignore setbacks, and work hard. Grit is applying consistent pressure over long periods of time in pursuit of a worthwhile goal.

  • Learn to Let Go. Sometimes you need to accept what has happened to bounce back—the definition of resilience. 
  • You Control Your Mind. People cannot choose where they were born or what has happened, but they can choose their thoughts and actions in the present.
  • Find your Passion. It is hard to stick with something if you do not have a clear goal of what you want. Having a passion or strong interest will help you overcome difficulty.
  • Be Tenacious. Single-minded pursuit of a goal is more powerful than you can imagine. It works like compound interest—little wins stack up to create big ones.

Learn from Failure

Resilient individuals are often better able to take lessons from their failures. For the rising generation, this may be an anxiety-producing concept because pressure to succeed is high, and opportunity to fail is low. While there are no easy workarounds for this, one helpful technique is to adopt a growth mindset. 

A growth mindset is one that does not accept the status quo. In other words, a person with a growth mindset believes that he or she can improve his or her traits, abilities, and character. The benefit to this is that one can then internalize and productively use situations, both good and bad, as learning experiences. 

In order to learn from their failures, resilient people study what they did and how their actions produced the adverse outcomes. They do not try to completely avoid thinking about the failures and push on. They determine their errors and then form a plan to try to do something differently the next time. It takes courage to admit to yourself and others that you made a mistake.

When Mistakes Happen…

As mistakes are likely inevitable, learning from them will make it easier for you to persevere in difficult times. You will likely make different mistakes down the road-but hopefully you will not be repeating the old ones, having learned better. 

  • Take your time. The personal pain of reliving their failures tends to make people want to rush through that process. But by going quickly, you may miss key elements that would help you better understand the genesis (and true consequences) of your poor decisions. You will learn the most by evaluating your failures slowly and methodically. Look at your errors from a number of perspectives. Make sure when you identify a lesson it is relevant to your situation. All this is going to take time.
  • Be objective. While you do not want to beat yourself up, you do not want to sugarcoat things either. If you refuse to be honest with yourself, you are not going to be able to identify the lessons you need to learn. Aim to be constructive. You need to balance the good with the bad by evaluating the situation objectively.
  • No pain, no gain. It is okay if your evaluation causes you some pain. The idea is not to avoid the pain of your failure, but to use it to learn lessons that will make you more resilient.

Tell a Story

The last way to tackle adversity is to listen and tell stories, especially within the family. Intergenerational stories boost family cohesion and reduce anxiety. By hearing how other family members solved problems and overcame difficulty, the rising generation can develop a personal story that contextualizes their own problems.

In a Harvard Business Review Magazine article titled What’s Your Story, authors Ibarra and Lineback argue that storytelling enables us to successfully navigate jarring life transitions. They write, “It is in a period of change that we…most need to link our past, present, and future into a compelling whole” (18). By telling stories, we shape our futures and inspire others to trust in who we are and where we are headed.

A story creates order out of the complex and random events, both good and bad, in someone’s life. Not only does a narrative make sense of the past, but it also gives meaning to the present, and gives a vision for the future.

The Hero’s Journey is a great way to formulate a story that makes sense of difficult situations. Read more here to learn about it. 

  • Listen to people who have had similar experiences. They may have insights or perspective that will help you navigate your current situation. At the very least, you will learn that you are not alone.
  • Tell or write your story as part of a life journey. Talking or journaling can help integrate adversity into your overall story of life. It becomes one episode (the present) but does not consume the past or future. It is easier to frame adversity as a learning opportunity once it is in this context.


Life can be hard at times. No one in the world breezes through each day. Many of those who appear to have been the most successful are those who have also experienced deepest lows (like Abraham Lincoln). Being able to deal effectively with the trying times is a major advantage, in business as well as in your personal life. Start by adopting the habits and actions of resilient people, and you will be on a better path for when the next challenge comes your way.