Recent studies and historians have asked why some people buckle under hardship and others are able to struggle through and achieve great things. Their answer is an intangible quality: resilience.
In fact, many of the world’s most successful people—Oprah Winfrey, John McCain, Stephen Colbert—have endured trauma and difficulty, but have not been stopped by it. In fact, their struggle is part of what has made their success.
By its nature, resilience is hard to define. It is not just a “pick yourself up and try again” attitude. It’s not something that comes from a weekend seminar. Resilience is what makes the child of an alcoholic parent be able to grow up and be a loving, stable dad. It’s what gives prisoners of war the will to live on and get home. At its core, resilience is deciding that your circumstances will not defeat you.
As it turns out, most of us already know a great depiction of resilience: the 1993 cinema classic, “Groundhog Day.” If we take a closer look, we can see just what resilience is and how it can change our lives.
As you likely know, “Groundhog Day” is about weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) who gets stuck living February 2nd on repeat. This causes a range of reactions. Initially, he uses it as an excuse to be reckless. He smokes and shoves pieces of cake into his mouth whole. He drives along train tracks, gets chased by police and thrown in jail. He uses his uncanny knowledge to try to seduce his co-worker, Rita. He does this because, in his words, “If there is no tomorrow, there are no consequences.” Phil can’t see a future, so why not have a little fun?
But Phil soon learns that there is a flip side: if there’s no tomorrow, there’s also no hope. He can’t change his circumstances. He can’t get Rita to fall for him. He copes with this nightmare by trying to have fun with it, but that ultimately fails. He thinks his life is pointless, so he tries to kill himself. Many times. He fails.
After waking up after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, his co-workers ask about the day ahead. Bitterly he says, “It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be gray and it’s going to last you your whole life.” That’s Phil’s life in a nutshell.
It’s only after he explains this misery sincerely with Rita that he’s able to make sense of things. She helps him step back from his unhappiness and get some perspective. Perhaps reliving February 2nd is not a curse—but an opportunity. Now instead of being miserable, Phil is able to see some hope.
When Phil recognizes that he can’t change his circumstances he does what resilient people do: he changes himself.
A man who was incredibly self-centered, unpleasant and dismissive of others works to change his character. He saves the lives of strangers. He’s kind to a pair of newlyweds. He shows genuine interest and affection for Rita—instead of just manipulating her to fall for him. For the first time he sees that it may not be a punishment. It could be a blessing.
When tomorrow finally comes, Phil Connors is a better man. He embraced hardship and saw the purpose in it. As a result, he greets the morning of February 3rd with more joy and strength than he could have before.
While none of us will have this particular problem, we all do have the necessary ingredients to build resilience: struggle, attitude and action. Every struggle forces us to choose how we are going to react to it. If we get passed over for a promotion, we can choose to pity ourselves, bust out the Haagen-Dazs and sweatpants and vow to never go to work again.
But on the other hand, we can step back and try to understand the situation. Resilience, like education, doesn’t come overnight, but through continued effort. One way to foster it is through self awareness. Ask yourself: why did this happen? How can I learn from this and set myself up for success next time? What unique wisdom does this give me that I couldn’t have had without it—how will that help me in my career moving forward?
Resilience is making the decision that struggle is going to make us more, not less. It is going to add to our character, not subtract from it.
If we change our own attitude about our pain and believe there is a future ahead, we can meet it with a strength that could only come from surviving struggle. Resilience is believing that February 3rd will come—and making our character worthy of it when it does. It’s a skill that will serve us as much in our careers as it does in our lives.