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Can resiliency be learned?

Our work world is rapidly changing and hyper-connected. The question for the modern-day worker is not if they will experience adversity, but when, and how often. No wonder resilience is a common buzzword in human capital circles.

As a psychologist, board certified coach, and head of the global coach community at BetterUp, I’ve studied resilience for decades. Many people assume resilient people are naturally born that way, but it turns out that not only is resilience common, but it’s also something you can learn and develop.


The best way to think about resilience is through the metaphor of a seesaw with a pivot point in the middle–protective experiences and adaptive skills on one side counterbalance adversity and challenge on the other. Since resilience results from a highly interactive process between personal characteristics and environment, genetics plays a role. Our genes shape the initial position of the pivot point.

However, science shows us that experiences, and how we respond to them, can move the pivot point. When we learn and strengthen skills that help us manage stress, the pivot point slides so the seesaw tips toward positive outcomes more easily.

That’s what resilience is all about. The more we influence the pivot point through resilience-based practices, the more the seesaw tips toward positive outcomes. When we neglect to invest in developing and maintaining this skill set, our pivot point can slide in the other direction, and this makes it more challenging to bounce back from setbacks.

Here are five questions to ask to assess whether you’re actively moving your seesaw’s pivot point toward resilient, adaptive outcomes:


Many people see life as something that happens to them. They feel like events and circumstances outside of themselves control them. One of the significant things that sets highly resilient people apart from the rest is that they have a strong internal locus of control. In other words, they take the most effective action on their behalf because they believe they are primarily in control of their lives.

When you develop a higher internal locus of control, you’re enabling higher levels of confidence and calm in the face of change. So the next time you feel helpless in a situation, see if you have the choice to change or influence your circumstances, even slightly.


Most people worry when they face a challenging situation in work or life.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average person has 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 95% of those thoughts repeat each day and, on average, 80% of repeated ideas are negative.

Psychologists call this the negativity bias. Highly resilient people challenge this bias by choosing “wonder over worry” when adversity hits. (Best-selling author Amber Rae coined the term.) They take a moment to pause, step back, and be curious rather than let their thoughts affect emotions and behaviors.

This practice enables the core resilience skill of “cognitive agility” to kick in. Cognitive agility is the art and science of knowing your mind so you can choose whether to operate in default mode or adjust to make better choices. Next time you fall into worry, approach your thoughts with deep curiosity and consider alternative

explanations to your thought.


Highly resilient people treat problems as a learning process. For them, “fail” stands for “first attempt in learning.” Embracing this word empowers you to step outside of your comfort zone more frequently because even if you “fail,” you know you’ll learn from mistakes, which ultimately brings you closer to your desired outcome. How do you turn failure from a regret into a resource? By using challenges as opportunities to acquire or master skills.


In our comfort-crazed culture, people go to great lengths to avoid discomfort. Anyone who has tried yoga can likely relate to the feeling of being twisted in a pose that is, at first, very uncomfortable. But when you lean into the pose (rather than resist it), a sense of stillness emerges. The same is true in stressful situations. If you embrace stress as a positive thing, there are significant upsides.

Research shows that stress is destructive, until the moment you believe it isn’t.

Changing the way you think about stress changes the effect stress has on your body. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s research has found that the best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink it, even embrace it. When people view stress as harmful, it can lead them to cope in unhelpful ways.

So next time you find yourself feeling stressed, play an active role: Instead of asking, “Why is this happening to me?” ask yourself, “What for?” or “What next?”


I’ve devoted much of my life’s work to the study of motivation and was saddened to discover that BetterUp’s Meaning and Purpose at Work (MAP) research found that, on average, employees say their work is about half as meaningful as it could be.

As the renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl so powerfully communicated in his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, meaning is a primary intrinsic motivation of human beings.

Resilient people possess a clear sense of meaning and purpose that enables them to stay the course even when things get tough. It’s much harder to feel defeated when you have a deep sense of meaning for what you’re working toward.

It takes time to learn any new skill, whether it be a new language, playing the guitar, or being more resilient. Devote time and energy until your resiliency skill set becomes habitual for you. You’ll be in a better position to take control of your situation, approach challenges with curiosity, and build off deep meaning that makes work and life more enjoyable.

Being more resilient will also make you the type of colleague people want on their team.

Dr. Jacinta M. Jiménez is a Stanford University trained and licensed doctor of clinical psychology and a board certified coach

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