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What Jill Abramson can teach us about resilience

Jill Abramson spoke at  Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Monday.

Jason Miczek/REUTERS

Jill Abramson spoke at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Monday.

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson delivered a swaggering keynote speech on being resilient at Wake Forest University’s graduation on Monday. She was graceful. “I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university,” she started. And she was grateful — for the support she’s received as well as for the stellar career she’s had up until now.

(For the record, she’s keeping the paper’s “T” logo tattoo on the back of her neck.)

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But the speech also left me a little wanting. Abramson certainly illustrated resiliency by appearing to speak in public less than a week after her ouster, but she provided the graduates with few life lessons on how to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after getting knocked rudely on your tush.

“Show what you are made of,” was the one bit of advice she gave. That’s what her father always told her to do, and Abramson said she was directing those words at anyone who’s “been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school.”

But how, I wondered, should you go about bouncing back, and can we learn to do it — or are a few lucky ones just born with this innate ability?

“There are individual differences in how resilient people are, but these are also skills that can be learned — preferably before you have to deal with serious adversity,” said psychologist Shelley Carson, who teaches a resiliency class at the Harvard Extension School in Cambridge.

Here are a few skills that she recommends her students cultivate to help them become more resilient. (Abramson appears to have most of them.)

1. Have a sense of realistic optimism. Stay positive in the face of adversity, but don’t be a pie-in-the-sky pollyanna and just believe that all your troubles will eventually sort themselves out. “Do a realistic appraisal of your options,” Carson said. “Determine the best possible outcome, and shoot for that.”

Abramson said she’s not sure what she’s going to do next. “I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you,’’ she joked to the graduates. But she also said she was a “little excited” so clearly, she’s thinking optimistically about what paths lie ahead.

2. Rely on a social support system. Abramson mentioned that her sister called her after her firing to say how proud her father would have been of her, and Abramson’s daughter — Mass. General Hospital surgical resident Dr. Cornelia Griggs — has been tweeting public messages of support including a photo of her mom in boxing gloves. “You need friends and loved ones to buoy you in times of distress,” Carson said. “With her speech, Jill Abramson appears to be giving to as well as taking from them.”

3. Work from your strengths, not your weaknesses. “Write down the five things that are best about you and let those things lead you, rather than listing deficiencies that need to be overcome,” Carson suggested. Once you have a sense of where you excel, you can fill in gaps in experience or knowledge by figuring out what skills you may need to acquire another job, deal with a failed relationship, or overcome a health problem.

4. Set goals. Research indicates that people who established goals that they’re trying to meet are more resilient when they hit a bump in the road than those who think their lives are blown about by the winds of fate, Carson said.

5. Be mindful. Acknowledge that opportunities abound. “There isn’t only one person in the world for you or one job,” Carson said. Appreciating the array of choices you’ll likely have in the future can help you feel less stuck in your current situation. Part of being mindful also involves being authentic in how you handle the crisis. Abramson decided against resigning quietly, preferring to deal with her firing in the public eye. Others may have chosen a more diplomatic exit.

“From what I’ve read about her, Jill seems to be handling the situation the way she always does,” Carson said. “Knowing that you are staying true to yourself throughout can make you more resilient.”

6. Embrace the small rough patches. See minor challenges — like dealing with a new boss or a flood in your basement — as a way to build your resiliency over time. Kids should also be allowed to deal with tough challenges. “Parents today try to smooth the road, but kids need to learn from a young age that life is full of adversity,” Carson said. “They won’t escape it no matter how beautiful, rich, or intelligent they are, and they need to develop these skills to help become a stronger person.” As a class exercise, she has her students write down stories of setbacks they had as children and how they dealt with them.

7. Adopt an attitude toward gratitude. “It seems silly but it’s not,” Carson said. “Rather than dwelling on all the things you don’t have or used to have, think of what you do have that you can be grateful for.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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