Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson delivered a keynote speech on being resilient at Wake Forest University’s graduation last Monday.
But the speech left me wanting. Abramson certainly illustrated resiliency by speaking in public less than a week after her ouster from the Times, but she provided the graduates with few life lessons on how to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after getting knocked down.
“Show what you are made of,” was the one bit of advice she gave to 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 some just born with an innate ability to recover?
“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.
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.
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 establish goals 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.
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. Others may have chosen a more diplomatic exit.
“Knowing that you are staying true to yourself throughout can make you more resilient,” Carson said.
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. “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,” Carson said. “It seems silly,” but it’s a great way to cultivate optimism and get through those rough patches.