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Resilience book

The Building Resilience Handbook is packed with practical exercises and inspirational stories. This groundbreaking, research-based book guides you step-by-step to develop inner strength and realistic optimism.

How to ask for help and enhance your reputation as a leader

ID-10046852Successful leaders get things done. They think big, drive for results, take risks and deliver on their plans. They also do something that is less known, and that is they ask for help. When facing difficulties, they ask for help in a way that builds cooperation and respect.

Some leaders don’t feel comfortable asking for help, when self-sufficiency is prized in our western work. They fear asking for help may be seen as a sign of weakness or that they are not competent. Yet, the same leaders often struggle with an increased work load and lament the lack of cooperation in their organisation.

If leaders are reluctant to seek help themselves, it sends a signal to their team members that admitting vulnerability and not coping is unacceptable in the organisation. If this happens, feelings of isolation and alienation will increase with the rise of organisational uncertainty.

It’s only when leaders model that seeking help is not only acceptable but is actually desirable, that the team and ultimately the organisation will be able to proactively get the resources they need to support themselves and to transition the organisation through difficulties.

This was also borne out in my research on personal resilience (more here), which found that asking for help and also giving help was one of the seven components of resilience.

So how can you overcome an inherent reluctance to ask for help, and to ask for help in a way that enhances your reputation as a leader, rather than diminishes it? Here are some ideas: Continue reading

Get your free copy of The Building Resilience Handbook!

The Building Resilience Book

The Building Resilience Book

The Building Resilience Handbook is normally available as an e-book from Amazon Kindle at US$11.39. To thank you for reading my newsletters about resilience, I am making it freely available to you for a limited period. It will be only available free from 25 May to 29 May, 2016.

Have a look at some of the reviews of the book:

  • “Inspiring and applicable throughout one’s lifetime” Fred Irumba, science teacher, Jakindaba Senior Secondary School.
  • “Easy to implement at work and home. The results are remarkable!” Brent Beilinsohn, Manager, Old Mutual Investment Group South Africa.
  • “Mind blowing! Implementing these practical exercises has made me a better person” Fanuel Kakuiya, Senior Superintendent, South African Police Services.

Imagine having abundant inner strength and resourcefulness to withstand and recover quickly from whatever difficulties life may throw at you. With The Building Resilience Handbook you can.

Packed with practical exercises and inspirational stories, this groundbreaking, research-based book of 314 pages will guide you step-by-step to develop inner strength and realistic optimism. It’s the formula to not only survive but thrive in the face of life’s challenges. Continue reading

The Building Resilience Handbook is going free!

The Building Resilience Book

The Building Resilience Book

The Building Resilience Handbook is normally available as an e-book for Kindle at $13.65. To thank you for reading my newsletters about resilience, I am making it freely available to you for a limited period.

Have a look at some of the reviews of the book:

  • “Inspiring and applicable throughout one’s lifetime” Fred Irumba, science teacher, Jakindaba Senior Secondary School.
  • “Easy to implement at work and home. The results are remarkable!” Brent Beilinsohn, Manager, Old Mutual Investment Group South Africa.
  • “Mind blowing! Implementing these practical exercises has made me a better person” Fanuel Kakuiya, Senior Superintendent, South African Police Services.

Imagine having abundant inner strength and resourcefulness to withstand and recover quickly from whatever difficulties life may throw at you. With The Building Resilience Handbook you can. Continue reading

The Building Resilience Handbook selected as set work for University of Cape Town MBA students

The Building Resilience Handbook is the set work for the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business 2012 MBA class. Professor Kurt April, who teaches the Advanced Leadership module, has selected it as the set work, and structured his lectures on the seven constructs or principles outlined in the book. He believes that resilience is a key differentiator in leadership, and thus central to his teachings at the university.

The book assists people build their inner resourcefulness to deal with tough jobs and pressurised projects, to cope and even thrive in the face of adversity.

It is available from

What is resilience?

Is resilience “mental grit”, tough mindedness or perseverance? The answer is that all of this but much more.


IMG_0007Most people understand resilience as the ability to “bounce back” and “stay the course” during tough times. And it is indeed correct that resilience is the ability to not buckle, but rather to persevere and recover from tough times. In this way, resilient individuals at work remain task-focused and productive in the face of personal and organisational difficulties.


But resilience is not just about fortitude and persistence. Resilience is also about healing, recovery and becoming stronger than before.


Now we all wish for good times; those times when we feel we’re on an even keel, when we can cope and when most things in our lives go smoothly. But we also know that personal development does not occur during good times. It’s at times when we are challenged, our resources stretched, and we have had to move out of our comfort zone to find new and different ways of coping and dealing with adversity, that we develop.


Abraham Maslow, the noted early psychologist, understood this and proposed that people evolve as they move through various states of being towards the highest level of personal development, which he called self actualisation. This theory has been further developed by thinkers like Richard Barrett, who has identified different values associated with each level of what he calls consciousness.


From these perspectives, the experience of tough times may have a benefit to us. Whilst not sought or welcomed, tough times can facilitate personal growth and development. When this happens, adversity, difficulties and real challenges have the potential to give us the opportunity to become better individuals, and live our lives more in tune with our real values. In this way, personal resilience helps us to heal, recover from adversity, and move on with our lives.


Thus a more comprehensive understanding of resilience is that it is the life force to cope with tough times, heal and move towards self actualisation. It enables living an authentic life, true to one’s values, and achieving one’s purpose.


With this broader understanding, resilience is truly a life force we all need!

Assess your personal resilience using our new questionnaire!



I was working with a group of 25 people in Johannesburg last week who were identified as “affected” by a business case to merge and subsequently downsize two accounting departments. Not good news for the people involved and as you can imagine feelings ran high.


The company had a culture of caring for its staff, but that did not prevent the present economic realities demanding that savings needed to be found, and staff salaries are an obvious target. People were very worried about their jobs and the possibility of being retrenched, but underlying their fear was deep anger. There was anger at the organisation for “betraying” its culture of putting staff first and at a deeper personal level there was anger at themselves for getting into this vulnerable and scary situation.


I was asked to run a “Building Resilience: Strength for Life” workshop for the people in the 2 departments, to bolster their resilience so as to better cope during the tough times and remain task-focussed and productive. After all, the monthly accounting processes and system had to continue functioning!


By the end of the workshop I was delighted at the way the people had responded. This was shown by a question in the workshop evaluation form, in which delegates were asked if they were able to immediately implement at work and at home the resilience tools and techniques that they were taught. They all answered “Yes”. This positive response was despite the tears which were shed by both the delegates and the MD himself who attended the concluding sessions.   


writing-to-reach-you2At the end of the workshop I was asked for a questionnaire which could be used to track and monitor the resilience of the delegates in the weeks and months ahead. I have been working on such a questionnaire for some time, but I was struggling to distil the items and constructs from the research we had done on resilience, and put this into a questionnaire. This was however the impetus I needed to complete the questionnaire and now I am happy and proud to have it in a final format.


The purpose of the questionnaire is to assess personal resilience and gain pointers as to what can be done to strengthen or sustain personal resilience. It’s not a psychometric test and has not been validated.


To gain insight into your level of resilience by completing the resilience assessment and rating questionnaire, click here . Your feedback and questions will be most welcome.





Concluding remarks about the Seven Principles of Building Resilience


We have now dealt with each of the seven research-based principles of Building Resilience. Whilst no-one chooses to experience tough times and adversity, successfully dealing with adversity does have an upside. Personal growth and development occurs most when one is in unfamiliar territory, when comfort levels are breached, and when one is out of one’s depth and struggling.

Building Resilience Principles
1. Connect to your purpose and meaning in life
2. Use your unique strengths
3. Maintain perspective
4. Generate positive feelings
5. Be realistically optimistic
6. Persevere by being open minded and flexible
7. Reach out to others

Adversity creates such an environment, and a response based on resilience enables growth and development, and even life-enhancing change, to take place. The personal benefit for staff in being resilient is that they have inner strength and resourcefulness to absorb “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and live a joyful life.


In this context, resilience is the life-force through which one can overcome adversity, and strive towards self actualisation. But is resilience teachable?


The answer is a resounding yes. Our research has demonstrated that the innate skills relating to each of the seven building resilience principles can be developed and enhanced through training in specific resilience-building tools. These tools have been used successfully by both individuals and teams. When delegates who completed resilience training were asked if they would able to put their newly learnt resilience coping strategies into immediate use at work and at home, 100% of the delegates reported “yes.” Follow-up studies also indicate a statistically significant sustained improvement in resilience over time.

Some species of Cape fynbos require fire in order to bloom (Cyrtanthus ventricosus)

Some species of Cape fynbos require fire in order to bloom (cyrtanthus ventricosus)


Imagine your organisation staffed with resilient people who have abundant inner strength, energy and resourcefulness, with skills that enable them to cope with mergers, new strategies, major change initiatives, new technologies and downsizing. Wouldn’t that make a difference to your team and organisational results!

Building Resilience Principle 7: Reach out to others

“Other people matter” is the pithy finding of noted psychology researchers Christopher Peterson, Jane Dutton, Kim Cameron and others. This concept especially applies to dealing with adversity and so the seventh and last principle in building resilience is: Reach out to others.


This principle has two components – reaching out to others to ask for help, as well as reaching out to others to offer help.


Asking for help is often difficult to do. For people who have a socialised “cowboys-don’t-cry” attitude, even the idea of admitting to having a problem can be very threatening, never mind asking for help. Males, as a generalisation, seem to have more difficulty than females when it comes to asking for help. In addition, and again as a generalisation, the more senior a person is in the organisational hierarchy, the more difficult it is to ask for help. This may be because asking for and accepting assistance may be perceived as a weakness or demonstration of not being up to the task and a sign of not coping. Other concerns about asking for help include:
• “I will feel embarrassed”
• “It will make me look stupid”
• “The person wont respect me afterwards”
• “The person wont want to help”
• “I will be surrendering control to another person”
• “The other person may ask for something in return”


As a consequence of these fears, we may err on the side of delay in asking for help and thereby possibly allow the problem to get worse. Like most difficult conversations, it is thus better to have the conversation about asking for help sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, offering and giving support and assistance to others is usually an easier conversation – particularly in a work context if one’s role requires mentoring and coaching. There is a payoff for the person giving the support – assisting others in need boosts the giver’s resilience, even in cases when the giver is experiencing adversity themselves.

To bring this principle of building resilience home to yourself, there are two questions you may like to consider. Firstly, when you go through tough times to whom can you reach out to for assistance? Secondly, who is going through tough times to whom you can offer assistance and advice?

Answering these questions for yourself will help build your inner resourcefulness and buffering capability – your resilience to cope with adversity, heal, move on and flourish.

Building Resilience Principle 6: Persevere by being open minded and flexible

We all have to deal with tough times. Sometimes small things build up and nothing goes right and we feel like we could just explode. That’s a “bad hair day”! Then there is real adversity and hardship when bad and sad things happen, which we call “the dark night”. What do you do in times like these?

In previous blogs dealing with the principles of building resilience we have covered the two inner core principles of Connect to your meaning and purpose in life and Use your unique strengths. We then outlined the three principles which deal with the inner world of thoughts, feelings and attitude, which are: Maintain perspective; Generate positive feelings and Be realistically optimistic.

This blog concerns the first of the two final principles which deal with the adversity and the external world. This sixth principle of building resilience is:
Persevere by being open minded and flexible

Dealing with adversity inevitably requires some action or some change in difficult circumstances. Thus it is important in building resilience to be persistent, tenacious and not allow you’re self to consider giving up.

Perseverance is however a double-edged sword. On the one hand, too little perseverance means we succumb or become disabled by the adversity. We all have experienced how seductive, easy and even tempting it is during really tough times to surrender to inactivity, stupor and defeat, and simply give up. On the other hand, an excess of perseverance
results in a blinkered and bull-headed approach typically with a fixed mindset; not listening; having tunnel vision; and using brute force to drive toward resolution to the adversity. In such cases it is often “action for the sake of action” with little or no time for creative thinking or reflecting. The consequence of both too much and too little perseverance is often poor decisions with their own unintended negative consequences.

Resilience in dealing with adversity requires open-mindedness and a flexible problem solving approach, allowing for listening, consideration of differing views and being open to a change of tactics or even strategy.

This principle of building resilience of persevering by being open minded and flexible is illustrated by the different courses of actions of two pharmacists who owned and managed separate pharmacies approximately three kilometres apart, and who had to cope with the implications of the promulgation of radically changed legislation controlling the exit prices charged on prescription medication. The implication for them of this new legislation was there would be at the very least dramatically reduced profit, and at worst bankruptcy.


The first pharmacist dealt with this adversity by advocating for changes in the legalisation through the local chapter of the pharmaceutical association, and then later at national level, and was instrumental in getting court interdicts to stop and ultimately alter the legislation. While this was going on over many months, he changed his pharmacy’s focus to become more retail orientated to take advantage of the increasing local tourist trade. He now has the highest turnover of sun-screen protection sales in his geographical region, and makes more profit from the retail side of the business than he did from the sales of prescription medication in the past.

The second pharmacist faced the identical adversity but reacted with less open mindedness and flexibility. He tried to boost sales by getting more repeat business from his existing client base by means of mailed flyers; lowering the prices of some of his non-prescription lines; and introducing motor-cycle delivery to customers. However, he felt that these actions were not very creative and would not have the desired effect. Over time he became increasingly despondent as his worst fears were borne out. He stopped introducing new ideas, and eventually sold the business at a low figure to a national retail chain. With great relief he then took early retirement.

The actions these individuals took differed dramatically, even though the adversity they faced was identical and their circumstances were remarkably similar. The first pharmacist persevered over several years with creativity and lateral thinking and was ultimately successful; the second allowed the adversity to overwhelm his thinking and natural optimism, and ultimately almost crushed him.

Meditation and centering can help create inner calm enabling open-mindedness and flexibility. There are many methods to achieve this calm. A simple yet very effective exercise is to close your eyes and become aware of your breathing, and then to concentrate on slowing your breathing. Then as you inhale, to silently say, “let”, and as you exhale, to silently say “go”……. while also relaxing tense body muscles. For many people, this exercise enables the release of emotional stress and physical tension.

What is your most effective way of dealing with “bad hair days”? Will that help you also cope with the “dark night” events which we all face sooner or later?



Building Resilience Principle 5: Be realistically optimistic


This is another in a series of blogs about the principles of building resilience which come from the research we carried out with South Africans at work. We asked 76 people to give us examples (critical incident interviews) of what they did when experiencing hard times (adversity) and how they got through it (resilience), and checked out the common themes that arose (constructs) with them in group discussions (focus groups). From this information, we developed principles and steps which we have taught to several hundred people. They report sustained changes in their resilience both after the training and then three months later – changes which are statistical significant.


The fifth principle of Building Resilience is “Be realistically optimistic”. It concerns building personal resilience by choosing to live with a positive attitude. This positive attitude should be realistic however, as unfounded optimism results in unrealistic expectations which in turn diminishes resilience as it frequently disappoints and even hinders coping.


At the heart of this principle is the strong belief that one can to a large extent influence the direction of one’s life and that the inevitable problems encountered along life’s journey can be solved. Resilient people choose to be positive rather than negative. This construct echo’s Viktor Frankl’s (1982) thoughts and logotherapy concepts: “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.


We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves to make sense of our experiences of life (explanatory style). These stories have the power to mould and ultimately define who we are, and in this way, the stories we tell ourselves create ourselves. In the diagramme, which is adopted from the wonderful work of Martin EP Seligman, you will see that optimists (star gazers) view the good things they experience as permanent and affect everything, whereas the bad things they experience are perceived as temporary and have limited effect on their overall lives.This is very different to the pessimists (mud gazers) who have an almost opposite view on how things happen in their lives.


Some people are born more optimistic than others, but the good news is that realistic optimism can be enhanced and so one does not need to be stuck in the mind-set of persistently seeing doom and gloom. One of the ways of enhancing optimism is to reframe the adversity which was described under the principle of maintaining perspective. This enables one to change the story one tells oneself, and thus choose a more balanced and positive outlook on life.


There are two additional simple but powerful exercises which can assist building resilience by enhancing realistic optimism: reflecting on the good that has happened to you over the past 24 hours and reflecting on what you are really grateful for and why. The benefits are profound: people who do these exercises regularly report enhanced optimism, positivity, energy and connectedness.


Do you need to become more realistically optimistic? If so, what don’t you try one of the exercises once a day at the same time for a week? It’s free and the benefits are huge!


Reference: Seligman MEP, 1990: Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. Vintage Books


Building Resilience Principle 4: Generate positive feelings


This is the fifth blog in the series about the principles of building resilience. It has its origin in the research we carried out on resilience and the training based on these principles which is designed to assist people build their resilience. Delegates report the training builds their inner resourcefulness and enables them to live more joyful and fulfilling lives.

The fourth Building Resilience Principle is “Generate positive feelings”. Adversity typically involves strong negative emotions which have the potential to hijack rational thought and so reduce resilience. Fear, anger, guilt and grief are commonly experienced during the “dark night” of real adversity. These negative emotions are associated with surges in adrenaline and cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which prepare the body for the dramatic and life preserving fight, flight or freeze responses. In modern times however, the associated physical reactions are seldom useful and if experienced for a prolonged period, can have negative physical impacts.

Negative feelings are in themselves not “bad” as they convey important messages about the severity of the adversity. In excess however, they can lead to substantially reduced mental and even physical functionality and thus the capability to deal with the adversity: thinking and decision-making become impaired; sleeping, eating and relaxing become difficult.

The need to control strong feelings was highlighted in our research by a single parent mother of a 14 year old son who was living in a gang infested part of the Cape Flats area of Cape Town. She described him as having been “an ideal child” doing well at school, having good friends, attending church with her and helping out in their small apartment. Then seemingly out of the blue she one day realized that his behaviour had changed, he was missing school and mixing with a different group of friends. On investigation, she discovered he was taking tik (a highly addictive amphetamine drug). She described her initial emotions as a mixture of extreme anger, fear, depression, hurt, guilt and disappointment. Confronting the boy and getting him into rehabilitation required her to not succumb to these powerful feelings, which she did with guidance from her employer’s Employee Assistance Programme. Once she had mastered her fears, she was able to deal rationally with the boy and got him to successfully undergo a drug rehabilitation programme.

Strategies to deal with strong personal negative emotions include deep breathing, taking time out, positive self talk (although recent studies have indicated that simply reciting affirmations can in some cases do more harm than good) and meditation.

Controlling negative feelings is the first step; generating positive feelings needed for resilience to bounce back is the next. Positive feelings are effectively created by connecting to one’s purpose and meaning in life, using one’s strengths and reaching out to others. In addition, there are two exercises we have found useful in generating genuine positive feelings. One is a savouring exercise which involves reflecting daily on three good things which you have done each day and their impact on others. The second is a written exercise which requires creating a journal of your best possible outcomes in the future using topics such as loving relationships; career; finances; physical; faith; health; hobbies and so on. Both exercises typically result in enhanced feelings of excitement and joy in living a life of involvement and potential.

The implication for you is simple: what is the most effective way you control your negative feelings and in addition, what is the most effective way you generate positive feelings? Your resilience depends on how effectively you do this!

Building Resilience Principle 3: Maintain perspective


This is the fourth short article in the series about the principles of building resilience. It has its origin in the research we carried out on resilience and the training based on these principles which is designed to assist people build their resilience. Delegates report the training builds their inner resourcefulness and enables them to live more joyful and fulfilling lives.


The third principle of building resilience is: Maintain perspective and concerns the inner world of one’s thoughts. It is particularly important because as a species we are programmed from our past to be more alert for negative than positive. This negative focus was very useful in providing narrow, fixed and detailed focus when confronted by a sabre-toothed lion or marauding tribes on the veld of ancient Africa, but is less helpful in finding creative solutions to modern day adversities which require open, creative and flexible thinking. In today’s’ world, this ancient negative bias sometimes intrudes into our lives as unwelcome strong and persistent negative thoughts. One person described this ruminating negative thought pattern to be: “like in a washing machine … going round and round … then pausing …. and then going round and round again; on and on”.


To build resilience, negatively biased thinking and persistent negative self talk can be reframed. This can be done by finding alternative ways of thinking about the problem or event, such as how one can learn from it, or how one can accept it. Other ways of reframing are to choose milder and less calamitous ways of expressing the adversity, or to change the statements that run through one’s mind into questions, and then focus your thoughts on finding answers to the questions.


Some people find that changing their behaviour changes their negative thought bias and thinking patterns. Examples are exercising; talking with supportive friends; eating a favourite food such as chocolate or ice-cream; shopping; going to movies; reading a novel; partying. Not all these activities will reduce everyone’s negative thinking – the challenge is to find what works for you. The outcome should be distraction from the stress of the adversity, recharging energy and then returning with renewed vigour to deal with the stress and difficulties.


It is also useful where possible to avoid or minimise situations which trigger persistent negative thoughts. Examples we were given of situations to avoid were of particular events (e.g. a stressful monthly family get together), people (e.g. negative colleagues or difficult clients) and physical conditions (e.g. tiredness and being hungry). Alternatively, challenging negativism in others, such as negative statements and opinions that are unfounded, biased, or open to interpretation may also be a useful way of controlling one’s own negative thoughts in order to maintain perspective.


A final element of this principle of building resilience is maintaining perspective by engaging in enjoyable, relaxing and recharging activities. Taking steps to change the scenery, pace and people around one can provide a counterbalance to the intense demands and naturally narrowing thought focus when dealing with adversity. This was variously expressed as “taking time out for myself”; “having me-time”; and “taking time to smell the roses”.


What is your most effective method of maintaining perspective in tough time so as to be resilient?


Building Resilience Principle 2: Use your Unique Strenghts

This is the second in the series of blogs about our research and findings on resilience carried out with South Africans at work. It describes the second Principle of Building Resilience: Use your Unique Strengths.


Self knowledge emerged as an important component of resilience. Realistic self insight into one’s own character strengths and vulnerabilities is the basis for understanding one’s capabilities and limits when dealing with adversity. Character strengths are different to job strengths: the former are life-long whereas job strengths are specific and change with circumstances. Unfounded beliefs about character strengths as well as vulnerabilities can potentially hinder or even derail action to recover from adversity.


People describe using their strengths as “ light”, “easy”, “fun” and “obvious”. Using our natural character strengths to problem solve, devise creative solutions and reach out to others during adversity comes easy to us, as well as being experienced as fun and even joyful.


During our training workshops however, people often struggle to identify their strengths, whilst they are able to quickly able to reel off a list of weaknesses or “development areas”. Ironically they frequently report having tried to improve their weaknesses for many years, often with slow or even no progress! Character strengths on the other hand, are frequently downplayed as it is sometimes felt that acknowledging and deliberately focussing on them would be boasting. This lack of balance is unfortunate, because logically there should be greater success when using natural strengths than weaknesses in coping with adversity.


Knowledge of personal vulnerabilities or weaknesses is also important, as accurate self insight enables the development of a realistic recovery strategy and expectations from adversity. This was pithily expressed by one manager who after describing an acrimonious divorce and having to sell and split the proceeds of a struggling small business, stated: “I know who I am; what I can do and what I cant do. I have been through a lot of crap, and I have become an expert on myself.”


Developing and correcting one’s weaknesses to a minimum level of competence will at best prevent failure. Developing and using character strengths on the other hand has the potential to create personal excellence. Using character strengths is uplifting and sets the foundation to live a fulfilling and joyful life.


Having overcome previous adversities, particularly significant ones, can be a source of strength, optimism and welcome positive feelings. An ultra distance road runner said that training for and finishing 9 Comrades Marathons (79 kilometre road race), had taught him to persevere and not give up when things got tough – and the race became a metaphor for his life which he cited as: “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”. He knew his strengths and effectively capitalised in them in times of adversity.


What are your strengths and how can you capitalise on them to build your resilience?


Building Resilience Principle 1: Connect with your purpose and meaning in life


This blog is part of the series on the outcome of the research on resilience which we carried out with people at work in South Africa to find out on how they deal with adversity, cope and thrive.


This blog describes the first principle of Building Resilience that came out of the research. This principle is called “Connect to you purpose and meaning in life” and concrns purpose, meaning and connection in one’s life. It encompasses the reason the individual has to persevere when times become really difficult; when there is a feeling of desperation and giving up seems the easiest way out. In such times, the answer the person has or creates becomes the enduring reason to persist.


We have all wrestled with the question of what gives meaning and purpose to our lives and for many people this search is ongoing. The hum- drum issues of paying bills, resolving work problems, cleaning our homes, and so on, easily distracts from the focus of living an authentic life aimed at fulfilling a higher purpose. In times of adversity however, this becomes very important as it directly addresses the issue of why persevere rather than just giving up. Having a strong sense of purpose and meaning forms the foundation from which coping, healing and renewal after adversity is possible.


Our research found that purpose and meaning is typically found in one or more of three categories of significance – people, causes and faith



Significant people most often referred to children and partners for whom there was deep caring and love: to show their love; provide for them, live up to their expectations or set an example; or simply “not let them down”.



Significant causes were diverse and examples given were de-oiling penguins; raising funds to sustain a shelter for homeless people; adopting an AIDS orphan; preserving indigenous fynbos in the Western Cape. One participant in the research described her passionate commitment to a significant cause as her “magnificent obsession”.












Significant faith was frequently cited and examples ranged from formal religion which gave a powerfully felt deep connection to a personal relationship with their Creator, to a less formal feeling of connection to the Universe and the interrelatedness of life which also gave strong feelings of purpose to life.


In the face of adversity, the personal meaning assigned to living sustains and provides the motivation to persevere. This connection and personal belief system was sometimes expressed as the adversity having a higher purpose or meaning, even if it was not clear at the time. For example on the death of a child, the young father said: “I don’t know why this happened, but I do know that there is a reason for everything. So I have to accept it and carry on”.


This principle of resilience: “Connect to your purpose and Meaning in Life” also incorporates the belief that by persevering through the adversity and tough times, people will emerge stronger, more resourceful and better for the experience. For example, “special children have special parents” was the mantra-type of explanation cited in one incident for coping with severe demands placed on a financially struggling family who were rearing children with learning difficulties.


Developing life goals related to one’s purpose and meaning is a very important strategy to strength this principle in one’s life. This was demonstrated by an entrepreneur, who when he was experiencing significant and prolonged financial business difficulties, repeatedly publicly committed himself to financing and building a temple for worship. He frequently reminded himself of this vision, and talked in public of his plans, how it would be built and what it would look. This goal helped connect him to what he expressed as his purpose in life, and energized and focused his energies to persevere in what he described as his “dark night”.


How strong is your purpose and meaning in life, and what can you do to strengthen it?

The seven principles of resilience: practical ways of enhancing your resilience

I have frequently been asked to write a blog on what people can do to enhance their resilience: “tell us what practically we can do, and base it on your research!” has been the request. The research has been written up by Prof. Kurt April of University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business and I, which we aim to have published in an overseas academic journal, but that takes time.


In order to meet the requests for practical ideas on resilience, I will use this blog. Thus once a week for the next seven weeks, I will post a short description of each principle and include brief practical information on how to enhance your resilience in that area.


The seven principles are:
1. Connect to your purpose and meaning in life
2. Use your unique strengths
3. Maintain perspective
4. Generate positive feelings
5. Be realistically optimistic
6. Persevere by being open minded and flexible
7. Reach out to others


This blog is the introduction and starts with the context which is the turbulent times in which we live and during which the research was carried out.


Employees at all levels need to have inner strength and resourcefulness to cope with large scale organizational change, such as new priorities, major change initiatives, new technologies, mergers and downsizing. Outside of work, these individuals also have to cope with the “normal” stresses of daily life such as troubled relationships, financial pressures, security concerns, serious illness and death of loved ones.


We all have experience of people reacting differently to adversity, and even as individuals we ourselves react differently to adversity at different times: sometimes with resilience and cope, and other times with less resilience and really struggle to get through the day. The question arises: why do some people succumb to adversity or become disabled by it, whilst others overcome significant adversity, heal and are able to strive towards self actualisation and flourishing?


To find the answers and to understand resilience better, the research into resilience involved critical incident and focus group interviews with South Africans at work asking how they deal with adversity. The outcomes were exciting. We found resilience in an organizational setting enables one to remain task focused and productive whilst experiencing tough times. Resilient individuals are best able to resist stressful experiences impacting on their job productivity, remain focussed, deal with multiple demands, and stay calm and healthy. Resilience enables “bouncing back” after stressful organisational and life events and incorporates the intriguing concept of emerging from the adversity stronger and more resourceful.


From the research we have extrapolated seven principles for building personal resilience and four steps for reacting resiliently in the face of adversity. These principles and steps are useful for anyone who wants to build their resilience, live a more joyful and fulfilling life and ultimately flourish. Most importantly, training using these concepts has been shown statistically to enhance resilience which is sustained over time.


In other words, applying these principles in your life has the potential for you to be able to enhance your resilience too. Good news indeed!


A brief description of each of these principles will be outlined in successive blogs over the coming weeks.

The importance of personal meaning and connection in being resilient


Resilience is the inner strength and reserves that enables us to endure in tough times, but more than that, it is the magic that enables us to recover, heal and become better people. In other words it’s that human quality which enables us to thrive and flourish.


Fortunately we all have resilience. That’s the good news – the bad news is that it often feels that this special quality fluctuates. Just when we need it most, it may feel like it escapes us.


So how do we hold on to it? What can we do to build our resilience to cope with tough times?


Our research on resilience in South African adults found that a foundation or core component of resilience is that of a strong sense of personal meaning and connection. The people we studied reported that when things become really bad the question inevitably arose in their minds: “Why carry on……. why not just give up?”


Our national weekend papers frequently carry stories of people who just give up – and often end their and their family’s lives with violence. Fortunately the majority of us haven’t just given up and we have coped through a range of adversity from days when everything goes wrong to profound tragedy and adversity.


Our research highlighted the importance of having clear meaning, connection and purpose in one’s life in order to be resilient. Examples of this fitted into one or more of three categories of significance – people, causes and faith.


Significant people:
Most often this referred to partners and children. An example was a single mother living in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, who found deep meaning in raising her son without help or maintenance from his father, keeping him at school, off drugs and out of gangs.


To her horror one day, she realised that he was not doing household chores, was skipping school and ……… was into drugs. Her worst fear had come about.


She said that in her darkest moments of despair, she felt she had to persevere and could not give up, because if she did he would be lost to gangsterism, crime and drug dealing and his short life would come to a violent end.


So she walked a long and difficult road with him to his present rehabilitation and recovery. She persevered for his sake and found great satisfaction and joy in his recovery. She now has established a book club where mothers are encouraged to join and borrow books to read to their youngsters, and in so doing to forge and maintain tight family relationships. She believes that this will ultimately help reduce gangsterism and crime in her community.


Significant causes:
Causes can become “magnificent obsessions” that give purpose beyond oneself. Examples which were given included de-oiling of penguins; being an activist for people with disabilities; saving an endangered fynbos species from extinction; working with jobless people to give them income-producing skills.


Time spent on their activities was deeply significant. “Making a difference” was all they asked, and they seemed to be rewarded with a feeling of deep satisfaction.



Significant faith
Faith was reported to be very important in making sense of an adversity and tough times. Descriptions of their faith ranged from that of formal religion (Using terms like Catholic; Muslim; Born again Christian) to those who preferred to just describe their connection as “spiritual”.


It seemed to us that the label people used for their beliefs was less important than the feeling of deep connection and meaning they experienced, and how this played out in their lives. A commonly repeated refrain was “I will not be tested more than the ability I have been given”. One wag wryly added she sometimes just wished that she was not trusted so much by her Maker!


In summary, our research showed that significant people, causes and faith are important in providing the foundation for the inner resources and strength needed to deal with adversity. Connection, meaning and purpose in life underpin resilience. Everyone should strive to keep these connections strong in good times as well as tough times – how strong are yours?


If you would like to find significant  causes to which to give your time, effort and skills, and by so doing enhance your connection, meaning and grounding, click on this great South African web site: