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Human Resilience

Like all human qualities, resilience can be both a good and a negative trait.  In its positive form resilience implies strength in the face of extreme challenge.  Everyone at one point faces extreme challenge, and for many it is unfortunately a more constant state.  Resilience is the trait that keeps us all upright in these times.  Resilience allows us to maintain hope, when there is no apparent cause for optimism.

I’ve always regarded resilience as solely a positive quality, and have actually prided myself with having a reasonable amount.  Recently, however, I’ve begun to notice the downside of resilience, and have realized that it can be a quality that taken in the wrong direction can undermine one’s potential to experience fulfillment.

During the course of our lives we all encounter insults to our existence or our quality of life.  This may take many forms including having a boring or unfulfilling job or an abusive boss.  For many, especially in America today, this may mean a reduction in the standards and quality of the food we consume or the water we drink or the air we breathe.  For those living in urban cities these insults may be the result of overcrowding that might manifest in greater daily traffic delays or problems associated with trash disposal, or infrastructure that is not up to speed.  I live in New York City, and can personally attest to some of those issues.

To deal with these insults we often turn to resilience, steeling ourselves to be strong and to maintain a cheery outlook.  However, when I see the solid line of traffic backed up to enter the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, or in LA sitting on the 405, I am far sadder for the people in their cars than I am impressed with their resilience.  I think that perhaps people ought to re-thing their life plan more carefully, use a bunch less resilience and consider another strategy – wholesale change!  Resilience in these circumstances takes the form described well with the phrase “Grin and bear it.”  Why, I ask, is this the correct choice?  What is admirable about this attitude?  To me it is really more akin to stubbornness that borders (if not completely intrudes into) stupidity.  In these instances our resilience is the enemy of our happiness and fulfillment.  It is our resilience that others can take advantage of and it is our resilience that blocks us from finding happiness and fulfillment.

To be clear, what keeps people in bad jobs or bad relationships, or what keeps us stuck in places that are not delivering us maximum fulfillment is our stubbornness, that is also our resilience.  We have been taught not to quit.  We have been taught the virtues of being tough, of sticking it out.  And, I definitely agree with those concepts… some of the time.  We must be smart enough to parse the times when resilience and a stick-to-it mentality serve us and when they obstruct us.

There is a fantastic commencement speech you can find on YouTube by a Harvard Business School professor named Deepak Malhotra where he tells the new graduates (beginning in the 11th minute of that speech) that finding happiness will involve quitting early and quitting often.  It is a highly worthwhile speech to listen to, and his message is basically to find your happiness and fulfillment, and to not let resilience or stubbornness or a lack of awareness obstruct you.

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