Resilience gets a lot of positive press. It is touted as the character trait that separates the successful from the average, the professional from the amateur, and the strong from the weak. Resilience is what we are told will make us better able to handle stressors, cope with adversity, and recover from setbacks. Many psychologists even suggest that resilience is the one psychological strength that seems to trump all others.So just why does resilience seem to be so important? Defined most literally, resilience is the ability to return to one’s original shape after being stressed. It the property of buoyancy that allows a person to “bounce back” after facing a major life crisis. In cultivating this coveted trait, the idea is that we will better able to handle adversity, because we will be able to quickly recover from it. On the face of it, resilience is not a bad idea at all.
That is, if all we want to do is return to our original shape. Because what resilience ignores is a deep psychological need that is inherent in us all – the desire to realize our potential. While psychologists define it as “self-actualization,” gravitating toward a sense of mastery is hard-wired in us all. Yet the problem with resilience is that it is a steady state. If we simply want to learn to get better at recovering from F grades, resilience is fine. Yet if we want to learn to turn those F grades into A grades, we are going to need something more than resilience.
What we need is a way not simply to withstand adversity, but to adapt to it in a manner that makes us better. The best word I can find for this is actualization. Actualization is the desire to realize our potential. And unlike resilience, actualization welcomes adversity because stressors – like the environmental survival pressures that shape evolution – drive adaptation. Resilience, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily seek adversity because it is neither better nor worse for it. The problem with resilience is that if we want to realize our potential, we cannot simply return to the same state after adversity – we are going to need to be changed by adversity. Because it is through adversity – whether in the form of an F grade, or a crafty predator on the savanna – that we are forced to make the positive adaptations that improve our survival.
From an evolutionary perspective, resilience simply makes no sense. If the environmental pressures placed on a species to survive – like colder winters, faster predators, and a less abundant food supply – simply resulted in a return to the same state – as opposed to the many positive adaptations we see today – many species would have died off. It is through through the improvements forged by adversity that survival happens.
And while resilience may ignore our hard-wired need to draw out, develop, and utilize our strengths, actualization embraces every person’s individual potential not just to face life’s challenges, but to find unique and novel solutions to them. Where resilience teaches us to be warriors, actualization teaches us to be magicians. And while there are many things psychologists can offer – especially when facing a life challenge – actualization is perhaps the most dignified thing we can offer a person: the belief in his/her ability to grow through challenge.
Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, visit www.leverageadversity.net.