How resilient are you?

Today is February 4 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how resilient are you?” People often blame their childhood for a lack of success later in life. Lacking access to education, opportunities, and mentors, some say, prohibits one from developing the necessary personal and professional skills required to succeed as an adult. A life of despair, dysfunction, and poverty is the only visible path. Researchers have shown that these risks are real, but they also have found a surprising pattern among those whose early lives included tough times.

Many draw strength from hardship and see their struggle against it as one of the keys to their later success. A wide range of studies over the past few decades has shed light on how such people overcome life’s adversities—and how we might all cultivate resilience as well. One such study was the Kauai Longitudinal Study, an ongoing project begun in 1955 by psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith, examined 698 babies born on the island that year, with assessments at ages 1, 2, 10, 18, 32 and 40.

Of the children in the study, Drs. Werner and Smith identified 129 as being at high risk for future problems, because they faced four or more adversities at birth, ranging from poverty and family discord to alcoholism or mental illness in the home. Two-thirds of these high-risk children went on to have difficulties of their own, such as delinquency, unplanned pregnancies and underemployment. One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with.

These resilient individuals became, in the words of the researchers “competent, confident, caring adults.” These individuals practiced resilience in a number of ways. First, they were active problem solvers who, over a period of decades, fought for better lives for themselves. Second, they used whatever strengths they had to their advantage such as a particular talent, an engaging personality, or a ready intelligence. Additionally, they sought out support via friends, teachers, neighbors or relatives. They made plans to better themselves and set ambitious but realistic goals for the future. Finally, they created opportunities to move forward in life, by way of higher education, the military, a new job, a supportive partner or parenthood. As author Alain de Botton noted “A good half of the art of living is resilience.”

Two people who practiced a great deal of resilience are Colombian weightlifter Oscar Figueroa and American actor Jeremy Renner. Figueroa competed in the Olympics four times, claiming fifth in 2004, taking a DNF (did not finish) in 2008 after injury, a silver in 2012, and finally a gold in 2016. To win gold, however, Figueroa had to overcome a serious life-threatening injury after suffering from a cervical spine hernia in the 6 & 7 discs. After surgeries and intense rehabilitation, Figueroa finally claimed gold in the 2016 Olympics. As Figueroa said, “You need to have guts when you’re up against it.”

Actor Jeremy Renner who knows a thing or two about persevering for over 10 years. Beyond playing drums in a high-school band, Renner was at a loss for career plans. “I didn’t want to go to college and spend a lot of money and not know what the heck I wanted to do.” Instead, he went to Modesto Junior College “to fumble around and figure it out”, taking courses in computer science and criminology. “I was all over the map,” he says. “Then I took an acting class. I thought ‘I’ll give it a go’. I fell in love with it.” Acting helped him manage his emotions. “It was therapeutic. The stage was a safe place for me as a man with a lot of feelings inside which I had not exposed before. Where I’m from, it would have been unacceptable – people would have told me I was a crybaby. So, I held everything in. Playing characters gave me the freedom to have all those feelings, that rage or sadness, in a safe way.”

After three years in LA he landed a small part in National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. For the next seven years, however, he did a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. He landed the lead in the Dahmer movie in 2002 but it was one of the lowest, most broke times for him. His success in Dahmer helped him land S.W.A.T. in 2003 but it was still another five years before he landed the role that would catapult him to acting full-time – his role in Hurt Locker. He had to live by candlelight for a year but he never considered quitting and going home.

19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted "Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.” How resilient are you?