When I think of resilience I always imagine a sturdy little plant growing in the midst of a rocky and barren land. This is about thriving – not just surviving – in adversity. It’s the determination to maintain a sense of agency when external circumstances undermine one’s efforts. Seligman’s studies (1972) illustrate the dangers of learned helplessness. Rats that were raised in conditions of uncontrollable adversity (electric shocks!) quickly “concluded” that their actions had no impact on reality. They learned to act helpless, even when they could genuinely change their situation and avoid receiving an electrical shock. It was enough to press a leaver but the rats no longer “believed” they could do anything. Training baby elephants provides another stark example (Wu, 2009). When they’re small and cute, they are tied to a post that limits their range of movement. When the little creatures eventually grow up and become big, strong and able to break the rope, they act weak and accept their plight without objection. Sadly, we sometimes act as these rats or elephants, as if we had less control over our choices. We limit our range of options believing that we’re less capable. Our perception of personal power lies at the core of resilience. The way we frame our sense of agency will delineate the scope of options we really act on.

sometimes we hold on to outdated beliefs that burden us

The mindset (Dweck, 2012) we develop will largely determine our attitude to growth and change. A fixed mindset is a set of beliefs that assume the following:

  • abilities are fixed
  • effort is a sign of inability
  • challenges need to be avoided
  • results matter more than effort

Unfortunately, many of us are educated into a fixed mindset. Teachers tend to praise the bright sparks that get straight As and implicitly communicate pity when encouraging the average kids that go through blood, sweat and tears. However, many of those straight As students do not necessarily grow up to become entrepreneurs and innovators.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, consists of the following beliefs:

  • abilities can be changed
  • effort is a sign of resilience
  • challenges are part of life
  • effort matters more than results

It’s really interesting to see the two mindsets play out in classroom studies. When you praise kids for their achievements, they develop a fixed mindset and avoid challenges. Focus on the value of effort, see it as significant and you’ll have a class eager to learn that does not shy away from hard problems. These kids eventually grow up to become gritty adults that open businesses and are capable of thriving in adversity.

The studies of learned helplessness and the growth mindset model suggest two possible ways of developing resilience



Let me translate this into some coaching questions:

  1. What are the options you might habitually ignore due to some past adversity?
  2. If you were to expand your range of options, what could you do?
  3. If your efforts were a goal in themselves, how would that make you act?
  4. How can you develop and cultivate a growth mindset?
a growth mindset is like a powerful beam of light

Developing a sense of agency through a growth mindset is just a part of the story. When we are challenged beyond belief, for example through extreme conflict or war, we need to dig deeper into human nature. Zainab Salbi (2010), who works as a humanitarian worker supporting women in war zones, tells a very poignant story in her TED talk. She recounts some personal events of the Iran-Iraq war that started in 1980. Zainab grew up in the midst of airstrikes and explosions, her childhood tainted with the colours of war. Her mother would turn off the light during bombings not to attract attention. At the same time Zainab played all sorts of games with her siblings, such as setting up a puppet show. This was about the determination to preserve normality. It makes me think of my grandmother a bit. When something challenging occured, she would carry on as normal. Not out of denial, but to preserve the routine, to cook dinner, to wash the dishes and scrape the oily pots and pans. Focusing on the mundane can be a lifesaver at times.

Zainab eventually left Iraq, moved to the U.S. and started her career as an international activist supporting women in war zones. When she worked in Sarajevo, she asked the women about their most immediate need. The answer was pretty startling: lipstick! The women explained:

“Lipstick it’s the smallest thing we put on every day and we feel we are beautiful. That’s how we are resisting. They want us to feel that we are dead, they want us to feel that we are ugly. I put lipstick on every time I leave, because I want that snipper, before he shoots me, to know that he is killing a beautiful woman.”

Self-agency, self-love and effort are all courageous acts of resilience. Extreme adversity can dehumanise us, make us feel hopeless and deprive us of refinement and grace. Women from Sarajevo teach us that we can keep life going and develop resilience through beauty, even under the most difficult circumstances. When you feel hopeless, make sure to put on some nice clothes, look at something pretty and most importantly, see the beauty in your effort!



Wu, W. (2009). Learned helplessness: How to tame a baby elephant

Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Seligman, M. (1972) LEARNED HELPLESSNESS Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Pennsylvania

You can access Seligman’s paper below