Resilience is the key to a well-lived life. If you want to be happy, you need resilience. If you want to be successful, you need resilience. You need resilience because you can’t have happiness, success, or anything else worth having without meeting hardship along the way.
To master a skill, to build an enterprise, to pursue any worthy endeavor—simply to live a good life—requires that we confront pain, hardship, and fear. What is the difference between those who are defeated by hardship and those who are sharpened by it? Between those who are broken by pain and those who are made wiser by it?
To move through pain to wisdom, through fear to courage, through suffering to strength, requires resilience. The benefits of struggling—of being challenged, afraid, pained, confused—are so precious that if they could be bottled, people would pay dearly for them. But they can’t be bottled. And if you want the wisdom, the strength, the clarity, the courage that can come from struggle, the price is clear: you have to endure the struggle first.
You bear your struggles. And because they are borne by you, they can feel pressing and heavy to you in a way that they are for no one else. But you have to remember that while they are yours, they are not unique. Your struggles are very much like the struggles of those who went before you, and they are very much like the struggles of those who will come after you. Every human being from the beginning of time has suffered pain and hardship, difficulty and doubt.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re launching yourself into space, standing waist-deep in grab-your-bones-and-make-’em-shake freezing water on the first night of Hell Week, sitting down to write a novel, applying for a job, or thinking about starting your own business—you’ll feel fear.
You feel it now. That’s good. It tells you that you’re on the cusp of something worthwhile. If you continue to live a good life, you’ll feel this fear time and time again. But the longer you hesitate, the hairier and scarier the fear becomes. The longer you hesitate, the more likely you are to turn around and crawl back under the covers.
First, when you begin, begin with humility. Start with the humility to recognize how little you know. If you start with humility, you see every person as your teacher. If you start with humility, you recognize that you have something to learn.
Maybe you like it. Maybe you don’t. Maybe it just seems weird to you. But this is what works for the author. Something else might work better for you.
Have the humility to admit to yourself that, of all the things you need to know and don’t, one of the things that you don’t know well enough is yourself. You perceive that something is missing in your life. It worries you that you cannot name it or define it precisely.
Welcome to the club, mate. That’s not an excuse for not starting, that’s the point of starting. If you were whole, perfect, without need, desire, or fault, you wouldn’t have to begin anything.
Aristotle, who did more than any other thinker to develop our ideas of human flourishing, said that “happiness is a kind of working of the soul in the way of perfect excellence.” It might be quality cooking, quality saxophone playing, or quality lovemaking—a flourishing life is a life lived along lines of excellence.
The Greeks recognized that true flourishing is not always within our control. The tree needs good soil and good sun. People need a life that affords them scope. Starving people find it hard to flourish. Flourishing, then, isn’t a passing feeling or an emotional state. Flourishing is a condition that is created by the choices we make in the world we live in.
Few people think of happiness in this way anymore. You see that it took me a couple of hundred words to break down what we mean by “a flourishing life.” Aristotle and the Greeks expressed this idea in a single word: eudaimonia. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t have any commonly used word or phrase for this idea in English? We find it hard even to say what it means to flourish, let alone to actually flourish.
To say that someone is flourishing or not flourishing is different from saying that someone is good or bad. An ill old man, in pain and dying at home, might be dignified, just, and virtuous. Such a man might be an example of what it means to die well; he could be a perfect example of courage in the face of adversity—but it does not make sense to say that he is flourishing when he is dying.
The difference is worth thinking about. We might want our children to emulate the old man’s courage, but we would not want our children to be in his condition. And here we begin to see one of the critical differences between flourishing and being good. Flourishing is not a virtue, but a condition; not a character trait, but a result.
We need virtue to flourish, but virtue isn’t enough. To create a flourishing life, we need both virtue and the conditions in which virtue can flourish.
There is no easy formula for predicting someone’s resilience. Sometimes the people we most expect to grow through hardship snap under pressure instead. And sometimes the people we most expect to crack surprise us with their strength.
But there is one question that can tell you more than any other about people’s capacity for resilience. Ask them: “What are you responsible for?” The more responsibility people take, the more resilient they are likely to be. The less responsibility people take—for their actions, for their lives, for their happiness—the more likely it is that life will crush them. At the root of resilience is the willingness to take responsibility for results.
you know perhaps more than most that life can do cruel things to people. Life is unfair. You are not responsible for everything that happens to you. You are responsible for how you react to everything that happens to you.
Taking responsibility requires courage, because the person who takes responsibility is very likely to feel fear. A good teacher will not only want his students to succeed; he will fear that he might fail them. A good doctor will not only want her surgery to succeed; she will fear that she might fail.
If you take responsibility for anything in your life, know that you’ll feel fear. That fear will manifest itself in many ways: fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of hurt. Such fears are entirely natural and healthy, and you should recognize them as proof that you’ve chosen work worth doing. Every worthy challenge will inspire some fear.
Yet if you come across a person or a team without fear, without anxiety, there is a good chance that you’ve run into ignorance or apathy. You’ve run into someone who doesn’t know enough or care enough to be afraid. Neither is good.
Fear is a core emotion. A life without fear is an unhealthy life. Proper fear is part of the package of responsible, adult living. Today, too many doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and well-intentioned do-gooders want to reduce anxiety or eliminate fear from decision making. They’ve got it backward. Focus not on wiping out your anxiety, but on directing your anxiety to worthy ends. Focus not on reducing your fear, but on building your courage—because, as you take more and more responsibility for your life, you’ll need more and more courage.
If you begin to think about all of the kinds of pain in the world, it doesn’t take much imagination to make a daylong list. These many kinds of pain often have little in common except the word that barely ties them together. So when we refer to pain, it’s important to remember that there is not one kind, but many. (Fortunately, there is also not just one kind of joy, but many.)
How do you begin to analyze pain, to understand it? Let me suggest this. Though there are many kinds of pain, all of them can be divided into two camps. There is the pain we seek. And then there is the pain that seeks us.
The pain that comes from study, from training, from pushing ourselves—all of that, as unpleasant as it might be to bear—is pain we seek. Because we have brought it into our lives, it is easier to understand, plan for, and work through.
But there is also the pain that seeks us. In its milder forms, this pain is just the unfortunate and bad stuff that happens in a normal day. But in its most virulent form, this pain is the stuff of tragedy. This is losing your brother, your wife, your husband, your child. This is the pain that comes from fire, flood, famine. This is the pain that follows when the doctor calls you and asks you to come in, sits down next to you, and says there’s bad news—and you know then what is going to kill you. This is a different kind of pain, and philosophers and theologians and counselors and pastors and priests and poets have all tried to explain where it comes from and what it means.
Philosophers have tied this kind of pain to the idea of fortuna, from which we derive the concept of “fortune,” or the pain of chance. Unlike a pain we might seek when we set out to accomplish a goal, the pain of fortuna hits us without regard to our desires and often without warning. Fortuna suggests that certain things are written into our lives, certain events are beyond our control.
There is no easy answer for this pain. There is no pill to take, no prayer to make that lets us wake the next day without pain. At some point, we all have to wrestle with the pain of fortune. All that can really be said about this kind of pain was summed up by Seneca: “Fate guides the willing but drags the unwilling.”
Led or dragged, there are some places we have no choice but to go.
Everyone has theories about how the world works. If we’re open to the possibility that we might be wrong, and we adjust our thinking based on what we learn, then over time our theories become stronger and we can have more justified confidence in our ideas.
The right way to reflect on our lives isn’t too different from the scientific method. Start with a hypothesis, and then—no matter how good it makes you feel, no matter how commonsensical it sounds, no matter whose authority you have to back it up—test it. Test it honestly. Test it ruthlessly. See how it stands up to the facts of the world.
Then let the results of that test—whether they affirm or contradict your hunch—shape your understanding. Young sciences—like brain science in the nineteenth century, or the medieval science of artillery, or nutrition science today—get things wrong all the time. One of the reasons is that a science often starts its life heavy on theory, speculation, and elegant models, but light on hard data.
As long as scientists stay open to new experiences, inconvenient facts, and new ideas that explain those facts, over time our scientific understanding will get closer to the truth. Scientists turn their attention away from the way the world should behave, according to theory, and toward the messiness of reality. Over time, a science grows up.
There’s no shame in starting wrong; if you had all of the answers, there’d be no need to live an examined life. But there is shame in staying wrong. You’re still figuring things out.
So am I. We all are. And like a scientist, if you have theories but never test them, two things will happen. One, you’ll have bad ideas. That’s not so bad. But two—this is the bad part—you’ll act on those ideas. It’s the personal equivalent of bleeding yourself to cure disease or blowing your leg off firing a poorly made cannon.
Just as scientists build sound theories through experimentation, you can use your experience to build principles and ideas to shape your life. But to do this, you need to do more than just hypothesize and more than just act. You have to reflect on your experience.