Are you born resilient or can resilience be built?

Published: 08/07/2020
Author: Vidatec

The latest blog from John Barclay, our Engage4 brand ambassador.

Resilience: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. It is true that some people are resilient while others are not, an inherent birthright. To some it appears that whatever resilience, or lack thereof, they are born with is as much as they will ever have, but it is clear to me that this not to be true. Resilience can be built upon, it may involve a degree of discomfort, but resilience can be built. By very definition therefore, we cannot become more resilient without first enduring difficulties. Whether artificially replicated or a product of circumstance, enduring difficulty is an essential element of building resilience.

As a rugby player, physical resilience and durability was something I prided myself on. A willingness to suffer discomfort and at times, misery, it went hand in hand with the job, I made a career for 16 years at the coalface of the rough and tumble side of the sport. I am not unique in this, in fact quite the opposite. You would be in the minority if you were not physically resilient as a professional rugby player. It is clear to me that what separated players with long and successful careers from the rest was down to the other element of resilience: mental resilience.

I frequently get asked to speak at events and often the subject requested involves an aspect of resilience, something of a buzzword for us millennials. How do you achieve it? What makes someone resilient? How can I improve the resilience of my people?

And invariably I give the same answer; I failed a lot (on the big stage in front of millions) and that was the basis for learning. Failure and my approach to it changed over my career. As a young player failure was the ultimate downer. Nothing would ever be the same again: I had failed; I had let my team down; I would never get picked again; coaches thought I was rubbish.

Fast forward through this emotional minefield and I reached a point whereby I learnt that my approach to failure, no matter the scale of the failure, would determine the rest of my career.

I began to view it as a learning opportunity. That isn’t to say I didn’t find the failings devastating in the immediate aftermath. No not at all. However, I decided that if I were to fail, I would fail fast and learn from the failure. I suppose an older, grumpier version of me also learnt to appreciate that you can’t control everything and everyone. I made my own peace with the type of player I was, not the type of player I was not. While remaining determined to improve, learn and evolve, I began to understand the swings and roundabouts that go hand in hand with sport, and indeed life. Controlling that which you can control and remembering that “what’s for you won’t go by you”

As a Scottish player I probably failed more than I liked to admit. A couple instances stick in my mind, both personally and collectively. One in particular taught me more in a day than I had learnt in the previous 10 years of playing international rugby.

In my first season of captaining the Scotland Rugby team, we headed to Twickenham to play the English. Triple Crown on the line. The first time Scotland had the chance to clinch this famous prize in god knows how long. The small matter of us not having won at Twickenham in almost thirty years did not stop us from being confident, boorish in our self-belief perhaps. As it turns out that self-belief was misplaced; on the day nothing went to plan and we lost heavily. It remains one of the few times I have lost the plot, imploded both physically and mentally forgetting the team and how we were to play. As the captain of the team, I was the one the team looked to in crisis. I was the one who was supposed to ooze calmness and confidence in a crisis. I was supposed to provide the emotional energy required to bring a catastrophic situation back from the brink.

The aftermath was brutal. The media, rightly or wrongly, pulled the game apart with a fine-tooth comb and could not find a shred of quality. In the space of a few days we had gone from being outsiders for the title, to a national embarrassment. Living out your failure publicly is uncomfortable at the best of times, but this was particularly painful.

The red mist descended in the game and it didn’t lift during the game and for many days. Embarrassed, enraged, downright humiliated. Once the mist had finally lifted (and it felt like it would not at some points) and over the days that followed, I realised I learnt more that day than probably any other day in my career. I began to look more closely at how I prepared. Had I missed any steps in my preparation? Were there things I could have done differently?

Had the glamour of captaincy and leadership seduced me, made me complacent? One thing was for sure, I vowed to myself never to feel that way again. The process and the suffering – as hard as it was at the time – made me more resilient and prepared me for future failings. That is part of life. We fail, and we will undoubtedly fail again.

Learning from these mistakes and not making the same failures and mistakes reoccur is how I view resilience.

That day – and in the days that followed – learnt that I was directly in control of how I responded from this personal and collectively failure. I realized the opinions of the press were not actually important, nor the opinions of the social media keyboard experts. I began to better understand my position in the team as captain, and what that meant from an emotional point of view. I looked at everything that had happened that week and during the game; all the little disappointments that made up the ultimate failure. In other words, I learnt how to be more resilient.

And so why resilience in this blog? It seems everyone is talking about being resilient (along with agile, motivated, etc. etc.) without understanding that resilience is not a destination, rather a journey. Undoubtedly, resilience will be important over the months as we continue to battle our invisible foe, Coronavirus. Part of being resilient is accepting your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is not weakness; knowing and exposing your vulnerabilities is a sign of strength. Learning from others and asking questions, always looking to learn and evolve. This will make us more resilient in the long run. In the meantime we must look backwards to look forward. Look at times we have struggled in the past and take comfort from the fact that we are here now.

So I do believe no matter who you are, or where you are on your journey, you can build your resilience to be more prepared to deal with life’s challenges, enabling you to anchor yourself and your team through the toughest of circumstances and survive – in some cases thrive!