I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about resilience lately, in part, because of this article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, which found that resilience is critical to individual and organizational success. What is resilience? They define it as “the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.” We’ve all faced challenges. I would argue that for many of us, some of our greatest successes have come out of our audacity to press on in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems.

Last week, I attended a great session at the Academic Surgical Congress in which some incredible leaders told stories of “Rising from the Ashes.” It was encouraging and heartwarming to hear how people whom anyone would consider spectacular successes had faced abysmal failures—from having “foolproof” experiments go awry, to being unable to find a job despite top-notch training.

Somehow, through brute resolve and a bit of ingenuity, they pulled through hard times, often to emerge far more successful than they may have been if they never would have faced such challenges. It reminded me of what Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Today, my thoughts on resilience turned from professional tenacity to the sheer determination of our patients when faced with a diagnosis of cancer. I read this blog of a Yale student who is facing cancer, and pondered her resilience. At first, she writes she “was somewhat removed from the situation, it felt like [she] wasn’t experiencing it.”

She reminded me a lot of a young male breast cancer patient whom I treated. He presented with a sizable cancer and a positive node. He approached the diagnosis with a sense of humor, cracking jokes . . . it seemed to me that humor was a shield for him, protecting him from thinking about what this diagnosis meant, for himself and his young family. In an odd way, I wanted him to be angry or sad or simply yell “Cancer sucks!”. . . .I wanted him to “feel real.” If only I could have shared her blog with him then.

Some have defined resilience as being the ability to “face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air.” I would argue that in order to face reality, one needs to face one’s real feelings. “It is ok to feel”. . . cry, get upset, vent . . . acknowledge the emotions of the reality you face.

Only then can you can begin to objectively unpack the situation, whether with a difficult coworker or a cancer diagnosis. Once the veil of dark emotions is lifted, one can see with greater clarity a more purposeful way forward. It is only after we acknowledge our emotions that we can enjoy “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


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