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Resilience and the Ability to Improvise

How to be flexible in an ever-changing world.

Key points

  • Resiliency is the skill and capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.
  • Being resilient is a process we must actively participate in and take responsibility for.
  • Having a flexible mindset allows us to meet adversity with active resilience.

There was a time in my speaking career when I stood in front of about 4,000 people a week. During my time on the stage, I would share the adversity I have overcome. I would spend a lot of time talking about resilience and write about it at length in my book After Trauma.

Resilience has become one of those buzzwords that are either thrown around as a platitude when someone is suffering or used as an all-encompassing term for overcoming anything difficult.

Author Diane Coutu defined resilience as “the skill and capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.” As we all know, “enormous stress and change” are simply a part of life. Wishing for “less stress” is putting our energy in the wrong place and leaving our quality of life up to whatever cards the universe wants to deal our way. This removes our ability to feel like we have a say over our responses to life when, in reality, that is the one choice we always have.

Being resilient is a process we must actively participate in and take responsibility for. Just like any other skill we’ve learned, we become more resilient through practice. No one can do it for us. We can have company along the way and someone to help guide us, but we have to decide that our life is our responsibility and that we are willing to put in the work to get to where we want to be.

Coutu also discussed what her research showed her about resilient people. “Resilient people...possess three characteristics: a staunch acceptance of reality, a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.”

The “uncanny ability to improvise” Coutu spoke of is what I call having a "flexible mindset." Like an athlete who stretches before a big game to prime their muscles to be flexible so they can meet the demands of the day, we can mentally stretch ahead of known challenges to help us be mentally flexible. Having a flexible mindset can look like not spending our energy lamenting about how things should be but accepting how they are and deciding the best way to meet the moment as this present version of yourself.

Ask yourself questions like “What do I have control over at this moment?" and "What step can I take today to move through this situation in a way that feels empowering?" Instead of making myself an island, can I draw a circle that encompasses more people?” Having a flexible mindset is resilience in motion, resilience through action.

But since we never really know what our days will hold, I like to begin each time, priming myself to be flexible proactively. I do this by learning new ways to help manage stressors, learning how to tell if I am becoming stressed to the point of overwhelm, and always keeping a running list of ways to help me feel grounded. Every moment brings a new opportunity to become flexible.

The opportunity never expires. As a writer, I write every single morning, usually before the sun comes up. As I close out my morning pages, I write, “I can meet the moment, however it comes.” This is my daily reminder and mantra of the flexibility mindset I strive to default to.

Today, I encourage you to practice resilience. This is not meant as just a meaningless statement, but an invitation to decide on action instead of stagnation, on taking each opportunity to choose a flexible mindset instead of a rigid one."


Coutu, D. (2002.) How Resilience Works. Harvard Business Review.

Rothrock, A. (2022.) After Trauma: Lessons on Overcoming from a First Responder Turned Crisis Counselor. Broadleaf Books.

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