The Habits of Resilience


“If you knock, knock me over – I will get back up again,” Princess Poppy.

Rejection sucks. But if you’re creative, you’ll have experienced the pain of having your work rejected – many times. So, if there’s one thing all great creative leaders have learned, and often the hard way, it’s that resilience matters.  Presiding over the mayhem of your average agency or creative studio day is not for the faint-hearted, so resilience marks out those that succeed, perhaps more than anything else.

Whilst rejection is tough – it’s also like boot camp for building the endurance you need for a long and successful career. Those that learn early to roll with the punches, build themselves a foundation of resilience that will serve them well in the pressure-cooker environment when they reach the top.

Unfortunately, in business, we have unhelpful expectations of what ‘resilience’ means for leaders: that they must be fighters –able to weather any storm and to never show weakness.  In reality, no-one is bulletproof and there’s a high personal cost to always being the strong one: burnout, anxiety and even illness are often the symptoms of trying to be a rock for everyone else.

Instead, true resilience is your ability to recover well from setbacks and to adapt in the face of change and adversity. It’s not just about surviving at any cost – it’s about surviving and thriving.

The good news is that resilience is not a trait. It’s not something that the lucky few are born with. At the heart of resilience is your mindset and attitude to how you cope with whatever life throws at you. This comes from good habits rather than good genes. Fortunately, habits can be learned.


“I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened,” Mark Twain.

The way we think profoundly affects how we feel, so learning to think differently can change how we respond in challenging situations. When under duress, it’s easy to slip into negative thinking or make unhelpful assumptions that fuel our emotional flames. We fixate on the problem, blame others for our upset or even escalate things to catastrophic proportions in our heads. But in reality, worst case scenarios rarely happen and as the late psychologist, Albert Ellis, taught us, it’s not the tough situations themselves that cause us stress but what we believe about them instead. Whilst delivering a public speech might give you the fear – it’s actually the unhelpful voice in your head saying, ‘if you fluff your lines, you’ll look like an idiot’, that’s the real source of pressure.  So next time you’re feeling stressed, take a moment to be aware of what you’re thinking.  If it’s not constructive, then change the track, and don’t let your inner monologue hold you back. 


“Always look on the bright side of … death,” Monty Python.

When we’re immersed in our work and things aren’t going to plan, we can sometimes lose a grip on what really matters. Letting ourselves get too emotionally involved in what we do can mean that our judgement gets clouded and we blow things out of proportion. As Dan Germain, Group Head of Brand for Innocent notes, it’s often “easy to get caught up in the importance of what we’re doing but when we start taking ourselves too seriously, we can lose perspective”.

Instead, cultivating a pragmatic outlook in the face of adversity will help to keep your emotions from running riot. As Germain goes on to say, ”my well of resilience comes from recognising that in the bigger context of life and the universe, what we do is just not that important”.

So, next time it feels like your world is caving in, take a step back and try to see the situation in a cosmic light. Failing that, keep your sense of humour … it’s great for perspective and can provide much-needed levity, even in the darkest moments.


“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” Susan David.

While studies show that maintaining hope is important, being resilient isn’t about endless positivity. The notion of ‘bouncing back’ from hard times doesn’t do justice to the hard work and sheer determination that resilience takes. We can’t all be Tigger-like in our ability to face down adversity. Rather, the art of resilience is about accepting reality for what it is and facing our fears, not hiding from them.

According to Susan David in her TED talk about the power of emotional courage, “the radical acceptance of all of our emotions, even the messy, difficult ones, is the cornerstone to resilience”.  Resilient people feel fear, worry and anxiety too but instead of trying to avoid these feelings or being derailed by them, they see their emotions as useful sources of data which allow them to identify what’s behind them. It’s only once you face up to what’s really driving your emotional response, that you can get practical about finding ways to resolve it.


“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all,” JK Rowling

History is full of famous artists, inventors and entrepreneurs who persisted in the face of failure.  The key to their perseverance is that they saw adversity simply as setbacks rather than insurmountable obstacles to their dreams.  As David Kolbusz, Chief Creative Officer of Droga5 notes, “in the pursuit of doing great work, the best creative leaders stop at nothing to achieve that goal”. Like a child that falls off her bike a hundred times before she learns to ride, failures and mistakes don’t define who you are, they merely shape your learning and are a facet of progress and meaningful change. So, stay focused on your goals and be willing to adapt to each new hurdle, rather than getting stuck in your tracks. But when things really don’t go your way, the trick is not to dwell on it. As Kolbusz says, “approach every creative task like it’s the most important in the world, but if it doesn’t work out – then move the fuck on”.


In the current climate of constant change, it can be hard to find stability in our external worlds, instead it must often come from ourselves. Being in touch with your values and having a clear sense of purpose for yourself and your business, is like having an internal compass that keeps you and your team on course, even in the choppiest of waters.  Also key is to surround yourself with people that you trust and can call on for help.  One recent study, from the British Psychological Society, showed that close friendships and strong communities play a vital role in helping people get through significant challenges. So pick your partners and mentors wisely and draw your confidants and family close, because they can anchor you in stormy times and give you ballast, when you need it most.


The habit of taking care of your well-being can also significantly influence a resilient mindset.  Having physical energy and mental clarity is crucial when facing tough challenges, so maintaining your well of internal resource will help keep you at peak performance and stop you succumbing to stress. Whether it’s running, meditating or jumping out of planes, find the thing that energises and restores you most and make time to do it regularly.  Most importantly … remember to breathe. Deep breathing switches on our parasympathetic nervous system that regulates stress, lowers blood pressure and allows us to refocus. In times of stress, simply taking a few minutes out to practice some deep ‘belly breathing’ can restore your sense of equilibrium and give you a pause whilst you get your emotional ducks back in a tidy row.

Let’s face it, business, like life, can be unpredictable, and many things are out of our control but how we respond to difficulties and the attitudes we adopt in the face of challenges, aren’t.  So, building resilience is not about building a brick wall, instead, it’s about adopting a flexible mindset and learning to adapt and flow as problems arise. But prepare yourself. Every great creative leader or entrepreneur that has built a successful team or business has had to run the gauntlet of adversity. So, if you want to make it to the top then start training for the marathon now, and every setback along the way will only make the finish line sweeter.

Tanya Livesey