What Does Resilience Mean? Thriving in a World of Accelerating Change

If you’ve been following events in the news these past few years, you might have heard the term “resilience” thrown around without really knowing what people were talking about.

Well, don’t worry. We’re here to talk about what resilience means and how you can find more of it in your life.

What Does Resilience Mean?

Do you ever wonder why some people and organizations fare better in times of rapid, disruptive change? And why others flail and fail?

I know I do.

I looked into the subject, canvassing a number of different writings and books. The concept I kept returning to was resilience and how it functions as a fail-safe in times of brutal change and disruption.

In this Part 1 of a three-part series, we’ll explore the question of What does resilience mean?

Here, in this article, you’ll learn:

  • What resilience means
  • Why you need to build resilience
  • How feedback loops allow you to adapt faster and come back stronger
  • The three key attitudes of resilient people (“the three C’s”)

So what does resilience mean? Let’s find out together.

What Does Resilience Mean?

The Resilience Dividend Book Cover

Cover image copyright its respective owner. Used under fair use.


The primary text for this article is The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong by Judith Rodin.

It’s a great book. We’re going to be referring to it a lot.

Rodin’s book is concerned with resilience as it applies to individuals and institutions after a dramatic disruption—anything from hurricanes and earthquakes to demographic change.

Right off the bat, Rodin has a great explanation of the concept of resilience:

Resilience is the capacity of any entity—an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system—to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.

Resilience building, therefore, is a core concept in an age where change happens quicker and more disruptively than anyone anticipates.

Here’s Rodin again:

As you build resilience, therefore, you can become more able to prevent or mitigate stresses and shocks you can identify and better able to respond to those you can’t predict or avoid. You also develop greater capacity to bounce back from a crisis, learn from it, and achieve revitalization. Ideally, as you become more adept at managing disruption and skilled at resilience building, you are able to create and take advantage of new opportunities in good times and bad.

That is the resilience dividend according to Rodin. The resilience “dividend” pays out every time you survive shocks and thrive in new environments.

But how do you go about upping your resilience quotient?

The Necessity of Resilience Building

Resilience means weathering the cost of disruption

Disruption exacts a heavy toll on people, institutions, and economies. The losses are impossible to calculate, but we often try to quantify them anyway. Rodin talks about how we go about estimating the cost of disruption:

We can get a sense of their scope, however, from the World Bank’s estimate that, between 1980 and 2012, nearly $4 trillion has gone into relief and recovery efforts worldwide for natural disasters alone. But that figure includes only quantifiable damage, and only from one kind of disruption, and says nothing about the greater toll on people, the environment, and economies exacted by the interruption of activity, loss of opportunity, and all the rest.

The individual toll that disruption takes can also be mighty. Here’s Rodin again:

Disruption comes in much smaller increments, too: local shocks, organizational disturbances, individual setbacks. The damage done by these may not be as costly, but can be devastating.

Indeed, the most common form of disruption we are all familiar with is the disruption from economic shocks—the rhythmic tanking of the economy that happens like clockwork every 6 to 8 years.

When the financial markets implode due to dot-coms, Asian currencies, or credit default swaps (just to name a few), we all suffer greatly—governments, institutions, organizations, and individuals on down.

Frequent, unpredictable, and debilitating disruptions are the new normal, and we have to face up to this truth. Here’s Rodin:

We can no longer accept our vulnerabilities or ignore the threats we live with. Nor can we devote such great amounts of resources to recovering from disasters that could have been prevented or responded to more effectively. Nor can we continue to delude ourselves that things will get back to normal one of these days. They won’t.

Is it any wonder we need to build resilience?

Thankfully, resilience isn’t a constant, intrinsic trait like height or hair color. It can be built up.

The good news is that resilience building is a concept that can be learned and a practice that can developed [sic]; resilience is not an inborn individual trait or an inherent character of a company or community. Any entity can build resilience.

Resilience building has the potential to lift you up out of a life of constant fear—of rejection, of layoffs, of disaster—and into a calm and steady mindset that’s adversity-tested and durable.

Resilient Systems Require Feedback Loops to Function

Feedback loops power resilient systems—otherwise, people, institutions, and the actions they take remain unconnected. Here’s Rodin with some examples:

Technological systems depend on feedback loops for successful functioning—such as the simply home thermostat, which measures the air temperature and sends signals to the heating and cooling unit to adjust its function. Natural systems, too, including human beings, depend on feedback loops for the integration of all the elements within the system. Your brain and skin maintain a feedback loop and send signals to regulate body functions, such as sweating.

Feedback loops are also essential to agile thinking, whether you’re talking about Scrum, Lean Start-up methodology, or Agile Results. Here’s Rodin boiling down the fundamentals of feedback loops:

Feedback loops can take many forms but always involve a method of sensing or gathering data, the ability to understand and analyze the data, and the capacity to then respond “back” in some way that is meant to keep the system functioning.

If the feedback loop succeeds in adapting the system to change, we get what Rodin calls the adaptive cycle.

The Adaptive Cycle

Adaptation and resilience go hand in hand.

Resilience isn’t merely about returning to your former shape; sometimes disruption enacts permanent changes on a system that forever alters its form. That’s okay.

The point is to continue operating as a system, not to remain unaltered. That’s where the adaptive cycle comes in. Here’s Rodin explaining how the cycle works:

The adaptive cycle has four phases and is often depicted as a loop: rapid growth, conservation, a “release” of some kind—which can be caused by a disruption or the reaching of some threshold (more on thresholds later)—followed by a period of reorganization.

In case that was too abstract, the example Rodin gives is a forest. Roughly speaking, a forest goes through the following stages of adaptation:

  • Rapid growth. More trees, taller trees, forest expands.
  • Conservation. Certain trees “win” the battle for survival, growth slows.
  • Release. A forest fire, logging, a massive ice storm, something disrupts the stability of the system, throwing the equilibrium permanently out of whack.
  • Reorganization. “If the forest can adapt, change character, continue to function, and still grow—even if with different species and in new directions—it shows resilience,” writes Rodin. A new equilibrium is reached.

In myriad ways, large and small, we human beings have to do the same thing in order to thrive in an environment that’s constantly changing.

“Living in the Foreloop”

But does disruption always have to be triggered by an external event? What if you want to take control of your own destiny and self-disrupt?

This is what Rodin calls “living in the foreloop”:

[W]hile the larger system (the company or the city as a whole) chugs along in the growth and conservation phases, small parts of the system (a unit or project) can create a disruption that will provoke change and do so without destabilizing the entire system or causing it to lose its ability to self-regulate. As the smaller element grows, it too will move into the conservation phase, perhaps resulting in the transformation of the entire company.

Apple’s one famous example of a company that’s not afraid of self-cannibalization. From the iPod to the iPhone and the iMac to iPad, the folks at Cupertino are willing to destabilize their own product-markets in order to compete in the future.

We do this on a personal level too. Here’s Rodin:

Individuals, like cities and business, regularly take risks that bring with them disruptions—such as moving to a new city, committing to an innovative project, or taking on a new job—but that enable them to grow and thrive and be more resilient in the face of still more challenges.

Whether it’s job hopping to be happy or creating second streams of income, you’re likely to test your responsiveness to change.

The Three C’s of Resilience

What Does Resilience Mean? Layoffs and Bell Telephone

Salvatore Maddi was a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who studied more than 25,000 workers at Illinois Bell Telephone. He was interested in their behavior after the company laid off 50% of its employees in a single year.

Here’s Maddi:

Two-thirds of our sample broke down in various ways. Some had heart attacks or suffered depressive and anxiety disorders. Others abused alcohol and drugs, were separated and divorced, or acted out violently. In contrast, a third of our employee sample was resilient. These employees survived and thrived despite the stressful changes. If these individuals stayed, they rose to the top of the heap. If they left, they either started companies of their own or took strategically important employment in other companies.

Hat-tip: Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington.

What made the groups so different?

Maddi found that the resilient ones displayed three key attitudes that helped them turn setbacks into success. These “three C” attitudes are:

  1. Commitment — being part of the solution instead of hiding
  2. Control — not resigning to fate, instead demonstrating high locus of control
  3. Challenge — using disruption to strengthen yourself instead of crumpling in despair

Notice what each of the three C’s have in common: They’re internal. Contrary to popular belief, your external reality is less a predictor of resilience than you might think.

What matter is mindset.

A strong belief in your efficacy and a commitment to overcoming your present set of circumstances is a better predictor of how you’ll fare—even if half of your department is laid off tomorrow.

It’s your responsibility to determine how you react and respond to disruption.

When everyone else around you is losing their heads, your best opportunity comes from keeping yours and bouncing back faster, stronger, and more agile than the next guy.


Resilience isn’t about returning perfectly to your previous shape after a setback or a disruption. That’s a myth. Resilience is more than that.

Here’s what resilience does mean:

  • Resilience is the capacity to prepare for and bounce back from disruption.
  • Bouncing back doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the status quo—adaptation and growth are also features of responding to change.
  • The adaptive cycle follows a four-phased loop: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization.
  • “Living in the foreloop” requires self-disruption.
  • Remember the 3C’s of a resilient attitude: Commitment, control, and challenge.

The opportunity of our turbulent time is to embrace change and live with agility. You can do it now, even before disruption tests your capacity for resilience.

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