Cultivate Resilience: How to Get Back on the Horse

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

We all go through tough times personally and professionally. Hardship and failure are inevitable. You will get tossed off the horse. What does it take for you to get back on?

When you cultivate and build resilience, you gain the ability ability to bounce back and try again with more experience and wisdom. Make no mistake, it is a muscle that we develop rather than a quality that we are born with. Improving our ability to handle adversity allows us to empathize with others, lead better, as well as propel our career to new levels and live a happier life.

This article outlines four key things you can do to cultivate resilience and help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen. It also provides practical guidelines and advice for dealing with adversity when you’re in the thick of it.

4 Ways to Cultivate Resilience

1 | Check your mindset.
Do you have a fixed mindset in which you believe that your intelligence, talents and personality are set in stone? Or do you have a growth mindset, which believes these are things that you can cultivate and develop further throughout your life?

For 20 years, Stanford University Psychologist, Carol Dweck has been dedicated to demystifying the power of mindset. Her work includes several studies that have shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life (not to mention, how you lead others). It can determine whether you are willing to take risks and try new things and strive to become the person you aspire to be.

Fixed vs. growth mindset

In one of Dweck’s early studies, she gave kindergarten students a questionnaire to determine which ones were predisposed to a fixed versus growth mindset. She then gave them all a very easy math problem. They all solved it correctly.

When she asked each group if they wanted to try a harder math problem, the fixed-mindset kids said, “Ummm….no thanks. I’m good.” Whereas the growth mindset kids enthusiastically said, “Sure!” Some got it right and some didn’t. She continued to offer increasingly difficult math problems, and the growth-mindset kids continued to take on the harder problem.

Essentially, the fixed mindset kids said, “no,” because they didn’t want to risk getting the harder problem wrong, which would either make them feel stupid, look bad or prove that, despite what their parents have told them, they are not that smart after all.

The growth mindset kids didn’t care about this. They were inherently more curious and interested in the learning, even if they failed. And when they did fail, they did not internalize the failure and take it as a statement about how good or smart they are.

The growth mindset kids were inherently more resilient. These kids saw the math problems as an opportunity to learn, rather than a litmus test of their personal value. They weren’t concerned about looking bad or feeling stupid. They were interested in the learning and were able to get better with practice or effort. They did not see their intelligence or abilities as fixed.

A fixed mindset creates the need to prove oneself. Deficiencies must be hidden since they can’t be developed. Failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Overcome fear of failure

By contrast, a growth mindset sees failure as an opportunity to learn. Consider what Michael Jordan famously said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot…and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.

THIS is the growth mindset. Knowing that failure is an inherent part of growth and development, and not only being ok with it, but also being open, curious and eager to learn from those failures.

There are many examples of people who overcame failure and setbacks via dedication and hard work. Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team on the first try. Winston Churchill failed the entrance exams for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst—twice.

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot…and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.”

M I C H A E L   J O R D A N


Photographer Cindy Sherman, widely considered one the most important artists of the 20th century, failed her first photography course. Meryl Streep, who just won a lifetime achievement award for acting, was told she was too ugly for a part in King Kong when she was an unknown 27-year-old actor.

How to cultivate resilience with a growth mindset

What does a growth mindset get you? Dweck’s research suggests that it will help you succeed over the long haul. It’s a critical element of resilience, and it will help you weather challenging times.

Cultivating a growth mindset is like learning a new language. You’ve got to work at it every day, but with practice, it becomes more natural and, eventually, you become fluent. It’s worth saying that we can approach certain experiences or parts of ourselves with a growth mindset, but other experiences with a fixed mindset.

Learning to recognize your mindset in any given situation and cultivate a growth perspective is a valuable skill and a conscious choice. If you catch yourself in a fixed mindset, you can simply decide to change it.

Dweck’s book Mindset is one I find myself often recommending. It’s enlightening, inspiring and I’ve known it to be life-changing for me and my clients. Read it to learn more about what a growth mindset is, why it’s beneficial and how to develop it.

2 | Look for the learning. Then let the past go.
Think back to an experience of failure, loss or unexpected change, which really sucker punched you. Perhaps you lost an important piece of potential new business. Maybe you were going full-steam toward an important goal when the budget was eliminated. Perhaps you made an embarrassing mistake. Maybe you made a decision that was very costly to the organization. Maybe you even lost your job.

In the aftermath of this difficult experience, did you find yourself ruminating about what happened—playing the scene or events over and over in your mind? Did you beat yourself up for how you handled it?

The problem with rumination

Rumination isn’t just wasted energy. It’s actually detrimental to your productivity, emotional wellbeing and overall health. When you are caught in a loop of self-defeating thoughts, it’s harder to get back on the horse and move forward.

Failure and difficulty are part of the human experience. You can let them defeat you or you can learn from them. The trick is to find a way to see beyond the experience.

One of the best ways I know to short-circuit rumination is to step back and ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Reflect on what you could have done better or differently. What actions do you need to take now to move forward? Where do you want to go next? What commitments do you need to make to yourself and others? Write it down to get it out of your head and then let the past go.

This informative white paper reveals how to overcome rumination and build your personal resilience including:

  • Understand stress as something you create
  • See what determines stress levels (internal vs. external)
  • Learn how rumination is a key driver of stress
  • Understand the difference between pressure and stress
  • Learn to work in high-pressure situations without stress
  • Start to see stress as optional

Overcome Rumination + Build Resilience with this White Paper

3 | Prepare with self-care.
Resilience isn’t just about “powering through” rough patches. You need to take care of yourself so that you have the strength, energy and flexibility to weather stressful times. At a minimum, self-care is about eating nutritiously, getting adequate rest, exercising and finding some sense of balance, however you define it. These basics will take you a long way.

Developing a daily mindfulness practice is like giving your mind a shower every day. It can help you to clear the cobwebs, manage stress, handle difficult emotions and improve your ability to focus. By focusing on the present moment, mindfulness helps you take control of negative thoughts and feelings. It steers you away from ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. The focus is now.

Self-compassion is related to mindfulness and a growing body of research suggests that it lessens the grip of negative events. One of the leading researchers on self-compassion is Kristin Neff at the University of Texas. She outlines three key elements to self-compassion that can be easily applied to improve resilience while we’re weathering tough times:

Key Elements of Self-Compassion
Ignoring or downplaying our suffering serves to prolong it. Acknowledging the difficulty of what we are going through is both healthy and beneficial.
You might say to yourself: “Ok, this is hard and I’m not happy about it.”

We treat our friends with kindness when they are going through hardship. Instead of punishing ourselves for not being good enough, self-kindness means we treat ourselves like a dear friend, recognizing that we’re doing the best we can.
You might say to yourself: “My worth isn’t defined by this one experience.”

Common humanity.
Everyone fails, makes mistakes and struggles sometimes. Remembering the shared human experience makes us feel less isolated when we are suffering hardships.
You might say to yourself: “I’m not alone. Everyone experiences disappointment, setbacks and failure at one time or another.”

4 | Cultivate resilience with inspiration.
There are many great role models for resiliency all around us. You probably can think of some of your own. Hearing stories of how other people got back on the horse, reminds us that failure and setbacks are a shared human experience and bolsters our belief that we can rebound, too. Check out these recent stories of resilience that you might find inspiring:
My Awkward Money Talk With Sallie Krawcheck | Death, Sex and Money
Sallie K. Crawcheck was CEO of Smith Barney, and then, a top executive at Citigroup. She was there when the financial crisis hit in 2008, and Sallie was fired amid corporate infighting about how to handle some of the bank’s major losses.

To Endure | TED Radio Hour
What allows us to endure our darkest moments? What does it take to show resilience in the face of adversity? In this hour, TED speakers explore the outer limits of inner strength. Listen to the Podcast.

Joe Biden On Stuttering | AIS Gala
Biden speaks about his personal experiences with a speech disorder. Watch the video.

Get help getting back on the horse

Sometimes we need a little extra leg up to get back on the horse. Support from people we love and trust is critical. When that’s not enough, a skilled coach can help you shift your perspective, identify obstacles—including how you might be getting in your own way—and find the way forward.

See how resilient you are by downloading our self-assessment tool. It will help you identify strengths to leverage and areas for further development or improvement.

Assess Your Personal Resilience with our Self Assessment Worksheet.



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