Resilience is a panacea of a personality trait. Becoming more resilient can help us to bounce back from failure and lead to a host of positive outcomes. With a writing life littered with obstacles, it’s the kind of skill writers need to keep going long term. Here’s one approach to help you plan for inevitable setbacks, and it starts with a story about floods.
Living in a flood zone I hear about resilience a lot. Last weekend, in the aftermath of back-to-back storms and days of non-stop rain, the rivers were rising. Flood alerts were in place and on Sunday morning I woke to sirens sounding along the valley bottom. Could I cope with the coming deluge?
Resilience to recover and adapt
Being resilient is not about toughing it out, nor does it stop difficult things happening, but the promise of resilience is that we become stronger, more adaptable and better equipped to deal with life’s shittier moments.
Resilience is the ability to recover from difficulties and adapt in response to them. It helps us keep going rather than giving up. For writers that means dealing with negative feedback, rejection or failure to reach an audience. As well as the struggles that go along with writing, we build resilience in the face of life’s knockbacks – illness, job uncertainty, money worries, family problems, grief and trauma.
It’s the wonder drug of life skills enabling us to survive in the short term and thrive in the long term.
Hope and positive thinking
When I was choosing where to live in Hebden Bridge I was told that flooding was a once in a generation event. I hoped it wasn’t going to happen to me; I was full of optimism and positive thinking.
Starting with hope is no bad thing according to Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. “I was always interested in hope,” she said. “Why people wouldn’t give up despite the most dire circumstances. At first, I thought it was positive thinking.”
After getting stuck into the data, Oettingen soon realised that “positive fantasies about the future are not the answer to how people are resilient.”
>> Read more: Overcome your writing blocks with obstacle thinking
Plan for obstacles
We moved into our dream house and that once-in-a-generation flood came. After two floods in 2012, the devasting floods of Boxing Day 2015 were too much. Action was needed. The local council and community organisations worked together on a flood resilience plan. That’s precisely the kind of action that Oettingen says we need instead of hope.
As a world leading authority of the science of goal setting, she came up with a concept called ‘mental contrasting’ where you visualise all the obstacles, failures and setbacks you’ll face on the path to achieving your goals. In short, by all means dream, but pair it with a dose of reality.
The town’s flood resilience plan was put to use all too soon when the valley flooded again in February 2020. Last weekend, thankfully, we avoided the floods, but should the worst happen I take comfort knowing that there’s a plan in place and people to carry it out.
Get back on the horse
When I interviewed author and journalist Oliver Burkeman about writing habits, he told me “that the thing you are training is not the behaviour but the failure of the behaviour. It’s getting back on the horse when you’ve fallen off rather than never falling off.”
>> Read more: Oliver Burkeman’s 10 tips for a productive and happy writing life
While none of us wants to fall off the horse, every good horse rider knows they will fall. Start by accepting that failure, adversity and setbacks are inevitable. Then you can figure out how to deal with them. That’s why psychologists consider resilience to be an ongoing process. As well as bouncing back from adversity it can led to ‘profound personal growth.’
As writers we can dream of success, we should have hope that our efforts will be rewarded in the future. But as Oettingen’s research has found, thinking about the obstacles that might get in the way will motivate and energise us. That makes us far more likely to reach our writing dreams.
More to keeping going than resilience?
For the past few years, that’s what I’ve been doing, putting in place plans to achieve my dream of writing a book with Chris. I’ve used obstacle thinking to help me deal with everyday distractions and overwhelm and the periodic blocks that come with writing. Fear of the blank page – I’ve got a plan for that, ditto for research rabbit holes and the lure of news and social media. So far, so inevitable.
However, it turns out that life had a few more obstacles to throw my way. The pandemic, loss of income, a business closure, lockdown and then at the start of this year I hit an obstacle that floored me. Rather than avoid, jump over or swerve round this obstruction, I ran straight into it and smashed into thousands of tiny pieces.
When my father died unexpectedly last month, I realised there was more to resilience than plans. It was not just about bouncing back from short-term setbacks. I needed to learn a more skills to get through this. In the next few posts I explore what that looks like and share conversations about what it takes to keep going long term.
>>Read more: The resilience to keep writing