Developing resilience: musings on learning in times of crisis

Growing personal and professional resilience by focussing on what we can control.

“My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.”―Mizuta Masahide (17th century Japanese poet)

As we experience this extraordinary time in human history, a topic that has been very much in the public conversation has been around the concept of resilience. It seems everywhere you look, people are writing, chatting and sharing ideas about how to harness resilience to help us navigate this unusual and challenging time.

So, what is resilience? I have seen many definitions of resilience, commonly along the lines of the capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and bounce back or recover from adversity. Another, from Merriam-Webster, is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”

One definition of resilience I heard recently that resonates for me is "the strategies we use when striving for stability in moments of unsteadiness."

The latter definition resonates with me for three reasons. First, it is widely applicable; to how we shift our hips and move our arms when we slip on an icy Edmonton sidewalk in late January, to how we respond to a tough question from our nine-year-old child about why things can’t just go back to normal, to how we navigate the change from working in our regular working environment (office, utility plant, lab, classroom) to working in very different circumstances, be it our basements, our kitchens, or in our regular on campus location with far fewer faces in it. Second, I can take lessons learned in each of those unsteady circumstances and apply them to the others: be flexible, be curious and open, listen to others, harness empathy, recognize the magnitude of the change you are in, etc. Finally, I appreciate that it is focused on growing skills and strategies that come in to play when we find ourselves off balance, rather than focusing on those that prevent us from ending up off balance in the first place.

Regardless of the definition used, resilience essentially defines our capacity to overcome adversity and setbacks head on and to recover from them in a healthy and timely way.

I would like to share a model with you that I feel illustrates the concept of resilience well. This model comes from a webinar I recently attended hosted by Third Factor, a Canadian organization whose focus is on what Polish psychologist Dr. Kazimierez Dabrowski called the "third factor". Dr. Dabrowski discovered that in the nature versus nurture debate, something was missing: the role we play in our own development, or the desire to grow.

Third Factor - The Four Resilience Choices

Third Factor CEO, and host of the webinar, Dane Jensen, described resilience as “the set of skills used to navigate from a feeling of helplessness to one of self-efficacy.” Psychologist Albert Bandura of Stanford University proposed the concept of self-efficacy in the late 1970s. Bandura defined self-efficacy as “an individual's belief in their ability to impact their circumstances.” There are four ways to connect with self-efficacy; Third Factor calls these the “Four Resilience Choices”. These choices are:

  1. Eliminate the stressor (and/or modify the environment). We are not always in control of this one, of course. If we are not, we need to move to the other three choices.
  2. Build and maintain physical resilience (sleep, food, movement). This factor is about the critical importance of basic self-care during crisis or adversity.
  3. Build and maintain relationships. Our safety net is made up of those around us who love and care for us unconditionally. Ask yourself, do you tend to reach out and build on or leverage relationships during adversity or do you choose to retreat? We need others in order to be resilient.
  4. Build inner skills that enhance performance under pressure and increase resilience.

The fourth choice is key. These inner skills are founded in our self-awareness. As humans we have the ability to notice and become aware of what is going on for us. This is powerful information for us to make choices regarding our behaviours and thoughts. This information is indicative of our:

  • Perspective - what story are we telling ourselves? These stories affect our confidence and performance levels, our health and well-being under stress, and our ability to bounce back from set-backs (i.e., all aspects of resilience).
  • Focus - what am I paying attention to?
  • Energy Management - what is happening with my energy level? Is it manageable?
  • Imagery - what images am I playing in my head?

Because our perspective, our focus, our energy levels and the imagery in our head are always within our control, we can harness the power of awareness to make different choices, select more positive patterns of thinking and to be more resilient.

We in Human Resource Services believe the foundation for all development starts with self-awareness. Our programs and services are founded in the concept that knowing one's values, motivations, preferences, biases, etc., is the most powerful learning tool. If you would like to know more about how to harness the power of self-awareness in order to grow your personal and professional resilience, reach out to us at org.learning@ualberta.ca. We will connect you to resources and tools that will help you grow this important personal skill.


Kimberly MacLock is an alum of the University of Alberta and for the past eight years has worked as a Learning and Development Consultant in Human Resource Services. She is responsible for designing and implementing experiential learning programs for staff. Kim holds both a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education from the University of Alberta. She is passionate about learning and helping others achieve their full potential.