Building resilience

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Learning from our mistakes when something goes wrong can lead to future successes and a more positive outcome.

Words: Aimee-lee Abraham | Illustrations: Mirjam Siim

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In a fixed mindset, people see basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, as pre-determined

UK Youth Commissioner Hannah Kentish had never done less than extremely well in life. At 24, she has competed in a sport at a national level, excelled at school and university, represented the whole movement in her Scouting role, and even founded her own successful charity – Timu Rafiki – to support sustainable Scouting in Kenya. So, when her team’s first attempt at her Queen’s Scout Award expedition didn’t go according to plan, it taught them all a lesson in perseverance that they’ll never forget.

The expedition took place in Norway, near the Arctic Circle. Though the group had done months of preparation, the landscape was unforgiving, and tiny errors made in the earlier stages of the process soon become apparent, taking everybody by surprise. First, the group underestimated the differences between Nordic and British maps, miscalculating the distance between each gridline. Unfortunately, they then stumbled across a labyrinth of obstructive boulders no one had accounted for. By the time they had navigated their way out, they had already missed their only chance to complete the journey by boat, resulting in automatic disqualification.

But, rather than negatively dwelling on the experience, Hannah let herself mourn for one evening only, and vowed to embrace the experience as a lesson learned. Throwing her energy into a second expedition on Mount Kenya, which was a huge success, she combined the physical challenge of the trip with some worthwhile charity work, and soon saw her initial failure as a blessing in disguise.

Since then, Hannah has grown passionate about failure and the lessons it can teach us. She believes we need to talk about it more often, and that we need to do more as leaders to dismantle the perfectionism that can so easily creep in when young people are pursuing their top awards. ‘Slip-ups can really knock anyone’s confidence, and they can be especially damaging to a young person.’ she says, ‘But there’s a lesson in humility lurking beneath those negative feelings. There’s an opportunity to get back up again. Isn’t that what Scouting is all about?’

‘The pressure to complete awards can be quite damaging to people who are failing, especially if they already feel like the clock is against them Young people can feel embarrassed to come home empty-handed after an expedition goes awry; to admit they’ve got it wrong. But the last thing we want to do in Scouting is to discourage young people from giving something another go, or three more goes, or ten more goes if that’s what it takes. I want young people to know that failure is a part of the process, that it’s okay. Life is all about trial and error.’

Hannah encourages young people to appreciate all of the little everyday moments that make Scouting memorable, so that they see their journey as a full feature movie rather than a highlight reel of achievement. ‘Awards are wonderfully fulfilling, but I want young people to realise they can do incredible things with or without the badge at the end of it. We all benefit from pausing to appreciate progress at every stage,’ she says.

Of course, following Hannah’s advice is easier said than done. When we’re in the midst of something difficult, it can be hard to see the bigger picture. But despite this deep-rooted fear of failure, we know that those who approach their mistakes as a learning opportunity – as Hannah did - are more likely to do well than those who avoid them. And though we might assume that successful people are lucky or brilliant enough to dodge failure altogether, the truth is that the people who go on to change the world fail more frequently and spectacularly than the rest of the population. It’s just that nobody talks about it.

Why is it that some people are able to embrace failure, while others find it impossible to accept? What can we do to better equip young people to deal with setbacks? The answer could lie in a single dazzling skill: resilience.  

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In a growth mindset, people believe their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment over long periods of time.

What does resilience look like?

 

In her study of the world’s hardest workers, psychologist Angela Duckworth found the common thread between every spelling bee champion and elite athlete wasn’t talent, as you might expect. It was a combination of resilience and perseverance, a ‘sustained application of effort towards a long term goal’.

She called this combination of traits ‘grit’, and used it to describe strength of character, encompassing a range of hardy qualities like ‘courage’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘pluck’. Most excitingly, she also argued that such a trait could be a better predictor of achievement than intellectual ability (IQ) itself.

As a society, Duckworth argues that we are obsessed with talent when we should be equally obsessed with effort. That’s not to say that talent isn’t valid, and it’s not absolute. There are many gifted people who are not especially gritty, just as there are many gritty people who are not especially gifted.

Often, we assume that the people who change the world were somehow pre-destined to do so, because they were uniquely talented, but this isn’t usually true. In reality, it’s far more likely that they changed the world because they had a passion for their specialist subject and the resilience to apply it. When passion is combined with resilience, it can propel a person forward, giving them the stamina needed to ‘stay on course’ amid challenges and setbacks.

The bad news is that young people today are growing up in a society obsessed with instant gratification. The good news is that (unlike IQ, which is relatively fixed) grit can be mastered with time and effort. In fact, anyone can become more resilient, and it’s a trait that can be found at the heart of all we do as Scouts. All young people need to acquire it is a little hope and a lot of stubbornness.

If you’d like to encourage your young people to develop resilience, here’s how:

 

Encourage young people to develop a fascination with something, however niche

Young people don’t have to find some instinctual, natural calling in order to develop their resilience (though it’s wonderful if they do). What’s most important is that they identify a topic they care about enough to revisit frequently. To identify interests your Scouts are likely to stick with, make a note on any subjects that frequently crop up in conversation, regardless of the context. Is there something they can’t seem to get out of their head? By providing an imaginative and varied programme, you might just unearth an interest that has gone unnoticed at school.

J.K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, was fired from her secretarial job because she was caught writing stories about an 11-year-old wizard when she should have been answering the phones. Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times’ crossword section, skipped out on trial advocacy lessons at law school. Instead, he took two courses on intellectual property and somehow managed to link it to his real passion, writing whole papers on copyright protection for puzzles and games. Some might say the clues were there all along.

Set a positive example, and strive to improve everyday

James Dyson went through 5,127 design prototypes before he finally built the world’s bestselling vacuum cleaner. Walt Disney was fired from his first job at a newspaper because his cartoons ‘weren’t creative enough’. Encourage your Scouts to improve just a little bit everyday, and remind them that all of their little steps will one day add up to a big leap.

 

Remind your Scouts of the greater purpose 

‘Purpose’ is feeling like your work matters to you and to the rest of the world. To motivate your Scouts and make them feel empowered, talk about how their efforts feed in to the wider picture, and encourage them to collect experiences, not things. When Hannah Kentish was feeling sorry for herself at the top of that mountain, her mind drifted towards all of the positives (the view, the connection she had made with her teammates, the exposure to a new culture, the air filling her lungs). This gave her the strength to get back up, which is what resilience is all about.

 

Adopt a growth mindset

The psychologist Carol Dweck’s work looks at the distinction between ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets in young people. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are pre-determined. Therefore, they ‘spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing it.’ In a growth mindset, young people ‘believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.’ This creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment over long periods of time.

 

Accept the limits of resilience

Resilience is a wonderful tool to have at your disposal, but it’s important to remind young people that it’s not a magical solution to the complex challenges of a complex world. Grit cannot solve structural inequalities or reshape policy or shatter dictators. It also can’t account for other factors like luck. What it can do is give young people a greater sense of autonomy over their lives, and increase their chances of being who they want to be.

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