Why Adversity and Resilience are Important

I’m a sucker for sports documentaries.  Recently, I turned on ESPN just in time to see a young runner fall into her coaches arms after finishing a race.  That girl’s name is Kayla Montgomery, and she has multiple sclerosis.  If you are unfamiliar with her tearjerking story, take twelve minutes and watch this clip:

The cliff notes version of her story is that during every race, she loses feeling in her legs.  Losing feeling in her legs leaves her unable to stop once the race is completed, and her coach catches her, arms extended, at the finish line of each race.  Kayla entered her senior year as an afterthought…not only having to overcome multiple sclerosis (mentally and physically), but needing to build up a skillset to compete with the best runners in the state of North Carolina.  She did.  She ended up winning the North Carolina state championship in the 3200 meters.

The story is a great illustration of adversity, and how we as human beings can overcome.  It’s about a girl who refused to be labeled a cripple.  It’s about a coach who treated his athlete like a daughter, with a beautiful mix of tough love, respect, and compassion.  It is a story everyone can sink their teeth into.

So, the question is…

Where would Kayla be without multiple sclerosis?  Would she still be the persistent, driven, stubborn girl who became the fastest 3200 meter runner in North Carolina?  I contend that Kayla would not have been as successful without the adversity she’s faced.

It goes without saying that multiple sclerosis is a terrible disease.  The issue is not the severity of the adversity that is brought upon us, it is our response.  What does the research have to say?


The Relationship between Adversity and Resilience

Let’s take a moment to define adversity (Miriam Webster definition):

  • a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune
  • Synonyms:  misfortune, ill, knock, misadventure, mischance, mishap, tragedy

In other words, adversity is a moment, or series of moments, that one faces.  There is something else that needs to happen for adversity to elevate in importance.  The response.  How does a person respond in the short term, and potentially change in the long term.

Photo Credit:  Philip James (flickr CC)

Photo Credit: Philip James (flickr CC)

The response is where the study of resilience becomes important.  According to the Center for Confidence based in the United Kingdom, resilience is the… (note: bold and italics were added by me)

  • Process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaption despite challenging or threatening circumstances. (Masten, Best & Garmezy 1990)

Resilience is dependent on these challenges.  These threats.  And vice versa.   There is a clear symbiotic relationship between resilience and adversity.

The study of resilience is only about 50 years old.  It all began through the study of students in high risk environments, and how some kids thrived in those environments while others struggled.  How was it that a student who dealt with poor parenting, poverty, or hunger could positively adapt to these circumstances?  As with much of psychology, research interests tend towards a repair of something, or someone, broken…such as the study of mental disorders, Freud’s early work, counseling psychology, etc.


Enter the Positive

While the early resilience work was focused on children and young adults in high risk situations, many researchers believed that resilience could be observed and moved forward with a different population.

Pioneers such as Dr. William Frankenberg and Dr. Martin Seligman decided to focus their research attention on a more positive approach to measuring resilience.  Frankenberg developed the Positive Resilience Theory, which focused on his belief that study should be focused on building and strengthening resilient traits…not just the pathology (the causes and effects of diseases).

My key takeaway from Frankenberg’s work is that his theory rejected the conventional idea that risk should be avoided.  This is huge.  I support this view.

Dr. Seligman is the father of modern positive psychology.  He holds many of the same core belief’s as Frankeberg:  focusing on strength’s, criticism’s of traditional psychology practices, and building structures to build skills in learners of all shapes and sizes.  If you haven’t read any of Seligman’s work, I suggest checking out his book Learned Optimism and also his website for the Positive Psychology Center  at the University of Pennsylvania.


Back to Kayla’s Story

Kayla’s response to her adversity is an example of resilience.  I contend that the illness enabled her to build resilience that otherwise may have taken her years to develop.  In turn, this day by day “compound interest” (dealing, fighting, repeat) propelled her past many of her running competitors, and prepared her for winning that state championship.  What I didn’t mention was that she fell within the first 100 meters of the race, a moment that would have ended the will of most competitors.  Not someone with the resilience that Kayla holds.

She, as with others who have embraced adversity and leaned into those moments, is now at an advantage over others.  As each moment of adversity reveals itself, in any discipline:  business, athletics, art, etc., she has practiced.  She is prepared.  I am excited to hear how Kayla’s life continues to develop, and what amazing things she does.


Your Takeaway

Resilience can be developed.  It can be learned.  This blog is about gathering and sharing the stories and science of adversity and how we can build our adversity “muscles”.  My goal is to continue to provide content that gives each of you tools to work towards whatever goals you want to achieve.

I’m no scientist or psychologist.  I am one of you:  someone who strives to build skills and find ways to use adversity to my advantage.  I plan to make the most of my opportunities.  Let’s learn together.


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