Failure, Adversity, Resilience – What’s Your Explanatory Style?

March 30, 2011 § 10 Comments

25 years ago, Scott Peck began his landmark book, The Road Less Traveled, with the sentence:  “Life is difficult. “ Long before that we learned Buddha’s first truth: “Life is pain.”

If you are aged enough, you know these truths to be self-evident.   The difficulty and pains of life can be seismic (death of a loved one, disease, divorce, 9/11, tsunami).  They can also be smaller in scale, but still have the ability to rock us off our center and send us into fight, flight or freeze mode. At home, it’s being turned down for a mortgage, a conflict with your partner, or the message from your child’s principle asking for a meeting. At work, it’s getting an angry co-worker’s ‘ALL CAPS’ email, the lost sale, the less than stellar annual review (you had expected better).

How we’ve learned to habitually respond to these pressures and demands  – called our  Explanatory Style – determines how resilient we are, and how focused we can be to bring ourselves back to center. For leaders, this is a most crucial ability, as all eyes are on you waiting to take their cue after a set-back has hit.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a.k.a. the father of positive psychology, has studied the nature of resilience for more than 40 years. Of note, he has studied how we respond to failure in our lives. His research has been able to predict who will return to normal after failure, who will collapse, and who will grow. This is significant, because failing at something and experiencing loss is as common a trauma at work as dashed romance is in personal life. What we can learn from Seligman’s research is important because it’s applicable not just to how we deal with failure in our lives, but also how we can be resilient in the face of ANY pressures and demand we encounter. This includes when the Red Sox loose to the Yankees.

Do you know Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote?  “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Well, it’s not exactly accurate.  According to the research, how human beings react to adversity, especially extreme adversity, is normally distributed.  At one end are those that fall apart, feel helpless, hopeless, pessimistic & anxious, become depressed and stay that way for a very long time.  In the middle are most of us who react with symptoms initially, but within a month or so (or less), are back where they were before the trauma.  That is resilience.  On the other end are people who show growth – Nietzsche’s people.  These people, within a year, are better off than they were before the trauma.

In fact, Seligman and his colleagues, as reported in this month’s Harvard Business Review, have developed a program for teaching resilience and are now testing it in an organization of 1.1 million people where trauma is more common and more severe than any corporate setting: the U.S. Army.  Their goal is to reduce the number who struggle, and increase the number who grow.  The $145 million initiative is called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, and in large part, they do this by helping soldiers learn to move from a pessimistic to optimistic, and most important, realistic explanatory style in which they personally interpret adversity.

Explanatory style is the habitual way we tend to interpret, and respond to setbacks in our lives.  It is usually acquired early from our parents. And like any habit, it is changeable – along as you maintain awareness.  It’s measured along 3 dimensions.  Non-resilient people habitually tend to live at the extremes of these dimensions.  Resilient people take a breath and assess the situation realistically. They are able to respond to trauma realistically & appropriately.

The 3 dimensions are:   Personal – Permanent – Pervasive.

See if you can identify if you tend toward non-resilient extremes when adversity strikes you.

1.  PERSONAL (Who or what is causing the adversity)

  • Extremes: TOTALLY DUE TO ME  – or –  TOTALLY DUE TO OTHERS or circumstances
  • Example:  Your business presentation gets shot down.
  • Do you say:“What’s wrong with me!”  “I don’t have what it takes!” “I’m no good at this!”
  • Do you say “What’s wrong with them!” “They expect too much!” “They are impossible to deal with!”
  • Reflexively going to either end will cause you to be non-resilient.

2. PERMANENT (How long will the adversity last)

  • Extremes: Will ALWAYS be present  – or –  Will NEVER AGAIN be present
  • Example #1:  You get laid off from your job.
  • Do you think: “I’ll never be able to find a job like that again!”
  • On the other extreme, do you think: “This is a fluke, it could never happen to me again!”
  • Example #2:  Your child gets a D in a course.
  • Do you think: “She’ll never get into a good college!”
  • On the other extreme, do you think: “This is a one-off, there’s nothing to be concerned about.”
  • Either belief could lead you to non-resilience.

3.  PERVASIVE (How much of my life is affected)

  • Extremes:  This will affect EVERYTHING in my life  – or –  This affects JUST THIS situation
  • Example #1:  You are 25 lbs overweight.
  • Do you think:  “I am ugly!”
  • On the other extreme, do you think: “I am 25 pounds overweight, there’s nothing to be concerned about.”
  • Example #2 (layoff): “My life is ruined!”


To be a resilient, optimistic, effective problem solver, and positively lead others, be aware of your explanatory style when adversity strikes. Pressure test your assumptions on the 3 P’s.  Resilient people are able to accurately read the adversity (or find others to help them do that), and then do something about it to get back to center.

Good luck.


§ 10 Responses to Failure, Adversity, Resilience – What’s Your Explanatory Style?

  • […] Hollander, who I’ve known for 20 years, has a great blog. His latest post explains the importance of how you interpret a traumatic situation. The more you are determined to […]

  • Bob Faw says:

    Once again, there’s a lot of wisdom here, Allen.
    I think it would be great if you also listed examples of resilient reframes of the extreme statements you listed.
    E.g., For the “Example: Your business presentation gets shot down.”, a resilient person might say “Hmm, I can see how I neglected to build credibility upfront. What can I do to be more credible next time?”

    • Bob, I think your example of a realistic reframe is perfect. As for the others, one could say.. “I’m an attractive person AND overweight and need to make a plan, get some support to put me on track.” With the layoff: “Mostly this is not my fault, although I could have been more prepared for it. It is affecting one aspect of my life, it will be temporary and I will persevere in finding a new job, maybe even better than the last one.”

  • Elizabeth Levy says:

    Thanks Allen. Fabulous food for thought. Very helpful examples too, showing us that, as in so many other realms of life, there is a lot of room in the middle for us. Thank you for this thoughtful reminder.

    • Thanks Liz. In my own life, when the bullets are flying, I find that taking that breath and challenging my “extreme” assumptions & beliefs about the situation very useful in the moment – not to mention saving me from the “clean-up” effort that probably would have been required later on.

  • Cecile Gonzaga says:

    Allen, I love the “I am a rubber band” visual. We are indeed stretched by life’s woes and even the daily grind. Thanks for this blog.

    • Thanks Cecile. Great to hear from you. One cherished learning I have integrated: It is I who controls that stretch when life shoots and lands those bullets at me. It is the great inheritance I received from my father and the adversity he survived. Worth a zillion $. This is what Rudi Juliani was trying to tell us last week in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.

  • An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do believe that you ought to publish more on this topic, it might
    not be a taboo subject but usually people don’t talk about these topics.

    To the next! All the best!!

  • […] Dr. Seligman explains how to break an “I—give-up” habit, develop a more constructive explanatory style for interpreting your behavior. Experience the benefits of a more positive interior dialog. These […]

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