The One Thing Resilient People Know

We are free to choose our destiny. We all know that with absolute certainty…right up until an unexpected change happens. Until the department reorganizes; sales slide; the company merges; the marriage crumbles; the doctor delivers the diagnosis.

One day we’re in the driver’s seat. The next day we’re strapped to the hood of a ’74 Pinto.  Which begs the question: Are we free or not?

Research on resilience tells us that the most adaptable people answer that question with both a yes and a no. They embrace an idea called “tragic optimism.”

One day in August 1945, a doctor named Viktor Frankl was finally sent home from the Nazi death camps that had been his prison since 1942. As if being teased by death and surrounded by suffering day after day for three straight years wasn’t punishment enough, Frankl now discovered that his mother, his father, his brother, his young wife, their unborn child, and most of his closest friends had all died horrible deaths. The hospital he worked at had been reduced to rubble and the manuscript of the book he was writing–his life’s work–had been stripped from him right along with the shirt off his back the day he arrived at the camps.

Everything in his life had changed. All that he loved was lost.

But as fall became winter and winter gave way to spring, Frankl began to discover something else. Even though he could never go back to the life he once had, he was still free to meet new friends, to marry a new wife, to father a new child, to work with new patients, to enjoy music and read books. Frankl concluded that even though you and I are never free from fate, we are always free to decide how we respond to it.

Tragic Optimism says that fate and freedom are two sides of the same coin. It’s up to each of us to choose which side we focus on. When we fixate on our inability to control the decisions of our bosses, our competitors, our customers, Mother Nature, God Almighty, or the invisible hand of the market, we inevitably succumb to worry, bitterness, and despair.

But when we choose to accept the fact that shift happens, and focus our energy on the fact that we are always free to decide, then every new day–whether good, bad, or ninth circle of Hellish–becomes a new opportunity to shape a meaningful future, one decision at a time.