Writers often use the example of Babies Learning to Walk when they talk about resilience, persistence, and growth mindset. Babies don’t care that they don’t already know how to walk, they say, babies know that they want to walk, and they know that it is possible to walk, and that is all that matters. So they try. And they stand up, and they fall down. And then they stand up again, and get pretty good at that, and so try to take a step, and they fall down. And then the stand up again. And try to take a step again. Maybe this time holding on to the couch (babies aren’t fools). And then they let go and they fall down. And so they try again…. until eventually the baby learns how to walk. And we film it on our iPhones and share it on Facebook and Grandma cries and everyone is happy. And we use that baby as our role model. That baby is a hero of persistence.
Only, it doesn’t actually go like that.
Babies don’t teach themselves to walk in one grueling afternoon. The sum total of their effort can’t be encapsulated in a Vine. It takes time. They get fed up. When they fall down, they cry. And sometimes they give up on the whole walking idea for weeks. Crawling is faster and they already know how! Raising both hands in the air and cooing when Grandpa walks by is EVEN FASTER than crawling. Grandpa will carry you anywhere. Walking is for chumps.
The true-er story of Babies Learning to Walk offers another lesson about resilience. It’s not the falling down and quickly getting back up that matters. It’s in the hurt butt (and hurt feelings). The crying and the frustration. And the ease of slipping back into the old habit of doing things. The reasons you need to build resilience in the first place. Because brush yourself off and get back up is not always an option. Sometimes you have to sit through the pain, and heal, and develop a new strategy or build new skills before you can sweet-talk yourself into trying again. And that takes work. And it’s all too easy to try and fail and think maybe walking just isn’t for me and go back to crawling forever.
So what then, can we do? How can we build adaptive capacity? How can we increase our resilience to stress and difficulty and failure? How can we better sit through the pain and develop a new strategy while we heal?
First, we must acknowledge our frustration and pain.
Even welcome it. Frustration is a sign of progress. We’re trying something new! We’re moving ourselves forward! We’re developing new skills! None of that can happen without some set-back and frustration. So the first step in developing resilience is developing the right perspective around pain. Nobody questions sore muscles from a hard workout. It’s time to stop questioning sore feelings when we stretch toward a new goal.
Next, we must focus on our purpose.
What are we trying to accomplish? What was the whole point of trying to walk in the first place? Do we want to move faster? Or more easily reach the dog when she hides from us? Are we stretching into our Big Girl status now that Mommy has twin babies on the way? Having a crystal-clear intention helps us remember why we started and will motivate us to better withstand the pain when we fall back down.
Third, we must reinforce our wins.
Even the small ones. We must shake our little booties with joy when we free-stand for more than a second. Even if that celebration ultimately lands us back on our butts. We must look around for encouragement and relish in Grandma’s cheers and Grandpa’s clapping and everyone telling us what a Big Girl we’ve become. The memory of those celebrations will help cut through the frustration when we’re back on the ground.
And last, we must understand our strengths and hold them tight.
Especially our new strenghts. When things get hard and it seems like there is no way to accomplish our goals, itemizing our strengths and talents will open up new paths and possibilities. New routes to victory. Maybe we can’t walk, just yet, but we’re super-good at standing while holding on to the couch, and that makes one less safe place for the puppy to hide! And hey, look at that! If we keep one hand on the couch we can shuffle side-to-side! That’s almost as good as walking. We’re practically there!
That baby is a role model of persistence. Not for her ability to get back up, but for what she does when she's back on the ground!
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