Build Resilience by Leaning into the Hard Things in Your Life

a resilient tree growing in rock against the wind

I hope it was meaningful for you to read the stories of Jim and Chris in my last couple of blog posts. Actually, I could have shared so many other stories (and will in the future). As I observe people in my life, I recognize and honor that so many of you have faced challenging, traumatic and unexpected life events and circumstances.

In fact, I recently spent time interviewing the top scholars at our local high school. These are the most outstanding students, as determined by the school staff and faculty, in several academic areas. As interviewers, we asked them questions about their studies as well as high school and life experiences and future aspirations in order to help them prepare for a regional competition.

I share this with you because I was struck by the number of them who used the word “resilience” during our interviews. These are young people, not unlike most young people, who have been through hard things in their short lives (covid, school closures, political polarization, etc.) and yet have learned and grown from these experiences. I was in awe of their stories and it made me aware that none of us is immune from adversity and that most of us already demonstrate some measure of resiliency.

Definition of Resilience

So I want to move into a discussion of the meaning of resilience. I’ll begin by sharing a truth: life is hard. Although harder for some than others, I want to suggest that it is hard, at least a good part of the time, for all of us. Which brings me to my definition. I define resilience as how we handle the hard things in our lives. I think of it as the process of adapting well to life’s hardships—adversity, loss, trauma, tragedy, and even everyday stresses. Resilience has to do with how we navigate our challenges, how we bounce back from hard events, and how we function at a high level in the midst of ongoing stress.

Sometimes stressful events and circumstances outweigh our ability to cope, and we become emotionally dysregulated, experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, succumb to physical illness, or engage in unhealthy addictive behaviors and coping mechanisms.

And sometimes we’re able to harness our inner strength to not only cope but even grow stronger in the face of hardship, trauma, adversity and daily stress.

I believe that you and I (all of us) have the ability to grow stronger in the face of hardship, particularly as we understand the nature of resilience.

The Thunderstorms of Life

There’s an old African saying,

“You know how well the roof has been built only when it rains.”

Look at it this way. Not only do the thunderstorms of our lives reveal our resilience, but they also present our greatest opportunities to build resilience (as well as any and all of those qualities that we consider most noble). Courage, humility, integrity, confidence, persistence, and compassion are forged not when life is easy but when we are challenged, when it is raining.

So your objective should not be to avoid life or shrink from the hard things in life but rather learn wisdom and courage as you lean into your challenges. That’s another way of thinking about resilience—your willingness to lean into the hard things of your life.

The Story of W. Mitchell

I want to share another story of resilience. The reason is that I believe we can learn much from studying the lives of people who build resilience. They have much to teach us.

Back in 1971, a young man by the name of W. Mitchell was traveling down a highway on his motorcycle in the San Francisco Bay area. Something at the side of the road caught his eye and when he glanced back, a truck in front of him had come to a stop. Instantly, to save his life, he laid his motorcycle down into a skid that he described as lasting forever. The gas can popped off his motorcycle, and the worst occurred—fuel spilled out and ignited. His next moment of consciousness was waking up in a hospital bed in searing pain, unable to move, fearing to breathe. Three quarters of his body was covered by terrible third-degree burns. His face was badly scarred and his fingers were nothing but stubs.

A New Start

Not too many years following his accident, Mitchell moved to Crested Butte Colorado where he started a business building efficient wood-burning stoves. His business became enormously successful and he became a multimillionaire. But another life-altering event happened. On a cold and snowy November day, Mitchell was going to fly his private plane from the mountain town of Gunnison Colorado to another part of the state. Unfortunately, his plane had not been de-iced sufficiently and when he reached an elevation of a couple hundred feet, it fell back to the runway. The good news is that Mitchell survived. The bad news is that his spine was fractured and he permanently lost the use of his legs and has lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

After the accident, Mitchell was taken to Craig hospital in Denver CO where he rehabilitated. The hospital, not far from my home of 23 years, by the way, is considered one of the best in the country in the treatment of spinal column injuries. I’ve visited a number of people in that hospital following their accidents.

Well, back to my story. Mitchell tells an account of being wheeled into a room one day and overheard all the patients complaining and bemoaning their fates. And who could blame them? But Mitchell spoke up.

“There used to be 10,000 things I could do in life. Today there are only 9,000 and I’m going to enjoy every one of them.”

A Buoyant Attitude

I cannot imagine going through what he went through and maintaining a positive, buoyant attitude. And I have to ask myself how he did it. What was it about W. Mitchell that enabled him to adapt to not one but two tragedies and go on to live a meaningful life?

In addition to building a successful business, Mitchell decided to run for congress from his district in southern Colorado. His campaign slogan was “Not just another pretty face in Washington.” He lost the election but was later appointed as an assistant attorney general in the state. He continues to this day as a popular public speaker and an engaged and contributing person in society.

Life Challenges that Pressure us to Build Resilience (or not)

Of course, not all stories about resilience are as dramatic as that of W Mitchell. Nor are all of them about trauma. In fact, you may want to build your resilience because:

  • You face a constant barrage of adversity or challenges including family conflict, problems on the job, chronic pain, or financial concerns that are wearing you down.
  • You have lived through traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, an accident, natural disasters, war, or even social rejection or ongoing bullying.
  • You have lost your ability to enjoy life due to the chaotic and uncertain state of the world. (The pandemic of 2020 certainly had this impact on hundreds of millions of people around the world.)
  • You grew up in difficult childhood circumstances, including poverty, neglect, abuse, or relationship instability.
  • You are a sensitive personality, prone to anxiety and depression.

No matter the sources of your challenges, I want to point out that something that we can learn from people like W. Mitchell (as well as Jim and Chris) is that they are agents in their own well-being rather than victims of their life events. W Mitchell did not focus only or even primarily on adversity, harm, injury, and trauma. He refused to be defined by the worst that happened in his life and instead focused on his power to create a beautiful future.

An Exercise: Turning a Problem Inside Out

So, let me offer one strategy to build your resilience. It is a technique that I’m going to call Turning a Problem Inside Out. It’s one part of what W. Mitchell did as he faced his devastating and life-changing events. This is reframing a negative situation so you can see something good in it.

I’m not asking you to pretend something hard is not hard. But how can your frame it in a way that empowers rather than disempowers you? How can you find a silver lining or an opportunity in it?

So, consider a problem in your life. How can you frame this problem in a way that allows you to feel differently about it? If you like, write down your new way of thinking about this situation.

And I invite you to share your thoughts. We are all in this together. We can learn a lot from one another.

(By the way, my new course, Managing Stress and Building Resilience Masterclass, is now live on Udemy. Click here and get it for $9.99, over a 90% discount and the lowest price I can ever offer it. This offer expires at 8:30 AM MDT on Sunday, July 9th.)



  1. Justin Riggs

    I have come to believe that much of life is simply an opportunity for us to prove to ourselves and to God that we will not turn from Him when faced with stressful, traumatic, difficult circumstances, but instead turn TO Him… not so He will make our problems go away, necessarily, but so that we will learn that He will bless us with everything we need to build the resilience you speak of in this article. Thanks for another skill to practice as I work through my own challenges, Roger. I appreciate the time and effort you spend putting these posts out!

    • Roger Allen

      Thank you, Justin. In my mind, it is not God’s role to make our lives easier or more convenient. God is more interested in who we are becoming and this growth comes by facing what is difficult.

  2. Jesse L. Dunn

    Great definition of resiliency. “how we handle the hard things in our lives. I think of it as the process of adapting well to life’s hardships—adversity, loss, trauma, tragedy, and even everyday stresses. Resilience has to do with how we navigate our challenges, how we bounce back from hard events, and how we function at a high level in the midst of ongoing stress.”
    We call this “resp-onse-ability”–increasing the ability to respond well to the challenges and opportunities of lifeove from initial reaction of “response-inability” to resilieny. Being better is better than just feeling better.

    • Roger Allen

      Yes, thanks Jesse. It is about responding better. We too often want to feel better but that is not the goal. We want to grow in our ability to handle life’s challenges. Thanks for your comment.


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