Building Resilience

A few months ago I sat on a panel at a conference where the topic for discussion was ‘building personal resilience’.  It was a little outside of my wheelhouse but it was interesting to me because I have proven myself to be a resilient person but I can’t pinpoint the routes of my resilience.  I spent a lot of time before the conference pondering how one becomes more resilient and reading about the quality of resilience.

Resilience is, I believe, a form of mental toughness. 

What I discovered is that mental toughness is like muscle strength – you don’t have to be born with it, you can build it.  James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, explains how you build it by pushing yourself continually in small ways. 

Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.
— James Clear

Small wins come from small acts.  Small acts are called habits.  James argues that we build mental toughness through our habits.  “Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.”

According to James, mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent – they just have to be more consistent.  I believe this.  I certainly haven’t got where I am today by being more courageous, more talented or more intelligent than anyone else.  I have just consistently worked really hard.


Consistency is key in everything we do.

If you are consistent you slowly get better.  You don’t see results immediately but you start the process of compounding.  Compounding is how we build monetary wealth, but it doesn’t just apply to our money, it applies to all areas of our life.

Let’s say you build a habit into your life and you get 1% better every day.  Just 1%.  This is what happens:

SOURCE: James Clear

SOURCE: James Clear

Let’s apply this to exercise.  Let’s say you want to start running.  Today you can run once around a school track.  That’s just 400m.  You do it and decide that each day you will run 1% further.  So on the second day you run an extra 4 metres.  That’s the length of a small room.  If you ran around a track one day, you can definitely run an extra 4 meters the next day.  Continue that on for a year, adding 1% each day.  Guess how far you would be running by the end of that year?  Almost 10 miles.

Do you see how that could build mental toughness?

Whilst preparing for the conference a few months back I decided that there are three core habits that help build personal resilience. 


Research has shown that there is a correlation between physical activity and mental well-being.  I am convinced that you need a healthy body to have a healthy mind.  Historically my exercise was running.  Today it’s CrossFit.  I am always amazed at how my mood can change during the course of a workout.  I can walk into the gym feeling upset, cross, stressed, tired or angry and I always walk out feeling emotionally lighter and ready to tackle any challenges that come my way. 

The CrossFit gym is not only where I build my physical strength, it’s where I build my mental strength.

Here’s the thing.  That’s what works for me.  But it doesn’t matter what you do, it only matters that you do something.  Don’t obsess over whether you should run, or do CrossFit or start Pilates – commit to doing something and show up for it consistently.


Resilience is about being able to get back up after you are set-back.  If you live paycheck to paycheck the emotional pain associated with misfortunes such as divorce, ill health, the death of someone you love, is exacerbated.  Savings and investments enable you to be resilient.  If the car breaks down you can fix it or buy a new one.  If someone falls sick you can be there.  If you need to decompress you can take time off.  The power of that should never be underestimated.


I read this week that roughly a quarter of US adults admitted to not having read a book in whole or in part in the past year (whether in print, electronic or audio form).  I am sure that figure is a good deal higher.  What they certainly have read is a whole load of toxic junk on the internet. 

Reading is how we learn and how we foster curiosity.  Warren Buffett was once asked how to get smarter.  He held up stacks of paper and said “Read 500 pages like this every week.  That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”  Buffett estimates that he spends 80% of his day reading and his net worth is $80 billion.  He doesn’t read because he became a billionaire, he became a billionaire because he reads.

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.
— Charlie Munger

Reading is what James Clear would call a meta habit – it’s a habit that allows you to solve almost any other problem that you are facing.  Not sure how to deal with a fierce toddler or hormonal teenager?  There’s a book on that.  Want to understand the origins of the universe?  There’s a book on that.  Worried that you don’t understand personal finance?  There’s a book on that.  Need some spiritual enlightenment?  There’s a book on that too.

If you read, you can solve almost anything. 

On Mental Health Awareness Day, that’s my practical guide to having a healthier mind and building your personal resilience.  Work in the habits of exercise, saving and reading into your life.  I am willing to bet the impacts will be far-reaching.

Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.
— James Clear