When I was just starting out learning to be a psychologist, I remember sitting around with two colleagues--graduate students like myself--wondering what it takes to become really great in the field. None of us had the foggiest idea.
After 28 years in the field, I have concluded that a set of skills we first learn as children but can continue to learn as adults is key--namely, the skills needed for resilience. In earlier columns, I have spoken of the "other three Rs"--reasoning, responsibility and resilience--that schools need to develop but often do not. In this column, I would like to talk about the third one, namely, resilience.
Dr. Laura Barbanel commented to me one day that, in her experience, the first memories most children had of their school experiences were, for the most part, memories of humiliation and pain. For me, such experiences are not limited to my first memory. They continued from elementary school onward. What I did not realize when I entered a career as a psychologist, was that they were not over. I cannot even begin to recount the repeated humiliations of rejected articles and grant proposals, less-than-stellar course-critique ratings from students, verbal jabs from colleagues and less-than-favorable responses from the field to some of my ideas. I have recounted some of these experiences in a book of advice for young (and even not-so-young) psychologists (Sternberg, 2003).
The conclusion I have reached is that what distinguishes those who are highly successful from others is, in large part, resilience in the face of humiliations, defeats and setbacks of various kinds. For those who do not have some kind of optimism--learned (Seligman, 1991) or otherwise--it often seems much easier just to start watching the world go by instead of actively participating in it. What we do not realize when we are younger is that almost all of us go through these periods of staggering defeat or, at least, uncertainty. The question is not whether you will go through it; it is how you will come out of it.
If there is one piece of advice I needed when I was starting out, it was that no matter how much success you have, the path along the way is strewn with difficult obstacles, some of which, at the time, seem insurmountable. If one can only persevere, they will not look nearly so monstrous when one looks back on them years later. Our expectation is that things normally should go fine and that, every once in a while, there will be a problem to face, which we should quickly solve so we can return to a state of normalcy. Perhaps others' lives have gone this way. Mine never has. Difficult and sometimes insoluble problems are, for better or worse, part of the state of normalcy.
Hence we need to prepare our children with the skills they need to cope with a world that is uncertain, sometimes seemingly capricious and often extremely difficult. They need to learn coping skills (Sternberg, 1997; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000), such as identifying the existence of problems in their lives, defining the nature of these problems, ascertaining what resources they need to cope with and perhaps solve these problems, formulating strategies to solve the problems, monitoring their problem-solving while it is ongoing, and evaluating their problem-solving after it is done.
These skills need to be taught not just for solving abstract and academic problems, but also for solving the everyday, real-life problems that confront us. Perhaps the best role model I have seen, oddly enough, is Nancy Drew, a young detective in the series by Carolyn Keen. No matter what difficult situation Nancy finds herself in, she coolly and calmly applies problem-solving skills to work her way out of it. Most children will not come from the privileged environment that Nancy came from, but they can apply the same skills she did to solving their life problems. So can we all.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Norton.
Sternberg, R.J. (2003). Psychology 101 1/2: The 101 1/2 most important lessons I have learned in academe that I did not learn in psychology 101. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Successful intelligence: A broader view of who is smart in school and in life. International Schools Journal, XVII, 19-31.
Sternberg, R.J., & Grigorenko, E.L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing Inc.