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ATD Blog

A Lesson of Resiliency

Monday, April 13, 2020

These are times that try trainers’ souls. Everything is put on hold. Upon an unexpected setback at work, some people fall into a “justice trap.” They think that somehow a cosmic sense of justice will prevail. But consider the 12 million people who starved in Ukraine during the 1930s at the hands of Josef Stalin. Is that cosmic justice?

Justice, like fairness, is an ideal. In the endeavors of humankind, fairness is certainly worth seeking. But like justice, it is largely illusory.

Disruption Happens

Events of varying magnitudes can disrupt one’s sense of homeostasis. Disruption and reintegration occur often, even simultaneously. Yet for each of us, increases in our resilience can occur in mere moments or over the course of several years, depending on what we experience and how we process it.

Perhaps the quintessential example of the resilient individual is none other than Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was defeated in his bid for Congress on many occasions. Even as late as 1858, two years before he won the presidential election, Lincoln lost his bid to become an Illinois senator. Let’s take a look:

1831—Failed in Business
1832—Defeated for Legislature
1833—Failed in Business Again
1834—Elected to Legislature
1835—Sweetheart Died
1836—Had a Nervous Breakdown
1838—Defeated for Speaker
1840—Defeated for Elector
1843—Defeated for Congress
1846—Elected for Congress
1848—Defeated for Congress
1854—Defeated for Senate
1856—Defeated for Vice President
1858—Defeated for Senate

Following everything written above, in 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th president of the United States.


A Benchmark for the Ages

Anyone studying Lincoln’s life could draw the conclusion that until 1860, when he was 49, he was largely a failure. Did he let election defeat after election defeat subdue his willingness to serve? Apparently, not at all. The resilience he exhibited during his decades-long quest to be elected to public office was eventually rewarded when he was elected U.S. president.

Once in office, Lincoln’s resilience became the benchmark of his tenure during perhaps the most harrowing time in our nation’s history. The Civil War, in which a divided America slaughtered itself by the tens of thousands, is unprecedented in our history. All other mass casualties from wars or attacks came at the hands of external enemies. Only Lincoln, amidst all other presidents, governed during a time in which Americans fought Americans—in some cases, literally brother against brother.


Fail Forward

Undoubtedly, Lincoln had one harrowing experience after another, as he repeatedly lost the runs for U.S. Congress and the Senate. Somehow, as he processed his experiences, he managed to “fail forward,” drawing upon the reflections and lessons that he gained. Many successful people in history experienced career setbacks before achieving their greatest triumphs.

Drawing upon his inner strength; his lessons from childhood; his marvelous, self-initiated version of home-schooling; the philosophy and resilience he had developed over the years; and his legal education, he was able to maintain perspective and equanimity during a four-year period that would have broken other men.

Albert Einstein, for example, worked as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office when he developed his Theory of Relativity. Thomas Edison made more than 8,000 unsuccessful attempts to find the proper filament for his lightbulb. Babe Ruth struck out more times than anyone on his way to hitting more home runs than anyone.

So, face your obstacles head-on and realize that you are more resourceful than you currently presume.

About the Author

Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC (aka "The Work-life Balance Expert"®) offers keynote presentations and workshops on a creating work-life balance, managing the pace with grace, and thriving in a hyper-accelerated world. He has spoken to Fortune 50 companies, such as Lockheed and IBM, as well as American Express, Westinghouse, America Online, and Wells Fargo. Jeff also is the author of Simpler Living, Breathing Space, and Dial it Down, Live it Up. His books have been published in 19 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Turkish, and Russian. For more information visit

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