Adversity Tolerance: What It Is + How to Build It

By Julia A. West, PhD

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, and again, and again…) dealing with adversity isn’t a question of “if”, but “when.” The good news? You can train yourself to deal with it better.

Adversity Tolerance is a crucial component of resilience and a key factor in getting to neutral—and it can be trained! If you’re ready to amp up your ability to thrive through change, uncertainty, and challenge, read on for more information on what Adversity Tolerance is (and isn’t!) and some tips to grow your own.

What Is Adversity Tolerance?

First things first: what is adversity? The simple, Google-able definition is “one’s difficulties or misfortunes,” but it goes deeper than that. Adversity shows up at many different levels, in many different settings. There’s workplace adversity (think unstable markets, company reorganizations, turnover, etc). Physical adversity can include a career-ending injury or just the migraines you’ve dealt with since childhood. Relationship adversity, mental, social, spiritual—the list goes on and on.

Ultimately, Adversity Tolerance is our combined capacity to endure challenge, pressure, or uncertainty without becoming negative (i.e. hopeless, bitter, or hostile) toward ourselves or others and to rebound after a setback, difficulty, or unexpected challenge.

Okay, Now What *Isn’t* Adversity Tolerance?

While there’s no limit to what our minds can do, it’s important to note that some difficulties are systemic and can’t be tackled by simply “powering through.” It’s also important to remember that having adversity tolerance doesn’t mean pushing all emotions aside. Although today we’re delving deeper into some individual resilience-skill building tips, community support and change is a crucial component to building sustainable resilience. Remember, we go further together.

How to Grow Your Adversity Tolerance:

Fail Fast, Fail Forward

A truth: You are going to fail. A suggestion: Learn to appreciate it.

“Failure is inevitable,” wrote Aaron Vick in a Forbes article about how failure is necessary in building a successful startup. “Markets are not safe places, and you can expect to get hurt in them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to build something amazing; in fact, you should be afraid of not trying at all.”

If you haven’t already, it’s time to make friends with failure. As Limitless Minds Coach Collin Henderson says, “Do you allow failures to be a devastation or an education?” The choice is yours, and it lies in approaching the issue from the right mindset.

In 2017, Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer went viral after adding a list of his failures—fellowships he didn’t get, rejected job applications, denied research funding, to his CV.

“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible while the successes are visible,” he told The Washington Post. “I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”

Remember, you are not defined by your failures.

Accept Uncertainty

So many of us want to know how the book ends before we begin it. Spoiler alert: No one knows what the future holds! There is no such thing as 100% certainty in life, except in the case (to use Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted remark) of death and taxes.

Challenge your need for certainty. It’s an attitude or belief—an understandable one given our evolutionary past—but a changeable one. Here are three questions you can ask yourself to begin challenging your need for certainty:

  1. Can I ever really achieve certainty?
  2. When I’m uncertain, do I only predict bad things will happen? Is it possible that good things might be just as likely? (As Limitless Minds Coach Travis Thomas is fond of saying in uncertain times, “Good or bad, who knows?”)
  3. Are there times I have tolerated uncertainty? What did I do then?

Once you’ve begun to question your need for certainty, you can practice accepting it. Start with the three Be’s:

  1. Be Aware. Notice your need for certainty when it shows up. Common ways that a need for certainty shows up are thoughts like, “I can’t deal with not knowing!” or thinking you’d prefer something bad happened now vs. having to wait any longer for the eventual outcome. Once you notice it’s there, greet it (with compassion), i.e. “Hey there, need for certainty. I see you.”
  2. Be Observant. Watch and be curious about the need for certainty, vs. engaging with or responding to it. Once you’ve named it (above), you can “tame” it by not responding to it or engaging with it. Rather, just observe and sit with it, as though you were watching a video on your phone. It’s an experience, not a demand. Just because you notice it doesn’t mean you need to act on it.
  3. Be Here. Make the choice to let go of this need and refocus on the present moment. You can even visualize the need for certainty floating away from you like a balloon whose string you just released. Then, bring your attention back to your breath, grounding you in the present moment.

Remember, accepting uncertainty is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight. Start where you are and focus on just the next right step. Then the next one. And the next.

Celebrate Your Successes

According to organizational anthropologist and CEO Judith Glaser, celebrating success stimulates feelings of “inclusion, innovation, appreciation, and collaboration” in the brain, which pave the way for creative thinking, calmer work environments, increased focus, and resilience to stress—even during periods of high pressure. To celebrate our successes, we have to acknowledge them—earned confidence and honest self-assessment come into play here.

Practice Higher Than You Need to Perform

This one is easily said, but up to you to get done: challenge yourself so when the chips are down you have had the “deliberate” practice you need to succeed.

What does that look like? When preparing yourself for that big meeting, crucial presentation, or important client call, your preparation should include a focus on the aspects of your performance with which you are the least comfortable. Reviewing only what you’re confident in is a missed opportunity for deliberate practice and the kind of preparation that will give you a competitive advantage.

What part of the presentation do you stumble on the most? Practice that section. What question are you most concerned about getting from a client? Make sure to role-play your response. Pushing yourself to prepare for the part of your performance that you find most challenging will help you make the most out of practice.

“Before practice, opportunity, and luck can combine to create expertise, the would-be expert needs to demythologize the achievement of top-level performance, because the notion that genius is born, not made, is deeply ingrained,” reads a Harvard Business Review article on how experts are made. “Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Chances are there are ways even the most resilient among us can improve their adversity tolerance (remember, you don’t have to be sick to get better). In the meantime, consider this: you have at least some already; you’ve survived every worst day of your life so far. Think about that the next time you’re facing a challenge. If you want more info on how to strengthen your adversity tolerance muscle and a community of folks who are doing the same thing right along with you, visit us at Club Limitless!

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