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Be Resilient

When life knocks us down, grit and resilience get us back on our feet.

Uncertainty and competition characterise our world today. Baseball allows three strikes but modern life is less forgiving.

Make just one mistake, and even a dominant, seemingly unassailable champion can slip and fall. Think Microsoft, left behind by the rise of Apple and Google; BP, after the Bay of Mexico debacle; and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, after the revelations about drugs, lying and bullying.

That fall can be sudden, steep and sometimes even destructive. We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can determine how we respond, as the saying goes. When life knocks us down, many people struggle to cope and recover. Yet others come back and grow stronger. We want to know the secrets of the latter: how to be resilient and gritty.

Research into resilience looks at the capacity of a system, enterprise or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity, in the face of dramatically changed circumstances. This trait is studied in relation to diverse, epic phenomena – like terrorist attacks on a city or the impact of hurricanes.

The search for this quality inspires forward planning that goes beyond infrastructure, government and business contingency plans to community groups and values. If such management and psychological talk is too much, think stories about true grit.

Coincidentally, it is also the title of the 1969 cowboy movie starring John Wayne, as well as of the Coen brothers’ 2010 reboot.

The protagonist, US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, is ageing and has only one eye. The other lead character, 14-year-old Mattie, asks for his help to avenge the murder of her father and hunt down a gang of hardened criminals. They are outnumbered and face many difficulties but persevere and eventually take down the killer.

Psychologists who study the quality of grit say it can be the key difference for success, even more than skills and intelligence. Those who have grit can maintain determination and motivation to achieve long-term objectives, even in the face of adversity and without encouragement.

There are costs, however.

In True Grit, Mattie’s arm is broken and later infected by a rattlesnake bite, so it must be amputated. Decades after, she grows to be a successful, tough businesswoman with critics and no family. As for Cogburn, he’s always been “the meanest one” – quick-tempered, drinks too much and has killed too many men. His wife and son have left him, and when he first takes on the task to help Mattie, his motivation is monetary. He shows true grit to help the girl, but doesn’t change fundamentally and he dies alone.

The modern metropolis also craves such endurance and determination. Maybe this explains why so many professionals and business leaders endure marathons (no one, in contrast, takes up sprinting).

Conversely, a common condemnation of the emerging youth is that they are the “strawberry generation”, bruising too easily.

So how do we develop resilience and grit – preferably without losing an eye or limb and having to kill too many people?

One: Remember the key lessons from hard times. When good times roll, this is not always easy and sometimes even considered bad luck.

Take the example of Banyan Tree founder Ho Kwon Ping, who went through the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, and then Sars in 2003. Those experiences pushed him to diversify his business around the world so he now has hotels not only around Asia, but also in the Middle East, Europe and Mexico.

More generally, consider the art of memento mori, a Latin phrase to remember death or – to make it more personal – that we will die. The most traditional of such images is the skull, which is back in trend, thanks to English artist Damien Hirst with his 2007 diamond-encrusted skull, and Brit couturier Alexander McQueen’s fashion accessories.

Second, when something does impact you, give yourself time to absorb and recover. Don’t be too hard on yourself for needing that time. Even if you have true grit, things can hurt you.

Resilience is not invulnerability but the ability to recover, like pop-culture superhero Wolverine who can heal himself. Be prepared, too, that some may see your grit as an obsession and your mission as a madness. You take pride in overcoming odds to achieve what you believe in.

But from another perspective, that seems unrealistic and even insane. Like reading the seminal Don Quixote by Spanish novelist Cervantes, a hefty tome of picaresque tales that takes – what else – perseverance and grit to get through. For those who wish to embark on this endeavour, the Edith Grossman translation is perhaps most readable.

Third, consider the bamboo: how it sways harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it, and yet remains standing tall and still, even after a severe storm. Across Asia, the bamboo is a strong symbol of flexibility, quiet strength and resilience. Neither a cowboy nor Wolverine, the bamboo offers a different and gentler image of, and lesson on, how to cope with vicissitudes. In Chinese tradition, the bamboo is one of four noble “gentlemen” that the Chinese seek to emulate. At this year’s National Day Rally, resilience came to my mind while listening to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. No, I’m not talking about the challenge of staying attentive during the three-hour, three-language talkathon.

Resilience was the key quality in the stories PM Lee told about individuals who had worked their way up, even without the university degrees that everyone thinks are preconditions of success.

So I joined everyone in applauding the grit of those in the Keppel oil-rig industry and students who succeeded at polytechnics while dealing with private difficulties.

But one story that could not be told that evening is perhaps also the grittiest. This is about the Prime Minister himself.

He is into his 10th year as the country’s leader and past his 30th year in Government, even when he admitted that he wanted to be a professor of mathematics. He’s grown up in the glare of public attention, with much expectation and facing personal challenges like lymphoma which he suffered in the 1990s.

Singapore’s Prime Minister is no one-eyed marshal or Don Quixote – perhaps more akin to a gentleman with a bamboo-like character. But his is, without doubt, a story of true grit.