Resilience For Winning in Life

by Steve Gurney

Making opportunities from hurdles and setbacks and developing an unshakable positive attitude and robust resilience.

It can be tough farming as a smaller operator in NZ. You’re often overshadowed by the big players, vulnerable to market fluctuations, and often-times it’s a lonely existence. You need to be resilient, motivated, optimistic and multitalented.

This session is about supporting you in this role by learning from the experts, building resilience and developing greater skills in the area of optimism and confidence to overcome challenges, hurdles and obstacles.

It’s about making molehills out of mountains!


Why is learning resilience useful?

Life, in its stark reality, can be tough, and sometimes unfair. Have you noticed that sometimes it seems that we’re on a hamster wheel, running hard; but we never seem to reach that elusive nirvana: happiness, perfect retirement, billion dollars, lotto win, etc? We seem to get things under some sort of control, but then, damn-it, circumstances change (like bad weather, an economic down-turn and changes, earthquakes, births/deaths in the family, etc.); and then life’s problems become daunting and sometimes overwhelming.

There’s a growing body of research that is revealing just how resilient and successful people actually are in mastering the changes that life dishes out, and prospering in tough environments.

I’ve researched, studied and collected the nub of this research, and blended it with my own resilience stories and strategies (decades of winning (and losing) races, pushing limits, ending up on hospital life support machines, suicidal depression, psychiatrists.). Here’s some of what I found:

Some facts of life

Humans are constantly searching for improvement, the bucket of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the need to find perfection so that they can then “live happily ever after”. That’s all OK and perfectly normal, but it’s useful to accept a few other things that we conveniently overlook, namely:

  1. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no “happily ever after” or “perfect” as we know it, (but it’s still really useful to set goals because that’s how humans work).
  2. Hurdles, set-backs, disasters and change are inevitable. The only thing that doesn’t change in life is change itself.

So it’s really useful to take a realistic view of life, stop resisting change, embrace change, and instead learn skills of resilience and flexibility.


What is it? ….And what is it not?

Dictionary definition of resilience:

The ability to bounce back. The speedy recovery from difficult conditions.

  1. Is it the same as being strong?
  • No.
  • Resilience is about getting up one more time than going down.
  • Resilience is an attitude, a belief.
  1. Is it good or bad?
  • Neither. It can be used for good or bad.
  • Generally, resilience is accepted as desirable and is usually linked with overcoming adversity. However, there are examples of undesirable resilience, e.g. in wars, diseases, pests such as possums, or Osama Bin Laden (the world champion of “hide ‘n seek”).
  1. Is it the same as optimism?
  • No, there are optimistic pessimists, we all know them.
  • Unrealistic optimism e.g. “the Secret” – putting it out there and then expecting it to fall in your lap.
  • Optimism is a good trait to have in your resilience toolkit (eg re-framing).
  1. Can it be learned?
  • Yes, most definitely. Research, especially that of Martin Seligman and in the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), show that it is definitely learnable. Some (Caspi, Sugden, Moffitt, Taylor, Craig, Harrington et al) argue/suggest that there is some sort of “resilience gene” that we are either born with, or not. Regardless of whether this is true or not, resilience is learnable for anyone with a neural system (i.e. all humans).
  • Some even argue teaching resilience strategies can be detrimental to naturally developing resilience, as they believe you need to “cope ugly” i.e. feel the real crisis to get the full, intrinsic learning (Stix and Bonanno in 9/11 studies). I disagree on several counts…. modeling and teaching success and then the rehearsal of this develops neural pathways to a happier life. Trauma can be fatally detrimental and result in permanent depression. Resilience is normal, those who are suffering it have had some interruption to their ability to cope, teaching is just relearning, etc.
  • The American Psychological Association argues that resilience is a behaviour, and as such it can be learned and taught. I agree it can be learned – unlearned behaviour is robotic by nature and we are not robots.
  1. Do you have to have a tough time to learn it?
  • No, but all humans have tough experiences during their lives, and as such, all are opportunities to strengthen resilient behaviours and strategies.
  • Practice makes it better and better.

“Resilience is “Normally Distributed” (Martin Seligman)

Trauma happens..

Eight Steps to Resilience and Growth

  1. Create a thinking gap

Viktor Frankl (author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”) says that our power and our growth lies in the space between stimulus and response (see Response to Crisis p.10). We have advanced past the simple, animal “Fight or Flight” response to stimulus. As humans we are capable of choosing a response that might otherwise be different to what we naturally feel inclined to do. We can choose a response that is more constructive, resilient and useful. This takes effort to be observant of ourselves, and of our thoughts; and then resist less useful reactions based on fear, ego, peer pressure etc. Our grandmothers knew something, when they advised us to “count to 10” before responding under stress.

In this space, separate out the fact from “meaning” or “judgment”. What are the simple, black and white facts? (How could an impartial observer list off what happened?). Then make a considered response.

On practical level, find a “space” where you can think clearly and constructively. Remove yourself from the trauma, physically and mentally, create a safety zone.

This can be on a physical level, such as stepping outside, going for a walk, or waiting until you’ve calmed down (Gottman research, heart-rate below 95 bpm). It could be that you consult a mentor, a consultant, or counselor. Use methods to quieten your mind, such as full breathing, meditation or yoga.

Advanced techniques can help in the long term such as making the stressful memory small, distant etc. Make healthy fun memories big, close, vibrant (visualization techniques such as NLP trauma cure).

  1. Understand your stressors

Basic stress is OK and normal, our bodies are equipped to respond to and deal with stress, that’s how we improve our lives, by making changes to stop the stress occurring. The trouble comes with “dirty stress”, stress that is not resolvable in the short term, that is residual and constantly in the background. This is the sort of stress that allows cancer to establish in our bodies.

There are 2 phases that experts propose when prolonged stress or trauma strikes:

Adrenaline phase

Short-term, initially fight or flight, and if prolonged, results in tiredness, fatigue, and being run-down.

Cortisol phase

Cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress. But higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as: impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, higher blood pressure, lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and increased abdominal fat.

To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. Identify exactly where stress coming from.

Another analogy is the “Pizza slice” model, where there is only so much “healthy stress” a person can tolerate (the whole pizza). So when extra stress comes in one area of life (a slice that gets bigger) then you need to adjust so other slices are smaller i.e. reduce your work-load, or time pressures in other areas to accommodate the additional load. Examples are delegate, cut out lower priority demands on your time such as committees etc.

Examine, and adjust priorities regularly, and redistribute. Temporarily or permanently. Simplify.

Control what you can control. Identify factors over which you have no control. Feel the peace and wisdom in letting them go.

  1. Where is your focus?

Energy flows where attention goes.

Are you focussed on obstacles (where you don’t want to go), or are you focussed on your outcomes (where you DO want to go)? If you focus on the obstacles, you’ll usually hit them.

For example, if I tell you not to think about a blue tree what will you thing about? A blue tree! Human brains can’t think in double negatives (e.g. “I don’t want to be nervous”), so state your goals and instructions in context of what you do want (e.g. If you’re not nervous, what are you being instead? “I want to be confident and relaxed”).

Plan your way to resilience. (PPPPPP). List all likely hurdles, problems and road-blocks and then plan ways to prevent them. Prevention is better than cure. Be open to alternatives, or even actively pursue them, innovation is a part of resilience.

  1. Goals, purpose and values

It is important to aim at something exciting and purposeful. Research shows “successful” people know and feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Get an idea of your mission in life, ponder your purpose on this planet. A good place to start is to list your values. (see p. 12.).

Set goals, realistic, but audacious and exciting, that align with, and support your values and bigger purpose in life. (see p. 12).

  1. Healthy habits

A huge body of researchers, specialists, and professionals including Martin Seligman, and the American Psychology Association, assert that resilience can be learned, and at its fundamental level, learning to be more resilient begins with developing basic habits of optimism with daily practice of these habits. Here are my 5 favourite habits:

  1. The power of your words (see list p.15). Choose positive synonyms to lift your mental state (see state diagram p. 11).
  2. Adopt the physiology of a winner. Mind and body are one system (see p. 16).
  3. Notice the good more than the bad. List 3 positive things every morning and evening that you’re grateful for.
  4. Notice self-talk. Do you call yourself names that are less than useful? It’s really powerful to be the impartial observer and simply notice what you’re saying to yourself, how you treat yourself. Adjust by recalling times you’re truly appreciated by others and by yourself, and talk thus.
  5. Every coin has two sides. All results are useful, even failure! e.g. I took 5 attempts to win my first Coast to Coast race, each time I treated my failure simply as feedback, giving me clues on where I needed to improve.
  6. Take time out to sharpen your tools

Everyone knows we should put aside time for ourselves, but we’re often too busy to implement it.

  • Create “you” time for growth. Education, meditation, journal, yoga etc.
  • Celebrate your achievements and progress (you need measurable goals in your life to do this).
  • It’s also important to step back and look at the big perspective of life and your progress. For example, keeping perspective on your goals (as above), but also the changes. As discussed earlier, change is an inevitable part of life, not just short term obvious changes, but also the incremental changes over the long term (e.g. business compliance changes, demands on your time, etc.) and how they have changed the demands on your resources and stress levels (e.g. the pizza concept in #2 above).
  • Look after yourself. Steven Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) calls it “taking time to sharpen the saw”.
  • Athletes and coaches know that hard training is only beneficial if there is recovery time after each hard session.
  • Establish some sort of daily rhythm. Humans naturally suit this.
  • Exercise and get regular sleep. Establish regular sleep times for retiring and waking.
  • Nutrition/fluids. Often challenging, but important.
  • Connections: family, social, community, spiritual. Contribution. Appreciation.[1]

The Response to Crisis


Involuntary response from the “feeling brain”.

  • The “feeling brain” = reptilian and mammalian / limbic brain.
  • The most ancient and fundamental parts of the brain.
  • Role to keep us alive.
  • It’s why we get a fright.
  • Metabolism, learning, memory, basic emotions.


Conscious response from the “thinking brain”.

The Gap / Space

  • The “thinking brain” = neocortex brain.
  • Develops as we mature.
  • Interprets emotions, makes plans, controls impulses, insight and self awareness.

Our aim in this session is to learn the process to GROWTH.

Internal Communication

A useful model to consider

Goals/Mission – What is your purpose in life?

You will be unstoppable in your goals if they’re closely linked to the things that REALLY matter in your life. Or put another way, if your goals support and nurture your deeper values then you’ll be powerfully motivated from a deep intrinsic (internal) level. At this level you won’t need anyone to whip you along, you won’t find excuses or procrastinate, you’ll have a potent inner drive all of your own. It’s because you can see value in ticking off those goals, and this in turn makes you feel a better person, have more self-confidence, and personal satisfaction. This in turn makes you more fun to be around. Or put basically, it’s satisfies WIFM (what’s in it for me) to have goals that are linked to your core values.

List between 5 and 10 of your most important values in life:
If you knew (or could take a guess) what would your main calling or purpose on this planet be?
Now list between 1 to 5 of your important goals:
How do your goals (above) support your values and purpose?

The Science of Getting What you Want

Would it be useful to know how successful athletes, business-people and other famous people have gained their success? Recent researchers have modeled the processes these people use, so now you can use these processes for yourself and your goals! It’s mostly about the types of goals people choose and how exactly they think about these goals.

Here is a summarized check list:


  1. Intrinsic inspiration: aligned with your purpose for living. Makes your hair stand up, gives you goose bumps, sets your mind vividly dreaming, etc.
  2. Extrinsic inspiration techniques: anchoring, submodality enhancement etc.


  1. How can you measure your progress?
  2. How will you know when you’ve got there?

Positively stated

Check it’s written for what you DO want (if negative use: “If you don’t have that what will you have instead” to convert). Language is subtle but incredibly powerful in defining outcomes.

Also linked to state of mind.

Resources. Intrinsic and extrinsic

List off the resources that you’ve already got (e.g. determination, equipment), and the ones you need yet (e.g. more knowledge, certain equipment).

Now make a plan for how you’ll get these. Implement a plan and systems, methods and back-up in the event of hurdles (P.P.P.P.P.P).

On paper

The wider the variety of sensory systems used in recording the goal, the greater the chance of applying resources to the goal and hence achievement. Written, auditory, kinesthetic, anchors, etc. e.g. pictures, of “doing” not static, screen savers, smells, artifacts, etc.

Consider who you want to share your goal with, (hint, as many as possible, genuinely).


What will you see, hear and touch that lets you know you’re on track to achieve your goal, or have even already got your goal? Research shows the more rich detail you describe this with, the easier your goal is to get. Enhance.


(=the study of consequences)

  1. What will you gain from this outcome? What will you lose if you have this outcome?
  2. What situations do you want this outcome in? Are there situations that you don’t want it to affect?

Initiated by self, not conditional on another

Your goals and not someone else’s.

Identify your first step. What can you do today, that will definitely get you on your way?


When will you have this outcome?

The Power of Your Words

The science and the power of linguistics

The Global Language Monitor estimates the English language consists of over one million words. However, no matter which language we use, we have a choice of many words to describe any one thing, each word has a subtly different nuance, connotation or inference.

Each of us has experiences, memories and beliefs associated with words, according to our upbringing and life experiences (filters).

Take for example the word “happiness”. It has several synonyms listed below. Reading each synonym, it’s interesting to pause and notice the different “feeling” or representation we get for each.

Ecstasy, glee, joy, contentment, delight, bliss, exhilaration, pleasure, cheerfulness.

Each gives a different picture, sound or feeling. This can easily change our state of mind depending on the words chosen, which in turn can easily change the results we get. Hence it can be extremely powerful to choose our words carefully when communicating a goal, or with team-mates or people important to us, like family, because this affects the resources that then become available to us for achieving our outcomes. My wise mentors, Grahame and Doreen Felton taught me this valuable lesson.

Listed below is a small sample of some common words that generally have a negative connotation or judgement associated with them. In the space beside, find a more powerful, positive synonym or phrase.

“Have” to do it  

It can be powerful and fun to make it a habit and/or game to replace less-than-positive words with a better synonym in work and family environments. Notice the improvement in state of mind.

Body and Mind are a System

  • Physiology and psychology are linked.
  • Your body can lead your mind.
  • Take on the physiology “as if” you are the resourceful, resilient person you want to be.
  • Who are your role models?….

The Driver or the Passenger

10 = high internal locus of control

100 = high external locus of control

For resilient behaviour learn to behave in a way that this score becomes lower, i.e. develop more of an internal locus of control and think more and more like an optimist. This session teaches ideas for thinking like an optimist. Do this questionnaire again after today and notice how your attitude has changed and how your score has lowered. Check it again in the future.

We can make traumatic events less traumatic in our memories by making them smaller, further away, dimmer, faded and a bit fuzzy. View yourself from a third perspective.

Similarly, we can make healthy, enjoyable things more meaningful and dominant in our memories by making them bigger, closer, vivid, colourful, clearly focused and more vibrantly detailed! See as if through your own eyes.

[1] For a fuller explanation of this resilience material read Steve’s second book “Eating Dirt” or buy his 3 hour seminar on DVD from

Was this helpful?