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The Resilience Habit I Taught Thousands Of Army Drill Sergeants

Source | FastCompany : By PAULA DAVIS-LAACK

“Ma’am, I’m a 36-delta, a pathfinder, and this is my buddy here, he’s a 68-whiskey, ma’am.”

This was the precise response I got from two soldiers I met during my first resilience training with the U.S. Army. I’d simply asked them, “What do you do?”

It was 2009, and I’d recently left my law practice to join a team of University of Pennsylvania researchers. Our job was to teach resilience skills to soldiers and their spouses, and during my nearly four years with the project we collectively trained more than 20,000 soldiers (both non-commissioned officers and officers).

Over a 10-day seminar, we introduced service members—many of them drill sergeants—to what’s called the “train-the-trainer” model. Once they graduated the course as MRTs (master resilience trainers), they were required to return to their units and teach the same skills to their fellow soldiers. Here’s a look at the piece of that training that had the biggest impact.


The soldiers often arrived with a minimal understanding of what resilience is, so we started each training with an overview. “Resilience” is defined as a person’s capacity for stress-related growth, and there are two key aspects to it.

The first is durability—effectively managing life’s everyday stressors and challenges, like running out of a meeting at the last minute to pick up your child from daycare, or surviving horrendously long TSA lines at the airport without flipping out. The second is bouncing back—the capacity to recover effectively and grow from life’s biggest adversities, like death or divorce.

Your resilience grows when you focus on developing specific skills in the following three categories: thinking differently, connecting more, and staying energized and motivated. Those may sound pretty abstract, so here’s how each one works in practice:

1. Thinking differently. In order to develop resilience, you have to understand how you think about adversity, stress, and challenging situations. Our team taught the soldiers to understand how to think more flexibly and accurately about stress, framed around the “three P’s” from American psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman’s work:

  1. Personalization
  2. Permanence
  3. Pervasiveness

Basically, what that means is that anytime something goes wrong—whether it’s a flat tire or something far more serious—pessimistic thinkers explain the stress like this: “This will be around forever, it will impact multiple areas of my life, and it’s all my fault.” In other words, they personalize it and see the fallout as being permanent and everywhere.

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