Resilience: What Falling Down Taught Me About Getting Up

Do you know someone who has a remarkable knack for bouncing back? Lost job leads to a dream job or successful new career. Failed engagement leads to a better relationship and happy marriage. Recovery from a freak injury leaves them stronger and healthier than before. You may find yourself asking, “How did this person become a master of the adversity trampoline?”

This ability to adapt and “bounce back” from life’s stresses has a name — resilience. At times, it seems like a gift possessed only by extraordinary individuals like professional athletes and super heroes. However, resilience is not a fixed trait that you either have or don’t have. Resilience is an ability and the good news is anyone can develop increased resilience. I learned this while falling (and failing) miserably. Allow me to explain.



Get thrown.

Eat mat.


Get thrown.

Eat mat.

Ah, my first day back. My body would pay for this later, but for now I was on top of the world. It had been a decade since I stopped taking Aikido. What took so long to start again? I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know if I figure it out. In any case, this part was just like I remembered it. I attack. I get thrown and hit the mat. Hard. I Immediately peel myself off the floor and attack again. Deja vu — more tasty mat sandwiches. Except I don’t remember it being so hard getting up. Years of inactivity and Father Time will do that.

One of things I love about Aikido is what it teaches you about everyday life. From the moment I attacked to the moment I hit the mat my body was as tense as a steel cable. The sensei reminds me to relax. You see, the fear of falling and getting hurt is what causes your body to tense up. Relaxing allows you to fall more safely and is less painful. Think about a panda rolling down a hill. I relaxed a bit as my back hit the mat. Much better. Staring up at the ceiling I recall that even the simple act of getting up off the floor takes a lot of energy and willpower after you’ve fallen down several times.

“Sounds like a lot of fun, Joe. Not. But what does this have to do with my becoming more resilient? And by the way, I’m not wearing those pajamas.”

“Resilience is forged in the repetition of simply getting up.”

Resilience is your ability to recover from stresses to your system. By definition it involves being stretched to or beyond your limits. Resilience is not built up when you are breezing along and not breaking a sweat. So in a way, falling (or failing) is a necessary ingredient. Resilience is forged in the repetition of simply getting up. Time after time. As you practice getting back up after actually falling in the dojo or figuratively falling outside the dojo, the experience changes you in several ways:

  • Getting up starts to feel a little bit easier.
  • You learn to accept the fall with grace and minimize the damage.
  • The fear of falling fades into the background.
  • You realize everybody falls and it is not necessarily a disaster.
  • You learn to read the signs of falling, which can help you handle it in the future.

But don’t just take it from me. You can find messages about the benefits of accepting a fall and how to recover from it in various movies and TV. Wouldn’t you know it, sometimes even from professional athletes and super heroes. Here are three of my favorites.

1. Rocky Balboa

Rocky tries to help his son understand how to succeed in a unfriendly world.

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

2. Marvel’s Luke Cage

He’s a man of few words, but they carry weight.

“Always Forward.”

3. The Tick

The Tick ponders the condition of falling as he plunges to the earth after being tossed out the window of an apartment building.

“Falling. One of humanity’s most feared and misunderstood conditions. The key to successful falling lies in realizing that you are a falling person. Do you go stiff? Resist the fall, like a standing person. Or do you accept it? Like a defenestrated feline. And stay alert to each and every falling opportunity.”

“Those are some entertaining examples, Joe, but HOW do I increase my own resilience?”

Resilience is like a muscle. You can build it up by repeatedly applying stress to it. In other words, by the repetition of falling and getting back up.

“So Joe, are you telling me you want me to try to fall/fail on a regular basis? That sounds ludicrous.”

Not exactly. What I’m recommending is a change in how you view falling and how you handle it. There are two EZPZ steps.

Step 1. Stop seeing a fall as something to fear, but instead view it as something that happens to everyone and as an opportunity to build your resilience.

Step 2. After you fall, no matter how you feel, get back up and find a way to keep going.

That’s it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The funny thing is, if you are looking, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to practice. We all fall on a regular basis so no need to generate new failures. Just a few examples:

  • Got a great idea but no one seems to respond positively? Get feedback and try again.
  • Can’t agree with your partner on where to spend the holidays? Reset and find a creative solution.
  • Kids not listening? Switch tactics till you find a communication approach that works.
  • In-laws making you feel unwelcome? Don’t stay away. Get back in there and win them over.
  • Getting a nasty attitude from a cashier? Take a breath, smile, and reengage.

So the next time you find yourself eating mat, hopefully figuratively and not literally, resist the urge to give up.

Remember, the easy way doesn’t build resilience.

Instead, get up! Get back in there! Keep moving forward! Even when there is little to nothing at stake. Especially when there is little to nothing at stake. Be thankful for this opportunity to safely practice for the times that it will count.

I’d love to hear from you about any times, past, present or future where you have experienced this.

Originally published at on September 30, 2017.




Keynote speaker on Leadership and Executive Presence, with a heart for promoting diversity

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Joe Kwon

Joe Kwon

Keynote speaker on Leadership and Executive Presence, with a heart for promoting diversity

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