Positive mental health in your career

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Resilience can help you overcome challenges – but like any skill, it’s one that needs practice

How resilient are you when facing a challenge? Do you give up at the first sign of trouble or do you power through? Your answer will likely depend on what that challenge is, if you have experienced it before, and how you manage difficult situations.

Our mindset and environment affect how quickly we bounce back or submit. In some cases, being surrounded by high-achievers can encourage you to do well too. However, a high concentration of excellence around us can also be intimidating and may distort our perception of our own capability. This is particularly true of high-pressure environments like academia.

It can be tempting, and at times helpful, to compare our own situations with others. But do factor in the wider context. Someone else may excel at the task you struggle with, but it is likely they have difficulties elsewhere. A resilient mindset focuses on how you can overcome a challenge, not on how someone else does.

To get a fair measure of our development, it is best to compare our current abilities with that of our former selves. What problems can you tackle that would have stopped you before? Below are some personal challenges I faced and how I overcame them to become more resilient.

Admitting ignorance

I have a confession. I used to be insecure about my intellect and would worry about appearing stupid. This is a difficulty that many PhDs face, but not asking for help and not admitting we don’t know something is a roadblock to progress.

At the start of my PhD, I was installing a high-pressure gas cylinder for the first time. I received brief, informal training from another student on how to connect the system and was subsequently left to do it myself. When the time came to connect a new cylinder the following week, I had forgotten how to do it. I was reluctant to ask for help because I feared appearing stupid. I did eventually ask for assistance, but my insecurity nearly stopped me.

At that moment, my warped perspective meant I focused on my lack of capability rather than seeing the whole picture. While it was my responsibility to ask for assistance, I also did not receive sufficient training. This was outside my control, so it was unfair of me to blame myself fully.

A resilient mindset allows you to recognise what is within your control, and what is not. Now, when I face a new challenge that requires knowledge I don’t have, I will seek that information.

Recognising your strengths and weaknesses

To develop resilience, we should recognise both our strengths and weaknesses. I enjoy public speaking and have been doing so for 20 years. This constant exposure means I have maintained my skills and confidence.

When I changed careers from academia to industry, I had to present technical details to broad industry professionals; some were expert scientists, while others had hardly any technical knowledge. I found it difficult to deliver a balance of enough detail to be informative, and yet brief enough to be interesting.

I was learning to speak in a new way. So, it should not have been surprising that I stumbled on my first few presentations. However, because I had such a high expectation of myself, and worried that others did too, I was setting myself up for a fall. At first, I felt guilty, almost fraudulent, that people thought of me as a confident speaker.

Now I realise that being good at something doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes – even champion sprinters or concert pianists make them. And they regularly practice to maintain their performance. Likewise, you should practice anything you try, even where you possess a natural confidence. This will help you be more resilient when you inevitably slip up.

So how can I become more resilient?

When I faced new challenges, I used to panic and let my ego dictate what I should do or how I should feel. After a few humbling experiences, I now try to make informed decisions based on reasoned judgement.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t experience those mistakes, but I could haven’t learned the valuable life lessons I now know without them. I think about this when I see my one-year-old daughter learning to walk or climb the stairs. I love seeing her determination as she trudges across the kitchen, not letting the regular slips or falls hold her back. Now, when I face my current challenges, I think of her and I embrace the opportunity to learn new skills or strengthen existing ones. This growth mindset has helped me accelerate my career.

Tips for resilience

  • Accept that making mistakes is normal. Learn from them and be open to feedback and change
  • Developing new skills takes time. Be patient and have realistic expectations of yourself
  • Reflect on the new skills you develop and appreciate your personal development