How adversity can lead to resilience, growth, and learning for an opportunity-filled life

Adversity doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As an inevitable part of life, adversity can lead to opportunity and happiness.

Growth in any area requires friction. But adversity does not have to result in stagnation. In fact, one way to become more optimistic and successful is to reframe adversity as opportunities to grow and learn. 

How human beings react to adversity– whether in the form of failure, threats, challenges, or setbacks, is normally distributed. On the left end of the distribution are unhealthy responses. Most people respond with a brief period of sadness or depression and then return to normal form. The right end of the distribution reflects those who respond with growth and learning (Seligman, 2011).  

Three related concepts can help you understand how you can move yourself to the right of the curve and turn adversity into an advantage.


The ability to respond to adversity is referred to as “resilience.” Responses are multi-dimensional; they include our thoughts, emotions, and physical bodies. Resilient individuals respond in all dimensions “without lasting detriment to self, relationships or personal development” (Walklate, McGarry, and Mythen. 2014). 

The study of resilience in complex systems, like ecologies and political systems, has revealed that healthy systems–whether ecological, economic, political, or social–persist and grow after adverse disruption, rather than simply returning to a state of equilibrium (Walklate, McGarry, and Mythen. 2014). 

For example, if you passed over for a new role at work, a resilient response might include thinking of it as a rehearsal for the next opportunity, asking questions of those who made the decision so you can improve going forward, and getting that extra certification to be more prepared for a future role. 

It’s more than bouncing back. It’s bouncing forward. And it can lead to greater things.  


Healthy and resilient responses imply a mindset that looks for opportunity. 

That mindset has been popularized in academic and professional literature as “growth mindset.” 

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, coined the term. She sums it up like this: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts)” (Dweck, 2016). 

When you face setbacks or adversity, recognize it as a step on your path to achieving something bigger. You have unlimited potential. The only constraint you have on your capacity to grow is time, and you choose how to spend it. 

One way to expand your view of your own potential is to harness your creativity. Karl Weick, an expert in high-performance teams, attributes individuals’ resilience in part to their willingness to improvise in the face of adversity.

“when situations unravel, this is simply normal natural trouble…and they proceed with whatever materials are at hand” (Weick, 1993).

Stretching yourself, thinking in new ways, and recognizing opportunities to develop your skills will lead to personal growth. 


True learning is ultimately a change in behavior. 

Just as adversity can lead to resilience and growth, it is an integral part of the learning process. 

“Some difficulties that elicit more effort…will more than compensate for their inconvenience by making the learning stronger, more precise, and more enduring,” according to the latest learning science (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, 2014). 

They are called “desirable difficulties” (Bjork and Bjork, 2020). The same principle holds true in life experience. 

Moreover, when you come upon gaps in your knowledge, you’re part way to identifying a way to close the gap. As distinguished cognitive psychologist John Meacham put it, “ignorance and knowledge grow together” (Meacham, 130).

Adversity is here to stay. Understand how it plays into you own growth and opportunity will help you take advantage of it for a more fulfilling life. 


  • Dweck, Carol. 2016. “What Having a ‘Growth Mindset’ Actually Means.” Harvard Business Review. January 13, 2016. 
  • Bjork, Robert. A., and Bjork, Elizabeth. L. 2020. “Desirable difficulties in theory and practice.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Vol. 9, Iss. 4. 475–479.
  • Brown, Peter C., Roediger, Henry L. III, and McDaniel, Mark A. 2014. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
  • Seligman, Martin. 2011 “Building Resilience.” Harvard Business Review. 
  • Walklate, Sandra, McGarry, Ross, and Mythen, Gabe. 2014. “Searching for Resilience: A Conceptual Excavation.” Armed Forces & Society. Vol. 40, Iss. 3: 408–427.
  • Weick, Karl. 1993. “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.” Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol 38. 628–652.