Q: What do you see as the most important ingredients in being able to rebound from adversity, and did you use those lessons in your own life?
A: My book is basically about resilience, which is the ability to overcome hardship and even benefit from it. Most of us have some innate resilience, and just about everybody can build more. Here are a few pragmatic things nearly everybody can do to become a better “Rebounder:”
Start by knowing that hardship often presents terrific learning opportunities. Hardship sucks, but while in the midst of it, have the presence of mind to realize that it may make you stronger and help in other important ways in the future. Remain as open as possible to the vital learnable things that present themselves during bouts of adversity.
When something goes wrong, try to take the emotion out of it, focus on your contribution to the setback, and figure out what you might do better next time. We all feel tempted to blame others and make excuses when there’s a problem, but we don’t usually learn anything that way.
Be willing to change your mind when new information gives you a good reason to do so. “Wallowers,” as I call them, often remain stuck because they spend too much effort trying to validate their biases and preexisting views. Rebounders get better through setbacks because they identify bad ideas and discard them.
Rebounders are usually passionate about what they do, but they realize at some point that passion isn’t enough. You also need drive and sometimes, humility. A sense of humor helps too.
When you begin to learn intuitively that failures and setbacks can be enormously instructive, you fear them less and you become more comfortable taking risks.
I gained many personal insights from researching this book and learning about the Rebounders I profiled. Among other things, I now take a kind of pride in my own screw-ups and misfortunes. I’ve learned that the poise and grace I’m able to muster in lousy circumstances may end up contributing more to my ultimate accomplishments than the usual things we think account for success.
Q: How did you pick the people to highlight in the book?
A: It’s an eclectic group of people ranging from Thomas Edison to Vanguard founder Jack Bogle to the great baseball manager Joe Torre to musician Lucinda Williams. These were all people I knew had failed or struggled in some serious way before becoming successful. I felt personally interested in their work and their stories. And other than Edison, they all agreed to talk with me in detail about the struggles in their lives. There were other people I would have liked to profile, who didn’t want to tell me about their setbacks. The fashion designer Michael Kors is one example.
Q: What advice would you give someone to avoid becoming what you call a "wallower"?
A: Most importantly, resist the urge to blame others when something goes wrong—even if it’s not your fault. We learn way more from examining our own behavior than we do from criticizing others. Challenge your own thinking from time to time and invite others to challenge it as well. If something isn’t working out, ask what you could do differently to get a better outcome. Anticipate what might go wrong instead of assuming everything will go the way you want. And don’t whine about unfairness when something goes wrong. Rebounders have a powerful belief in their own ability to succeed, but that’s usually because of their determination to overcome any obstacle—not because they think they deserve to succeed.
Q: Your first book, Bury Us Upside Down, was about the Vietnam War's top-secret Misty pilots. Do you think recent U.S. administrations have applied lessons from the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why or why not?
A: They’ve learned some of those lessons and forgotten others. The many drone attacks on supposed terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan are an effort to deny the enemy “sanctuary,” which is something American forces failed to do during the Vietnam war. The ability of communist forces fighting in Vietnam to retreat to Cambodia, where they were generally safe from attack, was a major U.S. vulnerability. So that’s one lesson still learned. On the other hand, the sketchy justifications for the second Iraq war and our long involvement in Afghanistan seem to be at odds with the idea of only committing troops when there’s strong public support for military action.
Finally, there may be some lessons from Vietnam that are no longer appropriate and need to be unlearned. The concept of overwhelming force--rather than the incremental actions that made Vietnam such a quagmire--may still be fitting for traditional conflicts between nations. But it may not be helpful against the kind of dispersed, stateless enemy that today’s terrorists represent. It seems like policymakers are still grappling with the right approach to that challenge.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A book on the American tradition of “rugged individualism,” which is much more popular in concept than it is common in practice. We seem to be at a point in American history characterized by a national embrace of individualism, coupled with a widespread rejection of government and other institutions. Yet Americans have never been more dependent on the institutions many of them reject in principle. I hope to explore this paradox while laying out some practical ways everybody can become more self-reliant, because I think that’s a quality we’re all likely to need in the future.
Plus, I write every day about the up-and-down economy and the changing nature of prosperity, as a business writer for U.S. News.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Almost nothing feels better than bouncing back from a setback and becoming better than before. People who have this ability belong to a kind of special club. But membership is open to anybody who struggles and fails with dignity.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.