Inspiring stories of resilience

Resilience is transmissible, says our Positive Psychology columnist Chris Johnstone. By sharing the stories that inspire us, we can pass it on

A strategy I teach during my courses on resilience is to identify inspiring examples. I ask participants to think of people who’ve faced difficult situations and responded in ways that led to better than expected outcomes. There’s often a buzz in the room as people share the stories they’ve been touched by. As the words flow, listeners tend to feel strengthened by what they hear. See if you experience something similar here, as I share one of my favourite examples.

I invite people to use a four-part story structure, which I demonstrate below. Each section begins with the first half of a sentence, with the storyteller using this as a springboard to launch into the example they share.

1) This is a story about…
Here you name the central character of your story, and say a bit about them. My example is a story about a photojournalist called Giles Duley, who I came across when I saw his TED talk online. Wanting to use his photography to do something useful in the world, he started to document the stories of people facing challenging situations. Spending time with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, people in care homes in the UK and street children in the Ukraine, his pictures opened a window into how adversities are lived with.

“Stories of resilience tend to have turning points where something shifts, new possibilities are opened and unexpected opportunities found”

2) The adversity faced is…
Resilience is about our ability to withstand, deal with and recover from difficult situations. So in this second section, you describe the adversity faced by the main character of your story. For Giles Duley, the adversity faced was stepping on a landmine while at work with his camera in Afghanistan. He lost three of his limbs. He thought his life as a photographer was over.

3) What helps here is…
What is it that helps resilience happen? For each person there may be choices they make, resources they turn to, strengths they draw upon or insights they apply. By becoming interested in the steps people take that help them deal with adversity we learn more about how resilience is done. For Giles Duley, what helped was remembering the lives of the people he’d photographed. He felt inspired by their stories and drew strength from them.

4) And that leads to…
What happens with resilience that might not have occurred without it? I value stories of resilience because they remind me that just because a story begins with ghastly things happening doesn’t mean things will always end badly. Stories of resilience tend to have turning points where something shifts, new possibilities are opened and unexpected opportunities found. Giles had wanted to use his photography to make a difference in the world, to tell the stories of others so that we might learn from them. Yet his own story became as powerful as any of his pictures, passing on lessons he’d learned and inspiration he’d gained. His TED talk has been watched more than 100,000 times.

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Stories of resilience often begin with bad news, with tragedy and pain. Yet the story is made by what happens after that, by the dawn that follows the darkest hour. As Giles says in his talk: “Losing your limbs doesn’t end your life. Life goes on. We can inspire each to get through our own bad experiences.” When I’m struggling, when I reach my low points, I turn to my favourite resilience stories and value them as a source of strength. I think of Giles, telling myself: “If he can deal with that, then maybe I can deal with this.” Resilience is transmissible. By sharing the stories that inspire us, we can pass it on.

Chris Johnstone offers online courses in resilience at

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