Resilience Book Cover Resilience
Eric Greitens
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
March 10, 2015

This is in my Top 10 Must Read Books. I also highly recommend Greiten’s “The Heart and the Fist” which is another in my Top 10. This work is a series of letters between the author and a fellow-warrior suffering from severe depression, PTSD, addiction, etc. He uses ancient wisdom to develop this guidebook. Its truly remarkable. To steal from the summary on Amazon, “Resilience” explains how we can build purpose, confront pain, practice compassion, develop a vocation, find a mentor, create happiness, and much more.”

Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength—if we have the virtue of resilience.

their moments of darkness often led, in time, to their days of greatest growth.

that struggle helped them to build deep reservoirs of strength.

How do you focus your mind, control your stress, and excel under pressure? How do you work through fear and build courage? How do you overcome defeat and rise above obstacles? How do you adapt to adversity?

Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.   —AESCHYLUS

Our beds right up against the enemy walls. Rain from the sky, dew from the ground soaking us perpetually, rotting our clothes, filling our hair with vermin. I could tell you stories of winter so cold it killed the birds in the air.

The point, after all, is not just to read. The point is to read in a way that leads to better thinking, and to think in a way that leads to better living.

To move through pain to wisdom, through fear to courage, through suffering to strength, requires resilience.

absurd result was that they walked around mouthing abstract grudges against “professors” or “book learning” or “colleges,” and all the while they’ve got a book of Seamus Heaney’s poems next to their rack, stashed under a stack of porn.

Everyone can learn.

Mike picked up Homer, and he discovered that, as long as there has been war, warriors have found the journey home, the journey back to normal, as trying as battle itself.

For this to work, you’re going to have to take what you learn and build your own program for your own life. No one can do that for you.

When Aristotle gave his great talks on the nature of the good life, which were collected as the Nicomachean Ethics, he began by making one thing clear: there is no simple equation for the good life.


The test of a philosophy is simple: does it lead people to live better lives? If not, the philosophy fails. If so, it succeeds. Philosophy used to mean developing ideas about a life worth living, and then living that life. It still can.

We all need something to struggle against and to struggle for. The aim in life is not to avoid struggles, but to have the right ones; not to avoid worry, but to care about the right things; not to live without fear, but to confront worthy fears with force and passion.

Resilience as elasticity.

They think that resilient people are the same before and after hardship.

Life’s reality is that we cannot bounce back. We cannot bounce back because we cannot go back in time to the people we used to be.

You know that there is no bouncing back. There is only moving through.

Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.

In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.

“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

The first step to building resilience is to take responsibility for who you are and for your life. If you’re not willing to do that, stop wasting your time reading this letter.

If we take responsibility for ourselves, we become not victims, but pioneers.

The other path is to move through pain and hardship, fear and suffering, tragedy and trauma, so that we grow wiser and stronger.

Arête really meant something closer to “excellence.” For the Greeks, no part of life was considered “moral” life or “ethical” life. It was all simply life.

We begin to see that virtue is not necessarily something that we have, but something that we practice.

The Greeks recognized that great people could fail terribly and still be great. Wise people could sometimes be dumb. Courageous people could be cowardly. Honest people could lie, and compassionate people could be

People practice greatness. They perform with greatness. People practice courage. They perform with courage. And then, one day, they don’t. This does not make them cowards. It makes them human.

Put most simply, to be virtuous meant that you were brilliant at being human.

You have to maintain clarity about your reality.

Stockdale said that you must confront the brutal facts of your reality. When we stop running from pain and acknowledge it, we see it for what it is. Often, under our gaze, it freezes in place. Then we can face it.

I love these lines from Archilochus, a Greek mercenary and poet:   Heart, my heart, so battered with misfortune far beyond your strength, up, and face the men who hate us. Bare your chest to the assault of the enemy, and fight them off. Stand fast among the beamlike spears. Give no ground.

But the longer you hesitate, the hairier and scarier the fear becomes. The longer you hesitate, the more likely you are to turn around and crawl back under the covers.

Start with the humility to recognize how little you know.

I begin with humility, I act with humility, I end with humility. Humility leads to clarity. Humility leads to an open mind and a forgiving heart. With an open mind and a forgiving heart, I see every person as superior to me in some way; with every person as my teacher, I grow in wisdom. As I grow in wisdom, humility becomes ever more my guide. I begin with humility, I act with humility, I end with humility.

Here’s another way to think about it: Human beings are not caterpillars. We don’t crawl into a cocoon and come out a different creature weeks later. When people begin, they are often too hungry for immediate results. When real transformation does occur in someone’s life, it usually happens through evolution, not revolution.

this: enough to tell better from worse. You don’t need to know what perfect looks like, just what better looks like. Better is your bearing. Better is enough to point you in the right direction.

Mastery lives quietly atop a mountain of mistakes.

The success of their past should be the foundation of their present.

Move and the way will open.   —ZEN PROVERB

Aristotle, who did more than any other thinker to develop our ideas of human flourishing, said that “happiness is a kind of working of the soul in the way of perfect excellence.”

Aristotle and the Greeks expressed this idea in a single word: eudaimonia.

When you read the Iliad, the Odyssey, or even the Old Testament, you may notice one of the most striking differences between ancient and contemporary life: the amount of time and effort that people put into placating the gods or God.

Three primary kinds of happiness: the happiness of pleasure, the happiness of grace, and the happiness of excellence.

Stuart Mill. He believed in “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Here’s the most famous thing he said about pleasure: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

happiness of gratitude.

Seneca wrote beautifully about this feeling, the awe at looking up and realizing that the universe, as huge and complicated as it is, somehow works.

Because you understood what Aristotle understood: pushing ourselves to grow, to get better, to dive deeper is at the heart of happiness.

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

The happiness of excellence comes from deep engagement with the world. And when we’re engaged in service to others, we find that this happiness takes on a whole new dimension: meaning.

One of those people was Hannah Senesh. When she left her native Hungary to emigrate to Palestine, she wrote in her diary, “I’ve become a different person, and it’s a very good feeling. One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world.”

The happiness of pleasure can never replace the happiness that comes from the pursuit of excellence.

The challenge for the veteran—and for anyone suddenly deprived of purpose—is not simply to overcome trauma, but to rebuild meaning. The only way out is through. Through suffering to strength. Through hardship to healing. And the longer we wait, the less life we have to live.

Epicurus, maybe the greatest philosopher of pleasure, understood this. “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”

Earl and Aristotle. They both said the same thing: Find a model. Do as they do.

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself.” That’s from Yohji Yamamoto, an influential fashion designer.

A disciple once asked Confucius, “Is there a single word that can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?” Confucius answered, “It is perhaps the word ‘empathy.’” We can’t treat others as they deserve unless we can feel what it’s like to be in their shoes.

when Achilles puts on his helmet, he becomes a warrior.

“Be what you would like to seem.”

Imagine you’re a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old school kid at Radley Hall in England in 1837. Here are some of the questions on your winter exam: Why is not virtue either παθος or δυναμις? Give Aristotle’s reasons (4) why true self-love cannot exist in vicious men. Find the length of an arc whose chord is 18, and the chord of half the arc 10⅓. Give the characters of Alfred the Great, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry the Eighth, and Queen Elizabeth. How are Peterborough, Constantinople, Edinburgh, and Paris severally situate[d] with regard to London?

Millions of people, in all walks of life and in every endeavor, create distractions and excuses for themselves by focusing on tools rather than on character. They’d rather, as Socrates warned, focus on what they have than on what they are.

Never cease chiseling your own statue.   —PLOTINUS (205–270)

People like to imagine that they will “rise to the occasion.” They taught us in the Teams that people rarely do. What happens, in fact, is that when things get really hard and people are really afraid, they sink to the level of their training.

We are happy when we are growing.   —JOHN BUTLER YEATS

Not everyone gets a trophy, because not every performance merits celebration. If we want our children to have a shot at resilience, they must learn what failure means. If they don’t learn that lesson from loving parents and coaches and teachers, life will teach it to them in a far harsher way.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the children who are most likely and most willing to take risks are those who know that they can return to loving parents and a secure home. We often venture most boldly when we understand that our ventures are not all or nothing—when we are confident that we have a safe and welcoming home to return

Resilience—the willingness and ability to endure hardship and become better by it—is a habit that sinks its roots in the soil of security.

Epictetus said that “it is not things which trouble us, but the judgments we bring to bear upon things.”

Focus not on wiping out your anxiety, but on directing your anxiety to worthy ends. Focus not on reducing your fear, but on building your courage—because, as you take more and more responsibility for your life, you’ll need more and more courage.

If you want to live a purposeful life, you will have to create your purpose.

Your purpose will not be found; it will be forged.

External goods are the rewards we receive for pursuing an activity—money, prestige, promotions, and so on. Internal goods are the deep satisfactions of pursuing an activity for itself.

People who lament, “I’m bored,” are usually complaining about an absence of diversion, a lack of spectacle. But often, I think, they’re really lamenting a lack of meaning. Without meaning, everything becomes spectacle, and spectacle becomes exhausting.

embrace the true warrior’s purpose: serving something greater than yourself.

I recommend The Power of Myth, a book that’s really the record of a long conversation.

Here’s how Campbell summarized this recurring myth: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

“The ultimate aim of the quest,” wrote Campbell, “must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.” The hero engages in self-discovery and self-creation so that he can ultimately be more useful to others. The hero’s journey gives him the power to serve, and he returns to use that power.

Part of what the old admire and sometimes envy in children is their energy, their curiosity, the fun they have, and their sense of wonder about the world. Where does all of that wonder come from?

Some of the thinkers we most remember weren’t afraid of inconsistency, because they were daring enough to face up to the mess of real life. (And many of the thinkers we forget made careers out of pointing out these inconsistencies.) Poets like Walt Whitman got this. He wrote:   Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Philosophy is not, for me, a discipline about writing clever papers. It’s a discipline about living well. The philosopher shouldn’t offer a way of thinking, but a way of living.

Resilient realists know that life—despite our highest ideals—is imperfect.

Readiness means confronting the reality that life’s course is not completely under your control. Readiness is a form of humility, spurred by a recognition of how little we can know or control. Hardship is unavoidable. Resilient people recognize this reality. Then they prepare themselves for it, seeking to meet it as best they can, on their own terms.

The ability to explain complicated things with clarity is a mark of mastery.

We are ultimately measured by our results, by the way our actions shape the world around us. Without results, all the kind intentions in the world are just a way of entertaining ourselves.

The word that shows up again and again in their discussions of ethics is arête. As we’ve already discussed, arête doesn’t really mean “virtue,” though that’s how it’s often translated. When the Greeks used the word arête, it referred to excellence.

To be excellent is to be someone who produces excellence.

A morality of results doesn’t demand that we succeed every time or else be judged bad people. It does tell us to put the well-being of others at the center of our judgments about right and wrong. Before I pronounce myself good, I have to point to something more than what I wanted to happen—I have to point to what I have done in the world.

It’s nice that you want to make a difference. But here’s the hard truth: your wanting is irrelevant to the people who need your help.

“There is no try. We do not try. Your teammates do not need you to try to cover their backs. Your swim buddy does not need you to try to rescue him on a dive. Your platoon does not need you to try to shoot straight. There is no try. There is only do. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

If your best is not good enough, make your best better. If you tried hard and failed, then try harder, or find a new way to try until you succeed. Trying hard is trying hard. Success is success. There is a difference.

Philosophy is meant to be done, not just studied. Only by using philosophy do you come to know it. It is a practice. It takes practice.

You must practice the art of practicing.

What if, instead, you think of yourself as learning how to practice something?

Seneca recommended looking back over each day’s actions before going to bed. He said that you should ask yourself: “What evils have you cured yourself of today? What vices have you fought? In what sense are you better? . . . When the torch has been taken away and my wife, already used to my habits, has fallen silent, I examine my entire day and measure what I have done and said. I hide nothing from myself.”

Learning how to practice is essential to moving through, because it is the discipline of practice itself that allows you to take what happens to you, integrate it into your experience, and then act again. The more you see that life can be practiced, the more resilient you will become.

Five variables go into training or practice of any kind: frequency, intensity, duration, recovery, and reflection.

The Greeks understood that shaping human behavior requires repetition.

What usually matters in your life is not the magical moment, but the quality of your daily practice. As the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

It is easier to preach to people than to practice with them.

The Stoics taught that our response to the world, our choice to accept or reject what we cannot control, is the only thing completely within our power.

“Do not try to make things happen the way you want, but want what happens to happen the way it happens, and you will be happy.”

Stoics also realized that building an attitude of acceptance—an attitude grateful for what we have, but not so attached to what we have that we can’t imagine it being taken away—takes disciplined practice.

The path to wisdom runs through the dark wood of pain.

For pain to be valuable, it has to lead to the right kind of understanding.

We choose our relationship to pain.

Not all pain matters.

In true mastery there is a transcendence at work: you actually are your pain. Your pain is not something separate from yourself, something you overcome or ignore or fail to notice. It is a part of who you are. And even this is not quite right—it is who you are, as much as your own thoughts and your breathing. Your pain is no longer outside of you. It is you, and you are it.

You do have to regularly and consistently pursue excellence at the edge. And you especially have to do it when you find that the world is giving you excuses to sit and do nothing.

We grow when we recover from the right pain in the right way.

Suffering is created by your perception of, and relationship to, pain.

It reminds me of a quotation about the Greeks from Edith Hamilton: that they were “lovers of beauty without having lost the taste for simplicity, and lovers of wisdom without loss of manly vigor.”)

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that suffering is something we create through our attachments: what makes people suffer is not so much the physical sensation they experience, but the meaning they attach to their losses.

People quit when they started to think about how hard something was going to be.

When things feel too big to handle, break ’em down.

For Seneca, it was the difference between carrying on and breaking down: “Everyone approaches a danger with more courage if he has prepared in advance how to confront it. Anyone can endure difficulties better if he has previously practiced how to deal with them. People who are unprepared can be unhinged by even the smallest of things.”

“Worry productively.”

Preparing, mentally and physically, means imagining what might go wrong. It also means imagining how you will react to, cope with, and overcome potential hardship.

“He who bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut one hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand.”

But I would suggest that what many of us do in prayer is valuable if you want to build resilience. It’s valuable to step outside yourself in a moment of reflection. It’s valuable to still your mind and calm your breathing. It’s valuable to ask questions, think back on where you’ve been, and search for ways to move forward.

“Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.”

Where do you start when reflecting on your experience? Let’s make it simple. You can start with this question: Who do I want to be?

A closed mind protects the ego, but at the cost of weakening and degrading our thinking. When we close our minds in fear or arrogance we lock ourselves away, just as we might lock a healthy person in a dark, solitary cell.

with the right reflection we learn to turn our experience into wisdom that shapes how we live. The difference between a life that is happening to you and a life that you shape is often reflection.

You reflect on your purpose. You reflect on what you’ve done and you think about what you might do next. When you do this often enough, reflection becomes a part of who you are.

Seneca took friendship seriously in his letters to Lucilius: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.”

It’s been said that the deepest relationships are formed not when two people are looking at each other, but when two people are looking in the same direction. That’s a very Aristotelian thought.

Resilience takes awareness: awareness of yourself and of the world around you.

Our mastery of the practices that matter—including the practice of living a good life—comes from people and through relationships. It comes from coaches, teachers, trainers, and mentors.

Ideas are cheap. Advice is easy.

Good coaches cut through clutter and chaos. They direct your attention to the details that make a difference.   —6—

“The fox knows many things . . . the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

“The fox—the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events—is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems.”

Bad teachers and trainers believe that they have their power because of the position they hold. Good teachers and trainers know that the exercise of power is a responsibility: they are responsible for creating good results in the lives of those subject to their power and influence. Those results are what make their power legitimate.

The practice of resilience is about finding strategies for living, not formulaic, one-size-fits-all answers. You have to live your answers, and you have to do so in your world. You have to live your answers in your time, in your environment, facing all of the obstacles and using all of the assets you have at hand.

But all resilient teams share one thing: an ability to manage many interests while serving a purpose that is larger than the interests of any one person.

Don’t say things. What you are . . . thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.   —RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Resilient leadership is rooted in resilient living.

Don’t do this for me—do this with me. A leader earns devotion by showing devotion.

Officers eat last. Leaders lead from the front. Never ask someone to endure more than you are willing to endure yourself.

As a young leader, I often made the mistake of trying to solve problems. If I saw something I thought was wrong, I tried to fix it. A lot of leaders do this. It makes them feel that they are serious (tackling tough problems) and needed (doing the hard work). What I learned after knocking my head against the wall a hundred times is that some problems will never be fixed.

Marcus Aurelius’s writings is, “Leadership’s responsibility is to work intelligently with what is given and not waste time fantasizing about a world of flawless people and perfect choices.”

Beware the person who seeks to lead and has not suffered, who claims responsibility on the grounds of a spotless record.

When you make a commitment that’s in keeping with what you value most, you’ve made a decision to be your best self.

When we have meaningful, fulfilling, purposeful work, it radiates through our lives. And when we have happy, secure, loving relationships, they, too, radiate through our lives.

The balance we seek is not that of a seesaw, but of a symphony.

Rilke put this well: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Storytelling is not just a way to remember what happened; it’s a way to understand what happened.

In a story, the real beginning comes when things start to matter in a different way.

There are people who do not live their present life; it is as if they were preparing themselves, with all their zeal, to live some other life, but not this one. And while they do this, time goes by and is lost.   —ANTIPHON (FIFTH CENTURY BC)

As usual, Seneca captured the idea clearly: “At the moment we go to sleep, let us say, in joy and gaiety: ‘I have lived. I have traveled the path which Fortune assigned to me.’ If a god gives us the next day as a bonus, let us receive it with joy . . . Whoever has said to himself ‘I have lived’ can arise each day to an unexpected gift. Hurry up and live, and consider each day as a completed life.”

One day set apart from all the others, “a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

As Heschel says: “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”

to treat your Sabbath as a way to prepare for work is just another way of making the Sabbath work by another name.

Davenport, Guy, trans. Archilochus, Sappho, Alkman: Three Lyric Poets of the Late Greek Bronze Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Epictetus. The Discourses of Epictetus with the Encheiridion and Fragments. Trans. George Long. London: George Bell and Sons, 1909.

Greitens, Eric. The Heart and the Fist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. ——. Strength and Compassion. Washington, DC: Leading Authorities Press, 2008.

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006–2009.

Marcus Aurelius. The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations. Trans. C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks. New York: Scribner, 2002. ——. Meditations. Trans. George Long. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1997. ——. Meditations. Trans. Gregory Hays. New York: Modern Library, 2003. ——. Meditations. Trans. Martin Hammond. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2012.

Plutarch. “Cato the Younger.” In Plutarch’s Lives. Vol. 8. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919. ——. “How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend.” In Plutarch’s Morals. Vol. 2. Trans. William Goodwin. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1871. Renault, Mary. The Last of the Wine. New York: Vintage, 2001.

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