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Adam Grant: Resilience is the secret to success. Here are 2 ways to improve yours

Here's the best way to stay motivated at your job, according to Wharton's No. 1 professor
Here's the best way to stay motivated at your job, according to Wharton's No. 1 professor

No matter who you are, bad stuff happens. No amount of preparation or money in the bank can prevent the unexpected.

That's why organizational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Adam Grant says resilience is crucial. Terrible things will, unfortunately, happen. The key is how you recover.

"I don't think there's any skill more critical for success than resilience," Grant tells CNBC.

"I think about resilience as the speed and strength of your response to adversity. So when you encounter a difficulty, a hardship, a challenge, how quickly and how effectively are you able to marshal strength and either overcome that challenge or persevere in the face of it?"

Grant co-wrote the book "Option B" about resilience with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in the wake of her husband David Goldberg's sudden death in 2015.

Adam Grant
Photo by Jim Bennett

Shortly after her husband's unexpected passing, Sandberg was crying to a friend that she wanted Goldberg to be there for an event at their daughter's school. The friend responded, "Option A is not available. So let's just kick the s--- out of Option B."

This lesson of resilience is equally as important in professional situations as it is in personal ones.

Grant — who has worked as a consultant to the likes of Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs and the NBA and has been voted the No. 1 professor at Wharton for six years running — studied resilience in the workplace early in his career. And he learned that there are ways to improve your resilience at work.

Get a clear understanding of whom your work is helping and how

Grant once studied a group of fundraisers at a phone bank where the turnover rate was 400 percent annually, "so the entire staff would quit about every two months if you do the math," he says. The recruiting and retraining expense for the call center was astronomical. Grant had to determine, "How do we keep people motivated and help them stay resilient in this job where burnout is so common and so severe?"

The answer was impact — and those telemarketers had no sense of it.

"In every single job there are situations where we're having an impact but we don't know what that impact is," says Grant. "We don't know the clients or the customers who benefit from our products or services. That's true for salespeople, it's true for engineers, very often we do work that matters to some group of people but we're really left disconnected from knowing what is the real consequence."

On thing the call center employees were raising money for was to provide student scholarships. So, Grant brought in a scholarship recipient to meet the workers.

Very often we do work that matters to some group of people, but we're really left disconnected from knowing what is the real consequence.
Adam Grant

The student "talked about how he never would have been able to afford tuition, how the work they had done had enabled him to go to school and how he was trying to pay the help he received forward and he was just really grateful for the work that they do," says Grant.

After meeting the scholarship student, the amount of money the average call center employee raised in a week shot up 142 percent and the number of minutes spent on the phone went up 171 percent.

It works for all sorts of professions. For example, when radiologists were shown a picture of a patient alongside an x-ray, diagnostic accuracy went up by 43 percent, says Grant. "You now know you're not just sort of looking for a fracture you are trying to help a living breathing human being."

The more people can "connect those dots" between the work they do on a daily basis and who is benefiting from it, "the easier it is to find resilience and maintain our motivation," says Grant.

Keep a journal of your contributions to other people

One way to become more in tune with the impact of your work is to keep a journal of contributions, he says.

Grant references a study he worked on that had two groups of employees keep journals. One group of workers wrote down what they were grateful for each day. The other wrote down three contributions they made to others each day.

"What we found was that attending to gratitude made people happier. It certainly made them more satisfied with their jobs. It didn't affect their resilience though," says Grant. "What really boosted resilience was focusing not on contributions received from other people but rather contributions given to other people," says Grant.

Focusing on what you do for somebody else is active, it increases confidence and determination, says Grant.

"Pausing to take a little bit of time to reflect on those contributions that we make every day even once a week is enough to strengthen our ability to focus and to invest effort in what otherwise might be a difficult and stressful job."

See also:

Malcolm Gladwell: Here's why you should slow down and do less

Why Wharton's No. 1 professor recommends keeping a resume of your failures

These are the most undervalued employees at your company, according to psychologist Adam Grant

Wharton's No. 1 professor on why you should keep a resume of failures
Wharton's No. 1 professor on why you should keep a resume of failures