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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Resourcefulness & Band of Related Traits are Keys to Unlocking Success

If the goal is success - in anything really - few qualities are more valuable than resourcefulness.

The power layered within this seriously underrated trait is found in elements like goal-setting, planning, self-control, coping skills and the resilience necessary for achievement.

Research has found that highly resourceful people are better at achieving goals than their less-resourceful counterparts. Resourcefulness is really helpful for progressing in life.

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe

Resourcefulness is a mindset, a set of skills, a way of approaching life. It also includes an empowering take on the control we have over it.

Psychologists have been studying learned resourcefulness for over half century. Coined by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum in the 1970’s, it involves the ability to confidently and creatively solve problems in order to achieve our goals. It’s heavy on self-control which helps in overcoming challenges along the way.

Resourcefulness develops through various ways: mostly through successful hands-on experience, but also through others that model resourcefulness, and by learning in and out of school, throughout life. It’s about being compelled to find a way, especially when the answer is unclear or during difficult situations.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then resourcefulness is the father.” - Beulah Louise Henry (aka “Lady Edison”)

Resourcefulness from difficulty

Resourceful people are better able to maneuver through rough patches, and those same hardships and bouts of adversity can also prime for future resourcefulness.

The upside of adversity could be a powerful set of skills that may not have been gained any other way. Studies have found that difficult times can spark latent, untapped ingenuity.

Business school professor and psychologist, Scott Sonenshein has been examining resourcefulness in good and bad times, for decades. He says that research confirms that constrained resources can activate the adaptability and creativity necessary to conquer challenges we face.

According to Sonenshein, and others at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, resource scarcity can encourage less-obvious, unconventional and creative ways to use what’s on hand and get more from less.

Struggle and scarcity can give rise to clever and efficient solutions. Sometimes it’s what comes from having no other choice. However, Sonenshein (2014, 2017) has shown too that low resources are not a prerequisite for resourcefulness. It is entirely possible in abundant environments as well.

Learned resourcefulness and self-control

What is fundamental to learned resourcefulness, according to psychologist and expert on the subject, Michael Rosenbaum is self-control.

Forty years ago, Rosenbaum (1980) developed a Self-Control Schedule (SCS) to gauge individual self-regulation. Findings by Rosenbaum & Jaffe (1983) found that highly resourceful individuals are better at two types of self-control important for achieving goals:

Reformative self-control is what’s necessary to stop unhealthy habits and replace them with more beneficial alternatives - like healthy eating, exercising or executing financial restraint.

Redressive self-control is key to being able to cope with, and rebound from, stressful circumstances. Pandemic, anyone?

Learned Resourcefulness and stress

Resourceful individuals are better able to remain calm during difficult times.

Research shows that the redressive self-control associated with resourcefulness serves as a buffer of sorts, from the negative impact of stressful situations (Rosenbaum, 1990). It also helps with emotional self-control necessary for planning, action and to deal effectively with stressful events.

This is due in no small part to expected self-efficacy and the resourceful person’s confident belief in their abilities to manage effectively through stressful times.

Rosenbaum & Ronen (2013) also linked self-control and learned resourcefulness to the ability to achieve emotional wellbeing.

With your brain and your resourcefulness, you can rescue yourself.” - Brad Meltzer

Learned resourcefulness and self-efficacy

Famed psychologist Albert Bandura originally advanced the idea of self-efficacy in 1977. It’s a person’s assumption, expectations and beliefs that they can effectively manage, cope and succeed in the situations they face:

I believe I have control over my life and its outcomes and I expect to be effective and successful.

Or, I do not. That’s a pretty massive dividing line.

On one side is self-efficacy, self-determination, resourcefulness and self-control. Multiple studies show a strong connection between resourcefulness and its influence on one’s expectations of self-efficacy.

Research has found that undergraduate students with high levels of self-control and resourcefulness, combined with expectations of being effective, led to focus and better performance (Rosenbaum & Jaffe, 1983).

Students low in resourcefulness, self-control and a lack of self-efficacy, resulted in helplessness instead.

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” – Martin E.P. Seligman

Power of attribution in helplessness

In 1967, researchers Seligman and Maier’s experiments on learned helplessness showed that animals, including human beings, are conditioned by trauma or repeated failure, to believe that they are powerless.

Further studies uncovered that learned helplessness was the result of repeated, negative situations of powerlessness, wherein a person’s thoughts, emotions and the motivation to act worked against their own best interests (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978).

Believing they have no control over events, and that nothing they do matters, people can think, feel and act as if helpless and then stop trying.

Researchers found that learned helplessness is individual. What triggers helplessness in one person could have no effect on someone else. But within each person, helplessness has been found to be both specific to certain situations, and also generalized across situations, depending on how a person attributes or explains the source of their helplessness.

Seligman and colleagues found that for people who credited helplessness to short-lived or temporary causes, or something limited to a specific issue or single problem, helplessness would be limited and not present later on, or in other circumstances.

If the cause of hopelessness was believed instead to be general, pervasive or permanent in nature, people may see little hope for positive change. The result is lower self-esteem and long-term helplessness – as well as its accompanying clinical diagnosis, depression.

Helplessness is the absence of resourcefulness & self-efficacy

Fifty years later, Maier & Seligman (2016) looked back at the original theories of learned helplessness with a perspective of now, half a century of brain science advancement. What new understanding the brain showed, is that it is not the helplessness that’s learned, it’s the self-control and self-efficacy that is not.

Resourcefulness and the expectation of being able to control our environment and resources successfully, is what is learned. Helplessness is the default when it is not.

After many decades of focusing on helplessness, Dr. Martin Seligman went on to study something completely different and way more upbeat: learned optimism. He found that conditioning optimism could treat and even protect against helplessness.

Makes sense, as optimism and positive-thinking is another one of those keys to resourcefulness.

Resourcefulness and optimism, positivity

Resourcefulness is all about making something work. It requires an open, optimistic mindset and the ability to see beyond problems and look for the possibilities in a given situation, and in the resources, one has to work with.

Executive coach and author, Marshall Goldsmith has long studied successful and highly resourceful people. A common trait among them is an optimistic and positive outlook. Even during the most difficult times, resourceful people are able to find something redeeming.

Looking for the good helps stimulate creative solutions.

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” - Ernest Hemingway

Resourcefulness and creativity, innovation & doing more with less

Resourceful people are able to see something that others can’t see, often turning the tables on accepted paradigms and questioning basic assumptions, long taken for granted.

Creative problem-solving is helped by being open-minded and willing to look at a range of possibilities and perspectives; by being imaginative, innovative and feisty.

Resourceful people try to optimize current circumstances, by improvising and using what’s on hand, reusing things in new ways and doing more with less. It’s thinking on your feet and being efficient and quick about the solution.

It’s the person you most want to be stranded on the island with. It’s MacGyver … and Tupac’s mama.

And Mama made miracles every Thanksgivin'.” – Tupac Shakur

Resourcefulness & learning, improving

Resourcefulness is a trait fueled by broad knowledge, constant learning and by applying other, seemingly unrelated experiences.

In coming up with novel solutions, the more information you have to work with, the better.

Research interviews by Patricia Helen Elizabeth Smith (2016) of Trent University identified several themes that differentiate the mindset and behavior of highly resourceful people, and those with low levels of resourcefulness.

Smith found that subjects high in resourcefulness were willing and able to learn new things. They tended to learn from both successes and failures, consistently integrating new information from which to grow and improve.

Smith (2016) found other marked differences in the mindset and behavior of people with high vs. low levels of resourcefulness:

Future-oriented, practical planners

Highly resourceful people tend to be future-oriented. The study showed they were focused on what they wanted to achieve and consciously planned to achieve future goals.

Those who scored lower in resourcefulness were more apt to live in the moment, were less future-oriented and either did not have goals and/or plan for them.

The research showed that high resourcefulness was also linked to practicality and realistic thinking.

Low resourcefulness, on the other hand, was connected to more magical thinking where future dreams were believed would somehow just happen.

Self-driven, persistent doers

The creativity, the plans, the ideas – they’re all for naught without the most important part: action.

Smith (2016) also found that more resourceful individuals were internally motivated and self-driven. For these individuals, external situations did not dictate how or when action is taken.

Resourceful people were also found to be more resilient and more persistent. Discipline supports highly resourceful people in keeping at it when they want to give up.

But not blindly. Baked into resourceful action is also flexibility that helps us stop, cut losses and change course if new conditions deem it necessary.

Resourcefulness and personal responsibility

Resourcefulness is ultimately rooted in personal responsibility.

Highly resourceful people view their life, their growth and their success as their own responsibility. They are also less likely to blame something external, someone one or make excuses.

Resourcefulness nourishes self-efficacy, self-assuredness and confidence. Low self-esteem and self-efficacy are associated with helplessness.

Resourcefulness requires self-control, restraint, focus and persistence. It’s also creative and requires optimistic, sometimes bold action and courage. Altogether it’s why resourcefulness and entrepreneurism often go hand-in-hand.

Resourceful people are described as bold, unconventional and rule-breakers. They can also be misunderstood, unappreciated or disliked. No matter.

It is our duty as human beings to proceed as though the limits of our capabilities do not exist.” – Teilhard de Chardin


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