For example, the theme “never give up, no matter how hard things get” could be condensed to “perseverance”. How could I do that with the theme above?

In a sentence it would be “This book’s theme explores ___”.

  • 1
    This reminds me a lot of a saying from chess grandmaster Savielly Tartakower "No one has ever won by resigning". My most unforgettable tournament chess match was a comeback after taking 1h 20min to think on my next move despite believing the game was already lost (and actually was, I made the position complex and won on my opponent's mistake). Oct 20, 2021 at 9:45
  • 1
    'Adversity makes men ....' (Victor Hugo) Oct 20, 2021 at 14:06
  • 3
    I like tempering as a metaphor for how it is a process for hardening steel with heat, but most usage of tempering is using the metaphor of how heat softens steel.
    – jxh
    Oct 20, 2021 at 23:47
  • 1
    This was known in old Greek as "Ραθήματα μαθήματα". In English "What does not kill you makes you stronger".
    – Stef
    Oct 21, 2021 at 0:37
  • 2
    The right answer to this depends on whether you attribute improvement to the protagonist or the circumstance. For the protagonist, the quality is resilience, but if you credit the situation with the improvement then it is annealing.
    – Peter Wone
    Oct 21, 2021 at 4:12

11 Answers 11




5. The quality or fact of being able to recover quickly or easily from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, illness, etc.; robustness; adaptability.

1857 J. F. Smith & W. Howitt Cassell's Illustr. Hist. Eng. I. lx. 333/2 In their struggles with the ponderous power of England [the Scotch] discovered an invincible vigour, not only of resistance, but of resilience.

1977 K. M. E. Murray Caught in Web of Words xvi. 309 Although he still had surprising vigour of body and mind, he had lost something of his powers of resilience.

  • 2
    This only applies to the concept of "hardships only make you stronger" with the narrow interpretation of "stronger" meaning "more able to resist the hardships themselves", in other words hardships don't make you stronger in general, which may or may not be what the OP is after.
    – theberzi
    Oct 21, 2021 at 11:53

"Builds character" is generally a phrase used when doing something hard that will make you a better person. Here's a WikiHow for 'building character.'

It's fallen out of use this decade, but it was used in Calvin and Hobbes by Calvin's father when Calvin protested chores.

There's also the slightly longer phrase on TVTropes, Misery Builds Character.


I don't know of an exact match, but here are a few related words or phrases:

  • "Trial by fire": doesn't imply that you are improved by the ordeal so much as that it proves your existing qualities.
  • Similarly, a "crucible" is a common metaphor for an intense negative experience that would destroy lesser people, or destroy certain personality traits and leave only certain traits surviving.
  • There are words and phrases that communicate patient endurance of hardship: long-suffering, stoic, and for that matter endurance.
  • There are some that communicate an ability to survive hardship: resilient, indefatigable, indomitable (even, by metaphor, unsinkable, like Molly Brown)
  • Similar to trail by fire and crucible, "refiner's fire" is a common metaphor in Christian usage (Malachi 3:2) to refer to trials removing bad/weak parts of someone's character. Oct 19, 2021 at 17:27
  • 1
    @BobtheMagicMoose Yes, and the metaphor is ultimately the same, as the crucible is used in refining (smelting). Oct 19, 2021 at 17:30

Antifragility is a somewhat recent pop-psych word; not everyone will necessarily know what you're talking about, and some people who do may disagree with some of the implied concepts (IDK). That said, its meaning is a perfect match.

  • 2
    A more common concept, but not as a metaphor, might be en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_hardening Oct 19, 2021 at 17:29
  • 3
    It could be a good metaphor, but people who actually work with work-hardening materials would might hear it as a bad thing. Sometimes a piece of a machine might be work-hardened on purpose (e.g. in jewelry making, work-hardened silver makes a descent spring), but a work-hardened structural beam has likely become brittle and will have lost some of it's absolute-failure-strength. Oct 19, 2021 at 18:49

If you want to express the concept that "hardship only makes one stronger" in two words I would say it was an annealing experience.

Concorde never had the slightest trouble with airframe stress fractures.

Subject to hours of brutal vibration from the sonic boom at the front of the aircraft, on the face of it they should have had far more trouble than subsonic jets. But the friction of supersonic air gently heated the airframe to just the right temperature, then cooled gradually as they slowed on approach, and the airframe was annealed with each use; healed and strengthened by the hell it endured.

The difference between this answer and the most popular one is that "annealing" is a quality of the circumstances and implies that anyone would have been strengthened, whereas "resilience" is a quality of the protagonist.

Another answer mentions "hormesis". Normally used in reference to biological processes, this is arguably the best choice of all because as a concept it embraces

  • that this is a response from the subject
  • that the hardship is necessary to obtain the improvement
  • that the hardship must be survivable (live and learn is a thing, die and learn isn't)

This is a very good word, though not well known. I hope that answer gets the credit it deserves. Sure it lacks exposition. Brevity is a virtue.

You could argue that annealing implies that the subject has the right mettle (or is the right metal) for annealing to occur. Best not, lest I become insufferably smug about it or worse yet come up with more dreadful puns.

  • 1
    Good answer. I don't like hardening because it implies you become less flexible and this is not positive IMO. I was thinking about something like training but this is better. Oct 22, 2021 at 9:42

If you are looking for a(n intangible) noun, how about "acquired grit" or "acquired grittiness"?

Definitions 2. and 3. here are probably applicable: Merriam Webster

OED defines similarly.


"personal growth" Granted that phrase could be a bit too vague, but I think most meaningful personal growth comes from overcoming hardships.

The rest comes from ice cream :P


One can borrow a term which originates in metallurgy: hardening (e.g. the surface hardness/strength of steel can be increased by impacts.) For your purposes a turn of phrase like world-hardened, or something similar, may be useful.

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Oct 20, 2021 at 20:04

"Hormesis" or "the hormetic hypothesis".

  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Oct 20, 2021 at 16:06
  • 4
    This is a good answer in terms of content but poor in form. It doesn't deserve a downvote, it deserves editing. I looked up the word and he's right. Of course I'm the only one on the whole internet capable of using a search engine.
    – Peter Wone
    Oct 21, 2021 at 4:03

school of hard knocks / hard knocks school / hard knocks

school of hard knocks

The School of Hard Knocks (also referred to as the University of Life or University of Hard Knocks) is an idiomatic phrase meaning the (sometimes painful) education one gets from life's usually negative experiences, often contrasted with formal education. The term originated in the United States; its earliest documented use was in 1870 in the book [by George P. Rowell & Co.] The Men Who Advertise:

"... his misfortunes were largely owing to the inexperience of youth. Trained, however, in the school of hard knocks, he now had learned the theory of success" Wiki

This reflects a popular belief in America that a person trained in the “school of hard knocks” is more persistent, tougher and smarter than any mere bookworm. The cynic in me is quite sure that it also reflects the nondegreed target demographic of this particular genre of television programming. Lewin Edwards; So You Wanna Be an Embedded Engineer

I had to go through the “school of hard knocks” and learn some of the things the hard way. Fortunately for me, this process did not kill me, but it made me stronger. Ranford Neo; The Instant Entrepreneur

Alain Burrese; Hard Won Wisdom From The School Of Hard Knocks

hard knocks school

Anyone can learn how a Hard Knocks School would function by simply volunteering at any homeless shelter, center for the poor, or kitchen for the needy near where one lives. Gordon Greb; Google Brain

Chained by an unwillingness to adhere to the advice of the Allies and set adrift without a reasoned and logical doctrine of their own, the AEF's line officers learned about war the hard way: through the hard knocks school of personal experience. Christopher Kolenda; Leadership

hard knocks

Consider the hard knocks of life that you survive as crises from which many others would never bounce back. This makes you a stronger person. Stewart Lightstone; Taking Control of Schizophrenia

Thus she claims that her “fair share of hard knocks” made her “stronger and better,” but whereas other dwell on how specific setbacks impelled them forward, Greiner never lets the reader in on precisely what her "hard knocks" wereDaniel Horowitz; Entertaining Entrepreneurs


How about per ardua, usually translated as “through adversity”. It can be found at the beginning of many mottoes, and is typically followed the words for something worth attaining. It will be familiar to many English-speaking readers as the motto of the Royal Air Force and its sister services in the Commonwealth.


A google search for per ardua will turn up a wide range of other mottoes.

Depending on the target audience for the book, these two simple words could unlock a broad set of associations, which can then be addressed in the passages that follow.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.