A little while ago I was watching an athlete batter himself both physically and mentally trying to complete a series of new tricks for a film piece. It was pretty extreme. A few days later I saw someone else battle their fear to be able to do a pretty dangerous climatic trick for their new short film.
(For a great example of this attitude, head on over to watch See Things Differently: Behind Kaleidoscope on Red Bull TV)
Not that any of my clients would use the term or define themselves by it, but it made me reflect on the nature of resilience, especially in terms of its use in business as well as wider afield in personal development.
Clearly, to repeatedly do something over and over again that is extremely difficult, causes pain when you get it wrong, or in the worst case could result in serious permanent injury, disablement or even death, it requires a fair dose of resilience.
The seed in this thinking was planted when I had a recent conversation with an Executive Coaching client about the importance of resilience in business, especially for entrepreneurs and start ups, because to survive and then to flourish, they have to take a personal and business battering as part of the process. And just as in the action sports arena, despite the allure, many of them don’t make it.
The seed sprouted when I was struck with the notion that these athletes, including others I work with who are seeking to recover from major injuries or illness, are making a positive choice to do what they do. A specific example is in the coaching work that I did with Talan Racing, a motorcycle racing team with two paraplegic racers and one above knee amputee. All these riders had acquired their injuries from major traumatic motorcycle accidents so every time they went out onto the circuit (and/or crashed) they were faced with their extreme personal history. You can see more about this here:
The first thought one might have is to dismiss these athletes and people as insane, barking mad, or just plain abnormal, but I would disagree with that assessment. I’m a dissenter of mainstream health psychology which I think completely misunderstands this kind of stuff.
From one slightly unusual perspective, these people are engaging with a form of resilience (if that’s what we want to call it) that is one of choice rather necessity.
But what is this resilience thing anyway? Could it be just another contrived concept that's gaining popularity despite dubious real world meaning? This is probably more to the question.
The concept seems to have been rather hijacked by the Positive Psychology Movement. Some of its history goes back to research about how people survived difficulty, strife, hardship and came out of it within a window of ‘normality.’ In Humanistic terms, this would be considered more about how people might flourish and experience a positive, life affirming, growing edge as a result of the difficulties they’ve experienced - ultimately it would relate to the process of self-actualisation and realisation.
One concise and common definition of resilience in this vein is along the lines of the ability of a person to bounce back, or return to normal after a set back or knock. I’ve even seen it defined as ‘being able to deal with whatever life throws at you.’
If you’ve already looked into resilience, you may have noticed that a lot of the literature is littered with adjectives like toughness and strong, all associated with the individual. There’s also a liberal sprinkle of the need for optimism in there too.
But what if you find yourself continuously heading into the prevailing wind? Despite your grit determination, strength and mental toughness. What then?
The problem here is that the lonesome tree doesn’t have a limitless amount of strength to resist a continuous onslaught, unless its natural disposition is going to be crooked, that is (being crooked however, may not mean unhealthy). And in any case, it needs to flex so as not to snap - it grows according to its wider environment.
People are no different. I have certainly witnessed occasions where executives and entrepreneurs have had enough. They crack, or they find themselves functioning so crookedly, they take a different course, often without fully recovering. They become limited and usually, with the prevailing wind as it is in psychology, the finger gets pointed at them (whether it’s a social finger or they point it at themselves). They’re not the resilient ones, and developing some resilience, they’re told, might just be the ticket, whatever that might mean.
Twice in my professional life have I experienced this to a significant degree myself. Both times were when I went into well established behemoths of commercialism. One of these organisations is more or less a global household name, the other is a household name in the business world. I won’t mention names here. On both these occasions I was brought in to effect some change on a consultancy basis. In one it was merely to introduce some new stuff to help the business in its customer relationships. The other was to uncover some pretty fundamental structural and cultural challenges to effect a shift towards a more collaborative organisational working approach and sharing of knowledge - which was required to achieve the objectives of the part of the organisation I was working for.
In both of these cases, I found myself being sucked into a place of strange ineptitude. I found myself functioning in a sluggish way, being contained, undermined, and losing my imagination and creative insights. I felt an overbearing pressure to conform to a something I couldn’t explicitly identify and this experience was squeezing the life juice right out of me and I was loosing both my way and my heart.
Sounds a bit melodramatic, I know, but I couldn’t work out why I ended up feeling this way.
When I tried to talk to my friends and colleagues working professionally in the psychology industry, all I received in reply was that this experience was my choice. What was ‘I’ doing, or choosing to accept that made this happen? So whilst it wasn’t ‘me’ it was, paradoxically, all down to ‘me.’ I just needed to learn a few new things - develop some relevant skills. This did my head in because it felt all wrong and simplistic.
It really couldn’t all be in the individual, I wondered, because what I found was that in some systems I worked, I maintained high levels of resilience (and function), and in others I didn’t. Similarly, in some of these systems, I found I naturally took good care of myself and in others I didn’t, couldn’t or found it inextricably difficult. For example, in both the above organisations, I found I put on weight in a relatively short amount of time and my fitness suffered despite continuing exercise. As far as I’m concerned, there was certainly no explicit choice here.
My experiences as well as a certain stubbornness cemented my thoughts that it can’t all be laid at the feet of the individual, even if a lot of psychology seems to make it out that way.
An extended view of resilience
I view resilience as a function of a healthy system. This system is our own personal world, which is made up of multiple systems, whether they are our working, professional worlds, fitness and/or sporting worlds, for example. However, even if we try to compartmentalise any of these worlds, they all interact and influence each other. Likewise, we function within and across these systems, influencing them while they also influence us.
This can obviously make things quite complicated, but lets just look at it as if it were an eco-system. An eco-system typically has lots of elements that exchange resources and there is usually a mixture of collaboration and competition within this system. Resources that aren’t used by one part of it get used by another, for example. But this exchange is nourishing and supporting of the function of the system as a whole, whether it is about maintaining some form of equilibrium or about fundamental re-organisation which can be catastrophic. For example, bush fires in Australia can been seen as totally destructive and negative but are a natural and essential part of the health and balance of some local eco-systems. It is not unusual for me to work with clients who have experienced catastophic events in their lives, whether a mental, physical one or both, some including near death experiences where they emerge from the process seeing it as the best thing that ever happened to them (although, lets be honest, this is not a universal or always simple outcome).
I’m not unique in taking this view of resilience as a function of a system. There are plenty of areas in science doing the same thing - in engineering all the way through the ecology. It just seems to be a less than usual view in the current climate of psychology.
Without going into the various scientific constructs, they all provide their opinion as to the nature, or essential characteristics of a resilient system. However, I’m going to talk about some simple yet essential qualities of these human systems that are rarely explicated, although Arianna Huffington touches upon some of this in the article ‘Davos 2013: Resilience as a 21st Century Imperative' (Jan, 2013). In it she says: ’When starved, our system starts to break down and eat itself.’
Qualities of a resilient system
Firstly, I’m a great believer in that all living systems tend to be naturally resilient.
To maintain its natural resilience, the human system requires energy. Therefore:
The system needs to be well fed with a good balanced and nutritious diet. Physically we can probably all imagine what that entails, even if it’s difficult to put it into action. Basically we need to make sure we’re eating well, yes, good food.
This applies to the psychological side of things too. Not just because we need energy for our brains to function but to function at our best we also require nourishment through our thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences.
Feeding ourselves well in all dimensions naturally involves some form of exchange with our environment and social relationships. We can be nourished through giving just as much as we can from receiving.
Nourishment also includes those other essential things we need to function - good rest and sleep, recuperation, and of course some diversity of experience in our lives.
Add to this the nourishment of the body in terms of exercise that ideally energises and refreshes us as opposed to wearing us out, and we’re all going to be well set in terms of basic foundations for resilience.
I understand that I’ve just outlined some basic common sense recommendations for health and wellbeing, but there isn’t any need to over complicate this with any further fluff.
The reality is that unless these foundations are well established, any amount of effort on developing mental strength or some other so called characteristic of resilience isn’t going to be sustainable in the long term for ideal function anyway. So it’s going to be a waste of time and effort. In my view, that is.
Despite the common sense nature of this, it is easy for these basics to go to pot in the melee of day-to-day life, especially if we’re regularly experiencing vast amounts of pressure.
For example, you’ve found yourself promoted into a new position or role. It’s at a senior level and there’s the normal pressure of deadlines, results, performance. You might also find yourself in one of the environments where they measure you by how late you stay at in the office too, whether or not this actually achieves anything! So, first you start putting in the hours, earlier starts, later finishes. Lunch times get squeezed and you find yourself grabbing a quick bite while you carry on working. Then the mornings get more pressurised, especially if you have early morning meetings or conference calls to other timezones. Breakfast gets skipped and you grab a bite on the hop. You begin to take your work home so that after dinner, you can check in with your emails, maybe finish off a document here or there. And so it goes.
We get squeezed and squeezed by the expectations of the organisation, getting left behind as a person. On top of this, you have less and less time to think and digest your experiences, ‘because there isn’t time’ and things have ‘got to be done now’ no time for navel gazing. You find you’re not being developed through a purposeful process so you’re not really learning anything much new, just dealing with the day-to-day stuff that gets thrown at you and maybe implementing a bit of strategy. This isn’t nourishing either - thinking time is more important for the psyche than we often think too.
So whilst these patterns are initially justifiable, they’re going to take their toll over time and, like or not, the perceived pressure leads to taking short cuts that undermine the very basis of a resilient system.
I’ve seen this and similar patterns all over the place. From call-centres to board rooms, to entrepreneurs and start-ups, even with elite athletes and sports team managers.
For me then, even coming from the psychological and learning perspective in coaching, the nurturing of resilience starts by appraising these wider patterns in the system rather than particular mental and/or emotional characteristics. It’s not profound but it is pretty effective for sustainable, healthy outcomes.
Part 2 will be available soon.