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The Time for Resilience is Now

posted 24 Oct 2010, 06:19 by Carol Conway

Amidst all the doom and gloom pre-budget speculation, I’ve been pondering on the concept of Resilience this week.  An attribute Ireland badly needs to demonstrate, and soon, as well as one that can serve all of us in our own lives.

Resilience is the key to sustained success and it is a measure not of how well we succeed but how well we bounce back from setbacks and failure.  And speaking of “bounce”, the book of that title by Matthew Syed on the science of success and how champions are made also makes some interesting points on resilience.

Syed is very persuasive in pulling together the evidence that excellence is achieved through purposeful practice and that even those we tend to regard as “natural geniuses” in their given field, have generally invested 10,000 hours by the time they achieve their greatness (even if they appear on the surface to be child prodigies, like Mozart).

In so doing, he makes this point; “The paradox of excellence is that it is built on the foundations of necessary failure”.  In other words, those who achieve excellence are those who have failed, learned from the failure, tried again, and again, and again…before ultimately achieving success.

Samuel Beckett captures a similar thought in the better known quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed.  Never mind. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I turns out that our capacity for resilience and our belief about the innate nature of talent (versus the belief that excellence is the result of effort) are closely linked.  Even better, once we understand the link, we have the power to choose which approach characterises our own lives.

Carol Dweck, who has researched and written on this topic extensively (her full perspective is best accessed through her book “Mindset – the new psychology of success”) suggests that the fundamental difference lies in a belief.  Those who accept the widely held views about talent as an inherent trait have what she terms a “fixed mindset”.  In other words, a belief that we have inherited capacity which is innately expressed and we are relatively powerless to change that.

In contrast those who accept the paradigm shift (promoted by writers like Gladwell and Syed and the research on 10,000 hours) towards excellence as the result of effort have a “growth mindset” and see humans as having unlimited potential which can be released through application, purposeful practice and hard work.  This perspective is hugely empowering and leaves the responsibility for success largely with the individual.

Just as I was pondering all this, I came across a corroborating perspective from a less likely, but equally fascinating, source.  “The Unthinkable – who survives when disaster strikes and why” by Amanda Ripley is a phenomenal book well worth reading and not nearly as dismal as the title might suggest.  Moreover, it gives us some fabulous insight into the traits of resilient people – as developed through research on those who survive disasters.

Individuals who demonstrated resilience under pressure it turns out, also tended to be high in these three traits:

  • Belief that they can influence their lives and events
  • Tendency to see purpose and meaning in life
  • Attitude that they can learn from both negative and positive experiences

So what leads to the world view that we have control?  What allows some of us to see the world as a place we can influence and to believe that our success depends on our hard work while others suffer through life with the belief that life happens to them and their ability to succeed is pre-ordained by genetically determined capacity?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, confidence is a key ingredient.  People with high self-worth rebound more easily and, interestingly have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  In this sense it seems that high self-esteem acts as a vaccine against stress.  The even better news is that everyone can build self-esteem through practice and experience. 

Another practical insight to take from the research is the importance of a sense of control over our lives.  Two of the things we can exert conscious control over, regardless of our external circumstances, are our thinking and our breathing.  Control of the breath is particularly interesting as it acts as a bridge to accessing our autonomic nervous system.  Breathing practices have been taught for thousands of years through yoga, meditation and other traditional practices.  In a more modern context, emergency responders are now being taught basic breathing techniques to counteract the evolutionary “fight or flight” response triggered by emergency situations which often impairs decision making at critical moments in disaster management.  In these difficult economic times, when we are constantly being threatened by imminent disaster and our bodies are prone to react to such fear with our own “fight or flight” response, we could all do to take a moment to breathe, literally! Breathe in counting to four, hold counting to two, breathe out counting to four, hold counting to two and repeat.  This simple practice (done regularly) gives us a sense of immediate control, enhances our breathing, releases our “relaxation response” (the evolutionary response to reverse the physiological impact of the better known “fight or flight” response) and also assists in calming our thinking.  The latter impact being an  expression of the simple truth that for the few moments we are internally counting, we cannot be continuing our internal monologue on how terrible life is!

So the lessons I extracted from my musings on resilience this week boil down to two things.  The first is the imperative to believe in myself and know that all things are possible if I’m prepared to put in the work and to get up, dust myself off and try again when (and it is when rather than if) things go wrong.  The second, and perhaps more fundamental, is to breathe.  Slowly, deliberately, 4, 2, 4, on a regular basis so that I begin to control my physiology rather than letting it control me.

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