Friday, April 8, 2016

The Human Toolbar: Resilience


“It’s not that I’m so smart.  It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” 

-- Albert Einstein

“Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.  It is the capacity to rebound after a disturbance or interruption.”

-- Resilience Design Institute, 2016

There is some very good news about talent and native ability.  It applies directly to students just entering college.  On the other hand, it’s a work order that’s open-ended--across your lifetime.  Welcome to your new best secret weapon:  Resilience.

Talent, ability, and achievement receive plenty of attention and reward.  And these do mark the high points on the heroic chart—especially for athletics, the arts, science and technology, business innovation, and academics.  Success is visible, dramatic, and high-profile.  One of the things human beings most love witnessing is virtuoso performance of any kind.

But the backstory to talent and great performance (virtuosity) is far more complex, and largely invisible. A lifetime of thinking and practice is at the root of achievement, tens of thousands of hours of work behind the scenes of every “effortless” career.  This ability to withstand, be tough, and show ego strength on a consistent basis is the essence of success--better even than brains, in fact. Many people, but probably not a majority, have developed these skills in various concentrations.

Motivational factors matter more than cognitive ability for student performance.  Mindsets and self-regulation drive motivation.  Intelligent persistence pays off over brilliance—innate ability.  While brilliance is facile, even glamorous, trudging through a field of reading, writing, experiments, and ever more thinking about it all—it takes serious tenacity to achieve the long-range, big goals like college, professional school, a book, a relationship, a career.  Perseverance is essential to the realization of every creative idea.  As Carol Dweck proposes in her high-concept book Mindset, we are all in the process of becoming—virtually no one ever has it made.    

Resilience is increasingly recognized not as a personal trait but a learned skill for frustration tolerance and living with stress.  How we respond to stress of all kinds is at the core of rebounding from negative thoughts and behavior.  New research in brain science can train people to build and strengthen connections that avoid the fear and disappointment circuits that are so easily self-reinforcing and can take over.  Southwick and Charney's book Resilience is an excellent overview of research done and now in progress. 

Resilience is probably the core human skill set because it allowed us to evolve as far as we have as highly social (and therefore also highly conflicted) animals.  Resilience is individual and keyed to our personal stress limits and the rewards needed to stay engaged.  Several factors seem to be involved for successful resilience practitioners:  facing down fear (getting out of denial); strong social networks with people who "have our back"; regular exercise to defuse our heavy mental and emotional loads; and mindfulness, including meditation.  Dennis Charney says, “There’s not one prescription that works…You have to find what works for you” (Time, June 1, 2015, p. 40).  But the core story here is the human genius for converting pain into growth.

We are researching this promising area for colleges looking for ways to coach students at all levels to survive the rigors of academic achievement.  Such coaching can counter the gamut of school hazards from freshman dropouts to low or slow graduation rates, even extending to Ph.D. dropouts--all expensive derailments of time, self-esteem, and fees.

The dynamics of human evolution, and the history of civilization (the “career of culture”) depend less on invention and innovation and far more on practice over time to create culture.  As humans we are constantly “practicing” the art of our humanity – a complex and formidable mix of intuition, rules, brainpower, sociability, and imagination.  This collective endeavor as culture-building calls for these, of course.  But also fortitude against discouragement, demotivation, and pessimism: the source of solo and collective depression (and the worldwide disengagement in the workplace now widely reported and discussed).

In the 1950s, Emmy Werner’s study of 700 vulnerable children in Kauai found that good survival of poor family conditions came from tight-knit community, stable role models, and a strong belief in one’s abilities to solve problems.  The researchers discovered that around a third had the resilience quality.  Other studies focus on Special Forces, victims of floods, fires, tsunamis, prisons of war, and survivors of other such horrific tragedies.  “It seems to us that there is enormous untapped capacity of the human brain,” notes Charney.  How we respond to stress is the heart of resilience: the ability to turn off the stress response and return to a useful emotional baseline.  This talent to return to normal can combat the ravages of disappointment, fear, rejection, loneliness, failure, and anxiety and guilt about the future and past.  Frustration tolerance, which can be learned and practiced, turns off our natural fear circuit, which otherwise leads to the repeat cycle of depression and hopelessness. 

Scientists are looking closely at the psychology of courage and perseverance—and engagement in general--in the form of resilience, which is being considered over innate ability as the key trait needed for lasting growth and learning.

Sustained focus over time is difficult for the human brain.  Across the extended time frames of a college education, a graduate or professional degree, and careers, continued focus is especially challenging.  And with our prolonged age span into the 80s and 90s, resilience will become even more in demand to face illness and infirmity, financial downtowns, and finding purpose ranging out beyond work and family responsibilities and the vitality of youth.

Even beyond mental and physical gifts, resilience confers the necessary toughness and ego strength to keep moving in the face of obstacles and setbacks, including our own built-in aversion across the range of natural discomfort, disappointment, and the disorientation of uncertainty.  It might be our first and last secret weapon. Best of all, it’s not something you are born with, it’s something you can learn.

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