If Surprises Are the New Normal, Then Resilience Is the New Skill

In yesterday’s blog, Harvard’s Rosabeth Kanter summarizes her five lessons from 2010 worth repeating, beginning with the recognition that surprise and change are the new normal.  That being so, then resilience for individuals is the new skill.  Simply put, resilience is the ability to bounce back successfully when facing stressful or even traumatic experiences.

Experience suggests that most of us are not very reliable at predicting how we’ll behave when facing difficult situations. That may mean the loss of a child, a spouse or a job, or in my case the loss of my wife to Alzheimer’s and the subsequent downsizing from a large home to an apartment.  Reflecting on my two recent traumas, I can tell you now that I should have multiplied my expectations by 8 to 10.  My training in stress management didn’t improve my predictive ability, although it was a great help in managing much of the stress.

Many of us have faced or will face the question posed by Benedict Carey: Do I have the right stuff?  Or, is this sinkhole simply too deep?

There is a long history of the study of resilience, but two studies are of special value for facing a volatile economy that that continues to affect many of us in very personal ways.  A recent lifetime resilience study by Seery, Holman and Silver finds that our success at resilience is not a matter of personality, genes or even the nature of our stresses and traumas.  Instead, as Dr. Silver finds: Each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities, about their support networks–to learn who their real friends are.  That kind of learning, we think, is extremely valuable for subsequent coping.

But there’s a caveat: Frequency makes a difference.  You can have too much stress, and go under.  Or, you can have too little experience with stress and trauma and then be hit, unprepared, by a knock-out blow.  I’ve found numerous settings in which highly capable business people have sailed through top schools without the slightest perceived difficulty, and then fumbled badly.  So badly that some never recovered from their first major job or family stress.  Dr. Seery said that the people in the study who recalled zero or one negative event were actually worse off than those with a handful of adverse events.

In short, the people in the middle who had successfully faced two to six major stresses throughout their life showed the greatest resilience.  Because they neither avoided nor were inundated by stress, they were able to learn how to successfully cope with their traumas.

The second study, which I believe is more valuable, found that the source in overcoming hardship and adversity is not a matter of individual toughness.  Rather, it is an individual’s relationships.  Through them resilience can be strengthened.  The study reported by Linda Hartling of Wellesley College showed that the focus on resilience development will need to be on growth-fostering relationships.

In sum, when faced with difficult situations, reframe them as opportunities to learn and grow, and keep building those quality relationships.

12 Responses to If Surprises Are the New Normal, Then Resilience Is the New Skill

  1. Donna Basden Akins January 11, 2011 at 8:00 am #

    AMEN! Our nonprofit organization got hit hard with heaping helping amounts of adversity this past year. While traumatic and nothing we want to repeat, we are growing stronger, improving the quality of supports we offer people and proving you can’t keep a good organization down. Why? Because we are surrounded by employees and board members capable of handling the adversity and GROWING from the challenges and introspection that resulted.

    Thanks for offering scientific explanation for our continuing experiences!

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