The danger of ignorance and apathy
There is a view that resilience cannot be learned. This is a dangerous and apathetic perspective. It needs a clear answer and evidence-based action.
Read this recent article from the New Zealand Herald.
Or perhaps a blunt perspective.
In both opinions, it is claimed that resilience cannot be learned. Further, rather than encouraging people to rise to the challenges of life, they suggest we should lower or remove the challenge. Given the explosion of interest in Resilience, it is really important to respond to this perspective effectively. We believe it could save a life. Or a business. Perhaps even improve human life on a large scale.
Clarity on what resilience means
Resilience is often limited to bounce and grit. The University of Pennsylvania definition has expanded to connection and creativity since 2003. Even if we stick with the negative definition of bounce, it is clear that with connection and creativity we bounce faster. The very same emotions, thoughts and actions that help us bounce will take us towards health, wellbeing and success. NIH Definition. APA Definition
Whether we seek to recover from serious adversity or to achieve greatness, we find the same set of attributes: the ability to demonstrate bounce, courage, connection and creativity. In approximate order of impact, here is short list:
- Strong relationships of respect, love and trust
- Impulse control and positivity
- Physical fitness, good sleep and nutrition
- Capacity to stay calm under pressure
- Ability to focus attention and be situation aware
- Ability to plan and execute effective solutions
Abundant evidence exists to demonstrate quite clearly that every one of the attributes can now be measured, learned and lead to improved outcomes. These changes are seen in physiological, emotional and cognitive hard end points such as heart rate variability or vagal tone, speed of emotional mastery, and cortical thickness and function. See references below.
Clarity on what learning is
Learning is simply a skill improvement that delivers a better outcome. There is no doubt that we can learn to restrain impulse. We can become better at resisting addictive substances, we can learn to stay calm in a conflict, we can learn to avoid devices before bed, and we can learn how to execute simple fitness routines.
We must respect the role of genetics, culture and early environment. See Behave by Robert Sapolsky for an excellent current analysis. Our modern view clearly demonstrates that practice trumps genes every time. See Peak by Anders Ericsson. Our basic human nature is to explore, learn, practice and perfect – Homo Exercens in the words of Anders Ericsson.
The very earliest work in Resilience (Kauai, 1955) showed that even in the most deprived environments, 1/3 of at-risk children rise to succeed (See Werner and Smith: (2001) Journeys from Childhood to Midlife. What these at-risk children do is to practice the attributes above. They have learned the practice of resilience. Some learn from a parent or caregiver, others from personal experience and others from peers.
In elite sport, we see coaches working very deliberately with athletes to acquire, master and apply these skills in the many different challenges that sport presents. Is it possible that our parents and teachers could learn some of these coaching skills and transfer them to young people.
Why Resilience Matters?
When we give up on the quest to learn resilience, we accept vulnerability, determinism and defeat. The rising incidence of mental illness amongst children precludes the option to sit back and wait for benefits. Yes, income inequality is strongly correlated with these challenges but they also occur in the most fortunate children. The suffering is huge – suicide, depression, anxiety, attention disorder…
We have a duty of care to continue to explore and understand the practices that help people overcome adversity and to strive for good lives. Does anything matter more? Look how coaching has improved to deliver the outstanding results we see in sport today. Athletes don’t settle for lower challenges. Nor should any of us.
Rather than surrendering to complexity, we can start with small things.
- If we can learn maths, we can learn emotion regulation and empathy.
- If we can learn to write, we can learn to exercise daily and secure a good night’s sleep.
- If we can learn to read, we can learn to breathe better and calm our physiology.
How the pessimists quoted above can say there is no point in teaching resilience skills at school is hard to comprehend. The future will be reading, writing, arithmetic and resilience. We may not have found the best way to support resilience learning in schools yet but it would be a mistake not to try.
Important reading to harden your resolve against defeatism. Resilience can be learned.
- Altruism, Matthieu Ricard, 2015
- Emotional styles of your Brain, Richard Davidson & Sharon Begley, 2012
- Peak, Anders Ericsson, 2016
- The Resilience Factor, Andrew Shatte & Karen Reivich, 2003
- Behave, Robert Sapolsky, 2017