Create life stories that empower resilience

The realest things in our lives are the stories we invent. We live with these stories, we remind ourselves of them, we perfect them. And, happily, if you don’t like the story you’re telling yourself, you can change it. – Seth Godin

Although our life story is based on actual events, it is also highly personal and subjective. The same life could be narrated many ways…. “Creating any kind of a story is a construction. It’s not just finding something that’s out there,” says Northwestern professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology. “Selves create stories, which in turn create selves.” —Kira Newman

Human beings use stories to make sense of and explain the world to themselves and others.

Most powerful among those stories are the ones we tell ourselves about our childhoods and significant life experiences.

At best, the stories we tell about the past are a partial truth. (If you are convinced that your truth is “the truth,” share your memories with others at a family event to see if they agree.)

Because we are active creators of our life stories, we can shape those stories in ways that empower or disempower us.

Resilient people create life stories which are both true and that are sources of hope, positive energy, and compassion for themselves and others.

Kira Newman explains it this way:

“Not only do stories tell us who we are, but they can also become resources we draw upon in times of difficulty: Recalling stories of strength or resilience helps us confront new challenges, reminding us of how we solved problems in the past. Telling stories can connect us with others, creating intimacy and strengthening relationships. The best stories provide meaning and purpose by linking seemingly random events and experiences into a progressive journey.”

Such stories, as Kira Newman points out, remind us of our strengths, our capacity to persevere in the face of adversity, and of the connections to others that have sustained us in difficult times.

Most of all, we can create and share stories that remind us of the overarching purpose and meaning of our lives.

Resilient people understand that when their stories no longer serve them, they can create new, kinder, and more empowering narratives to improve the quality of their lives and the lives of others.

While we cannot change the past, we can describe it in ways that help create a better world.

What do you think—can we shape our stories in authentic ways to better serves ourselves and others?

5 ways that resilience reveals itself

When we persist in situations in which it would be far easier to give up

When we care so deeply about something that it is more important than discomfort

When we are inspired by and learn from the lives of others, both people with whom we have personal contact and those we know only through their example

When we understand that a rich and satisfying life requires taking calculated risks and that we will learn important lessons from our inevitable mistakes that will support us in the future

When we take responsibility for the quality of our lives and the effects our actions have on others and on the future

What would you add to this list?

How adults can boost their resilience

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges. 

Scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. While it’s useful to build up resilience before a big or small crisis hits, there still are active steps you can take during and after a crisis to speed your emotional recovery. —Tara Parker-Pope

Given that resilience is an “emotional muscle” that can be strengthened at any time, and given that human beings can learn important skills throughout their lives, it is enabling to know that there are practical ways to boost our resilience, such as these suggested by Parker-Pope:

Practice Optimism… Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, ‘I’ll never recover from this.’ An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, ‘This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.’

“While it sounds trivial, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people really does help. Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School and Dr. Charney’s co-author, notes that optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious. His advice: ‘Hang out with optimistic people.’”

Rewrite Your Story…. Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. In expressive writing studies, college students taught to reframe their college struggles as a growth opportunity got better grades and were less likely to drop out. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better physiologically than those taught to ignore stress.

Don’t Personalize It. We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To bolster your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem and shift your focus to the next steps you should take.

Remember Your Comebacks. When times are tough, we often remind ourselves that other people — like war refugees or a friend with cancer — have it worse. While that may be true, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.”

Parker-Pope concludes: “The good news is that some of the qualities of middle age — a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences and concern for future generations — may give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience, said Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “There is a naturally learnable set of behaviors that contribute to resilience….”

What specific behavior, if consistently practiced, would strengthen your resilience?

The challenge of changing ourselves and influencing others

A quality shared by most resilient people is the ability to see the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

As a result, they understand that:

• Changing ourselves is hard, even when our health and lives may depend on it.

• Changing others is harder.

• Changing organizational culture and practices is even harder because it combines the difficulties of changing ourselves and others with the challenge of overcoming institutional inertia and active resistance.

In addition, most of us significantly underestimate what’s required to alter long-standing habits of mind and behavior in ourselves and others and to create organizational cultures of continuous improvement.

And, at the same time, we significantly overestimate the extent to which humans are rational and motivated to change because of evidence and logic.

That’s why reading a book, listening to an inspiring speaker, or attending a “research-based” workshop are almost always insufficient to produce long-term, meaningful change.

The essential elements of change

The most compelling explanations of what’s required to produce significant change are offered  by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life and by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Deutschman explains that people make significant and lasting changes by “relating,” “repeating,” and “reframing.”

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships with individuals and groups to inspire hope and provide support.

Repeat involves learning, practicing, and mastering new skills until they become habits.

And reframe means finding others ways to think about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts offer a sense of hopefulness that problems can be solved through a genuine sense of community that enables the acquisition of new habits.

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that our behavior is shaped by three forces—our intellect, our emotions, and the situations in which we find ourselves.

To explain their ideas the Heaths offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider:

The rider is our intellect. Although modest in size compared to the elephant, it plans and directs.

The elephant is emotion. It provides the energy that creates and sustains movement.

The path is the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. that either supports improved performance or hinders it. (For example, strong teamwork requires a “path” that includes regularly-scheduled meeting time, relevant data to make decisions and assess progress, and training in group skills.)

We promote change, the Heaths say, when we:

• create clarity of purpose and direction (influence the rider),

• engage people’s emotions (motivate the elephant), and

• create environments (shape the path) that enable rather than hinder the desired performance.

What, in your experience, are the essential elements of change in individuals and organizations?

I will be taking a sabbatical during the next few months to refresh and renew. Best wishes for an enjoyable summer (or winter if you happen to be Down Under).

There is no substitute for resilient leadership

Resilient people are often called upon to be leaders, a responsibility that both draws upon their resilience and cultivates it for future use.

Early in my career I did not understand the importance of leadership. Schools, I thought, would improve if teachers were simply given the tools to do their work and the freedom to use them.

But then I had an opportunity to closely observe a school whose teachers and parents were frustrated and dispirited. Students performed poorly, and everyone felt hopeless about the future.

Eventually a new principal came to the school. Over the next 3 years things got better. Staff and parent morale improved, as did teaching and student learning.

That principal eventually went on to another assignment, and the school’s new principal was more like the first one. Things spiraled downwards into a hopelessness that felt more profound because of the school’s rollercoaster journey.

Later on in my professional development work I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching and learning.

I enjoyed those conversations immensely except when teachers were angry and cynical.

Without exception, I observed that those teachers were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three.

My work came to focus on principals and teacher leaders because without their skillful leadership teacher professional learning and teamwork were unlikely to occur in ways that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

What is your experience—is it possible to continuously improve teaching and learning without skillful leadership?

How resilient people are different

In previous posts I’ve explored some of those differences, qualities such as intentionality, resourcefulness, and the motivating force of a few fundamental purposes and principles that inspire and guide them.

As I have thought more deeply about resilience I was reminded of the work by Jerry Sternin and others on “positive deviance.”

“Positive deviants are people whose behavior and practices produce solutions to problems that others in the group who have access to exactly the same resources have not been able to solve,” Sternin told me in a 2004 JSD interview. “We want to identify these people because they provide demonstrable evidence that solutions to the problem already exist within the community.”

Sternin and his wife, Monique, applied the concept of “positive deviance” to their life-saving work for Save the Children in the villages of Vietnam and to solving other seemingly intractable problems. (You can read more here.)

Positive deviants, I concluded in an earlier post, have one or more of the following habits which I think also apply to many resilient people:

1. Writing to gain clarity and to communicate;

2. “Counting” things to improve their performance (most things that count can be measured, even if only in rudimentary ways);

3. Reading widely in search of new ideas, perspectives, and inspiration;

4. Continuously seeking more effective and efficient ways to do things;

5. Engaging the support of others when challenged by stretching goals or demanding circumstances;

6. Persisting over many months and even years to achieve important goals because the values represented by those goals were so important;

7. Seeing things in unique ways that were in opposition to accepted wisdom or common practice; and

8. Assuming that important problems can be solved, and that working alone or in collaboration with others they would contribute to their solutions.

As you think about resilient people you have known, what behaviors or attributes would you add to this list?

Acting in spite of our fears

[I]n truth, fear is a useful thing. Once upon a time, fear was a signal to run from a lion or some other danger, and that was pretty useful. These days, we don’t usually have much physical danger (the lions have more to fear from us), but the same fear signals still happen, even when it’s trying to pursue our dreams or becoming vulnerable to other people. These days, the fears aren’t physical — they’re more about not being good enough.  —Leo Babauta

It’s not that resilient people are fearless.

Rather, they act in the face of the kinds of fears identified by Leo Babauta in a recent survey:

Fear of failure

Fear of being inadequate

Fear of rejection

Fear of not being prepared

Fear of being a fraud

Fear of ridicule

“You might notice,” Babauta concludes, “that they are all really the same fear. The fear of not being good enough.”

He suggests a new mental framework for viewing fear and a mindful approach to facing it.

“Just because fear is present, doesn’t mean we have to run,” Babuata writes. “In fact, we can practice acting mindfully even with fear in our bodies. The practice is to notice that there’s fear, and notice our habitual reaction. Stay with the fear, and notice how it feels as a physical sensation. Notice that it’s not so bad, that we can actually be OK in the middle of that physical sensation.”

What methods do you use to act in spite of your fear?


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