Snapshot by Ama Marston
A mindset for transformative resilience.
Resilience has become the word of our time—search for it online and you get 216,000,000 results in Google alone. The term has become ubiquitous. Estée Lauder makes “resilience face crème.” Hanes makes “resilience pantyhose.” There’s “resilience” parenting, cities are now appointing Chief Resilience Officers and companies are hiring resilience specialists. And then there are the large numbers of disciplines drawing upon resilience; design and urban planning, climate change science and policy psychology, and business, to name but a few.
In one way or another they all point to the daily stresses, mounting pressures, and increasing global challenges we face. And yet the widespread use, and sometimes misuse, of the word along with some of its outdated origins, suggest that we need clarity and new thinking. For this reason, we need a resilience better suited to our turbulent times: transformative resilience, the ability to turn change, disruption, stresses and shocks into opportunities, new strengths, and innovation. Type Rs, those people, leaders, businesses, families, communities and even nations that create transformative resilience, are oriented towards forward motion and growth while acknowledging difficulties and sometimes even great losses that change us.
The word resilience originally comes from the 17th century and refers to the ability of wood to bend without breaking. Later in the 18th century, the word was used to describe the ability of building materials and metals to return to their former state after being bent.
It wasn’t until decades later in the 1960s that the study of resilience turned to humans. It began with researchers looking at children believed to be relatively unaffected and still able to thrive while living with mentally ill parents and negative socio-economic factors. Broader interest in the topic then expanded it to adults and popularized the notion of “bouncing back” from adversity; a notion that still prevails today.
Yet, decades, if not centuries later, a focus on recovery and returning to what was before will leave us ill-equipped in these rapidly changing and demanding times. If we limit our understanding of resilience to bouncing back we will be out of sync with our modern world. But perhaps more importantly, we will overlook the catalytic nature of adversity and challenges.
We’ve long seen this phenomenon in the natural world, where there are signs of growth and evolution from adversity. For instance, in healthy environments, fire is the mechanism by which many forests are repeatedly regenerated, according to NASA’s earth scientists. The lodgepole pine can’t release its seeds without the intense heat fires provide. And researchers increasingly find that, although it takes different forms, we as humans are also transformed by and grow under pressure. Researchers at the University at Buffalo looked at thousands of adults ranging in age from 18-101.1 They found that exposure to stressors both large and small was the key to cultivating resilience and allowing people to begin to flex their resilience muscle. Rather than bouncing back, people created new skills that they carried forward and applied in the face of a range of new challenges.
While the crises and challenges of the past were often readily identifiable, much of what tests us today is less localized or visible, in large part because of unprecedented and rapid globalization and the increased use of technologies that unify us across borders and create cultures of being accessible 24/7. But we are also bound together by challenges like climate change, growing inequality, and security threats that in many ways are forged by and in response to the increasingly transnational lifestyles that we lead, demanding that we find appropriate solutions together while also adapting to new realities.
As Leo Tolstoy once said: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Increasing our own abilities for transformative resilience brings those skills into our families, our leadership, our businesses and institutions, our communities, and even into how we approach challenges, both nationally and globally.
One of the key starting points is mindset. Our mindset is the filter through which we see everything, both as individuals and collectively. It comprises our assumptions, beliefs, and expectations, and it guides our actions. The Type R mindset provides the scaffolding for the questions we ask and how we frame situations, whether we are facing growing global challenges or shifting company cultures that may lead to less than ideal business practices and undermine wellbeing. It underpins the analysis we undertake and ultimately the projects, programs, and partnerships we develop as well as the lessons we draw from them. But, perhaps most importantly, a mindset oriented for transformative resilience creates a shared vocabulary that allows for dialogue, growth, and innovation.
Among the most important things we can use our growing Type R mindsets and skills for is reframing the challenges we face and cultivating hope. When hope is put into action it becomes purpose and needed change. People with a strong sense of purpose use their values as a compass to guide them through ups and downs and they have significantly better physical health according to multiple medical studies. Research also shows that 73% of leaders surveyed believe that purpose will successfully guide them through today’s growing disruption.2 And, organizations driven by a larger sense of purpose and values faired significantly better during the financial crisis.3
That said, we also have to ensure that we look at broader systems. In 2013, an interdisciplinary dialogue of experts across science, sociology, anthropology, medicine, and psychology at Yale found that a common theme across contexts was the need to look at an entire system to see what allows it to adapt to the disruptions that threaten its ability to function well and continue to develop.4 That’s true whether a system is contained within an individual, a business, a family, or a community.
We must not use resilience as a means to shift the weight of outdated or inequitable systems on to individuals or onto a single, narrow element of a given system. As with issues like climate change, we have to mitigate causes of unsustainable change as well as adapt to and thrive amidst our shifting circumstances. And, we must think of existing principles across disciplines as the companions to transformative resilience—these might include the “precautionary principle” applied in the sciences and the “do no harm” oath taken by medical professionals. And, then there’s the concept of continual progress and the right for each of us to participate in shaping the things that most impact our lives enshrined in the human rights agreements signed by the world’s nations decades ago that also now apply to and serve as useful guidance for companies.
There is more of a need for transformative resilience than ever—in ourselves, in our workplaces and leaders, and in the world around us. The challenges we face are great. And so too, are our resources and abilities for positive change and becoming more Type R.
1 - M.D. Seery and W.J. Quinton. “Understanding Resilience: From Negative Life Events to Everyday Stressors.” Advances in Experimental Psychology, Vol. 54 (2016): 181-245.
2 - EY Beacon Institute, “How can purpose reveal a path through disruption?” April 10, 2018, https://www.ey.com/en_us/purpose/how-can-purpose-reveal-a-path-through-disruption
3 - "Leaning into the Wind: Hardship, Stakeholder Relationships, and Organizational Resilience," Morela Hernandez, Megan Flohr Hess and Jared D. Harris. Academy of Management Proceedings 2013, No. 1, https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/ambpp.2013.16640abstract
4 - Steven M. Southwick et al., “Resilience Definitions, Theory, and Challenges: Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 5 (2014): 25338.