04 NOVEMBER 2021
Re-examining personal resilience
by Dr Norman Chorn

Is bouncing back enough?

I would like to question the usefulness of “bouncing back” as a definition of personal resilience. The ability to roll with the punches and get back after being knocked assumes that things will eventually return to normal and that you can continue as you were.

But we know that the world is changing, particularly after the arrival of the Covid-19. The challenges will continue to shift, and we’ll need new approaches to cope and thrive.

I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s recording of “Slow Train Coming” from August 1979. While the recording signalled his conversion to Christianity, the lyrics signify a broader range of issues for me. Like a faraway train coming towards you at a slow pace, the present situation seems undisturbed and peaceful. But this is often a false sense of calm because once the train eventually arrives, all hell can break loose, and the peace and quiet are shattered.

I believe that many of us deal with the potential changes in our environment like a slow train coming. Because it travels at a slow rate and seems far away, the misconception is that we can adjust if and when things are disrupted. Unfortunately, this might be the very enemy of personal resilience – the belief that we can bounce back and adjust if and when the change occurs.

Is it only the paranoid that survive?

Andy Grove, the founder of Intel, suggested in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, that we need to be slightly paranoid to survive our ever-changing world. I don’t personally agree with this sentiment, but it is clear that we need to rethink our understanding of personal resilience.

We cannot simply look to absorb the shocks from our environment and then return to “normal” – we have to adjust to the shocks and learn from them so that we emerge stronger.

The notion of requisite variety suggests that if a complex system (that’s you!) wishes to survive, it should have the same amount of variety as the disruptions or disturbances in its external environment. Quite simply, this means that you need to have a repertoire of capabilities equal to the challenges presented by the environment in order to survive the shocks from this environment.

I, therefore, propose a new definition of personal resilience as ‘The ability to understand and prepare for the range of challenges posed by the future’.

Personal resilience is like building your muscles

Building the strength of your muscles prepares them for more arduous and challenging tasks you may wish to address in the future. To build muscle strength, it is necessary to first damage the muscle fibres through physical exertion (exercise). However, the damaging of the muscle fibres is not what strengthens the muscle.

It is the process of healing and building new fibres that increase muscle strength and size. The new muscle is not the same as the pre-trained one. The process of damaging and repairing has strengthened it. The muscle now has the ability to deal with a greater range of challenges and exertion.

In the same way, it may be that the appropriate description for personal resilience is preparation for new challenges ahead, before you get knocked over. We know that we can’t reliably predict the future, but we can develop the personal capabilities to cope and thrive across a range of futures.

So, how can we build our personal resilience ‘muscles’? Three strategies are suggested:

  • Explore alternative futures: Use prospection to imagine yourself in different futures.
  • Develop elastic thinking: Explore different mental models in non-judgemental ways.
  • Practise an anti-fragile lifestyle: Live with fluidity and learn from randomness.

While the framework is similar to the one I propose for organisational resilience, the application is specific to individuals in their quest for personal resilience.

Explore alternative futures

Prospection, or consciously thinking about the future, enhances our well-being, fosters compassion, and helps build productive relationships. This is because the same neural machinery used to remember the past is used in thinking about the future. And we know that the more we learn and experience, the better we are able to imagine the future.

However, something changes when we think about our future. Our future selves are strangers to us. The medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is involved in attaching personal and emotional information to our memory, so we remember past events in a very personal way. However, the further into the future you try to think of yourself, the more the MPFC powers down, and you become a stranger to yourself. So, you are generally unable to identify yourself in this future. It is for this reason that people struggle to make good choices today about events that might occur in the future, such as saving today to retire tomorrow.

One way to change this is to inject some emotion into your future thinking, so actively imagining that you are in this future and figuring out what you will do to cope. This is the basis of personal foresight, which gives you the ability to see the trend lines in your world, rather than just focusing on the headlines in the news.

So, how can you develop the foresight necessary to imagine your future?

  1. Recognise that there is always more than one future when you look ahead, particularly if uncertainty is part of the environment.
  2. Imagine yourself in these different futures. These are not simply things that could happen in the future; they are things that you may have to deal with in the future. Try to experience what it would be like in any of these futures.
  3. Do pre-mortems on your proposed plans or initiatives. Think of all the things that could go wrong with these plans and what you would do if these problems were to occur.
  4. Practise scenario thinking by using a few simple steps:
    • Identify the major uncertainties in the future you are exploring.
    • Develop a series of alternative futures if these uncertainties were to play out.
    • Place yourself in each of these alternative futures and figure out what capabilities you would need to thrive in each of these different futures. These become some of the capabilities you can begin working on now.

Develop elastic thinking

Elastic thinking – as determined by Mlodinow – is the ability of the brain to make (sometimes) random connections and associations without the direction of the brain’s executive function. In other words, without a specific focus on a task or analytical process.

Our understanding of complex systems suggests that this is the approach best suited to address complex or wicked problems or those that are unstructured and do not have ‘best practise’ solutions. In these situations, innovative and novel approaches are required, and this is where the brain explores its vast memory of ideas, experiences and learnings to find new associations.

Along with reward dependence, harm avoidance, and persistence, neophilia – the attraction and exploration of novelty – is considered one of the four basic instincts in humans. It is important to distinguish this thinking from ‘frozen thinking’ – the expert’s mindset that uses a fixed mental model (or process) to address challenges and solve problems.

A key enabler of elastic thinking is allowing the brain to be relaxed and restful (the brain’s default network). In essence, this means not being engaged and highly focused on an analytical task where you require logic and deductive thinking.

How do you develop elastic thinking to build your resilience muscle?

  • Adopt a ‘beginner's mind’ by asking naive questions as if you have no knowledge or expertise in the subject.
  • Introduce discord to your life by pursuing ideas, relationships, and experiences that challenge your views and beliefs.
  • Seek a diversity of opinions for the questions you have.
  • Generate lots of ideas without being bothered that many of them may not work.
  • Limit the constant stimulus of screens and the continual distraction they present.
  • Practise liminality, which is the gap that exists between a mental model you have discarded based on new evidence, and the next model you seek to adopt. This gap can be used to explore a range of alternatives before settling on a new approach.
  • Relax when you notice yourself becoming overly analytical.

Practise an anti-fragile lifestyle

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of anti-fragile is the concept that sits behind all things that have endured and changed with time. Phenomena such as technological innovation, good cities, and bacterial resistance all display the properties of anti-fragility. Indeed, as Taleb points out, anti-fragility is the ingredient that distinguishes living things from the dead.

Anti-fragile is beyond robust or the traditional concepts of resilience. While these things break or get knocked over from a shock, anti-fragile systems learn from these disturbances and thrive through adaptation and innovation.

Important to note that randomness, volatility, and uncertainty are inherent characteristics of anti-fragile. And so, the goal of anti-fragility is to eliminate the fragility in things caused by disruption and external shocks. Thus, anti-fragility allows the building of things that can live and benefit from disruption. Concomitantly, we ‘fragilise’ a system if we attempt to suppress this randomness and volatility.

How do you build an anti-fragile lifestyle?

  • Build redundancies into your life by diversifying sources of income, having more than one client, and developing skills that can be used to sustain your lifestyle.
  • Avoid long-term commitments where possible by renting (instead of buying) and adopt a minimalist lifestyle by not surrounding yourself with lots of unnecessary possessions.
  • Follow simple rules that have stood the test of time. Eliminate those habits/rules that are bad for you instead of trying to find new ones that offer a ‘silver bullet’ solution.
  • Don’t attempt to suppress randomness, but instead, deliberately inject short bursts of stress such as exercise, short cold showers, and trying new experiences. These build the muscle of resilience.
  • Play a long game instead of simply trying to optimise your present lifestyle.
  • Take advice only from those who have ‘skin in the game’.

Building your personal resilience

The process of building personal resilience is a continuous endeavour – an ongoing process of monitoring external conditions, exploring new ideas, and simplifying your life. There are many trade-offs to be made; it could mean that we have to trade off some of our comfortable and convenient practises for those that are more unnatural and uncomfortable.

We may have to spend more time in quiet reflection, relinquishing some of the control we are used to exercising, showing some vulnerability, and literally ‘steal time from comfort’ to explore new possibilities and develop new capabilities. In time, these behaviours may well become the norm, and we will find ourselves on the path to build our own personal resilience to deal with future shocks and disruptions.

Dr. Norman Chorn, an international member of faculty at GIBS, is a strategist and organisation development practitioner with the BrainLink Group. He uses principles of neuroscience to address the challenges of developing strategy in a complex and uncertain environment. His particular areas of focus are strategic thinking in conditions of uncertainty, scenario planning and organisation development.



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