You don’t need more resilience. You need friends. And money.

By Sarah Green Carmichael

Resilience has become big business.

Airport bookstores bristle with paperbacks explaining “why some flourish while others fold” or promising to help you develop “unbeatable” levels of “mental toughness”. TED talks, podcasts and social media posts offer the three (or five) traits of resilient people, from optimism to grit to a growth mindset.

The self-help industry is estimated to be worth $20 billion a year worldwide.
The self-help industry is estimated to be worth $20 billion a year worldwide.Credit: Washington Post

As the management world has embraced the reality that any success is made up of numerous failures, a booming market has emerged for advice on how to bounce back, often with insights culled from elite military forces or extreme athletes.

I should know; over my nearly 20 years in the world of management thinking, I’ve edited and interviewed scores of such influencers. But I’ve become uncomfortable with two false impressions left by these well-intentioned advice givers: first, that resilience is rare; and second, that it almost entirely stems from within. Neither is true.

Most people recover from what life throws at them, even after experiencing horrific events such as mass shootings or natural disasters, explains George Bonanno, author of The End of Trauma and a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. After a traumatic event, a solid two-thirds of them will return to their baseline level of wellbeing – many surprisingly quickly.

What’s more, the emphasis on resilience through mental toughness fails to recognise the vital importance of external resources, from friends to family to money, in easing the way through difficult situations, explains Kimberley T. Johnson, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Utah.

Sometimes no amount of personal stamina is a sufficient replacement for outside help — whether in the form of practical assistance, emotional support or structural change.

Try this thought experiment: imagine you recently moved to a new city for a job. Your new CEO is impossibly demanding. The board is rife with clashing egos. Everything is more expensive, leaving you feeling cash-strapped despite the promotion; stock options don’t pay tuition bills. You’re now living far away from everyone you know. When small problems crop up – an angry client or sick kid – they feel huge.

Now consider how different this situation would feel in a cheaper city with friends and family living nearby. Your new job would still create stress, but you’d have the wind at your back, with plenty of practical and emotional support. The lower cost of living would make it easy to paper over the stresses and minor emergencies of daily life. Small problems would stay small.

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In each scenario, you’re the same person with the same inner traits – the same level of optimism or grit. But in the second situation, you’re a lot more resilient thanks to external resources. Sometimes no amount of personal stamina is a sufficient replacement for outside help – whether in the form of practical assistance, emotional support or structural change.

Many business gurus selling personal resilience thus offer only half a toolbox, suggesting tactics that at best reflect coping mechanisms and at worst amount to retail therapy – a scented candle or a spa day. Sometimes such get-through-the-hard-times strategies are helpful, but in the long run, a more radical change may be needed; a new job with less intense hours, for example. You’ll rarely get that kind of advice from the influencers hoping to sell you something via an affiliate link.

Johnson’s interest in resilience stems from her area of study, which includes how women recover from injuries suffered during birth. Some birth injuries can require a lifetime of modifications. She cautioned against narrowly defining resilience as “bouncing back” – returning to exactly who you were before – rather than on adaptation to one’s new reality.

And Bonanno says that despite what thought leaders preach, there aren’t a handful of traits or behaviours that lead to resilience; on the contrary, there are many. Oft-suggested practices such as meditation and journaling might work for some; for others, it might be more effective to keep busy or even play video games, says Bonanno.

As for deeper changes, business self-help authors – who often make their real money not from selling books, but from paid speaking and consulting gigs at large companies – aren’t about to tell you to quit your draining job and take a (perhaps lower-paid) role at a less-demanding organisation.

Nor do most of them suggest policy changes that contribute to a more resilient workforce – such as paid sick days, parental leave or flexible staffing models – that cost companies money. It’s safer for their business model to keep emphasising inner strength. And maybe, too, that message plays well with an audience that hates to admit there can be trade-offs.

But overall, too much career advice gives the impression that if we’re struggling, we just need to dig deeper. We should be wary of that message. It’s only half the story.

Bloomberg

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