An Olympian Shares the Five Steps to Developing Resilience

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Olympian Bonnie St. John shares her insights on resilience.

Microresilience

Bonnie St. John overcame poverty and losing a limb to become the first African American to win a medal in skiing at the Winter Paralympics. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, the Rhodes Scholar talks about developing resilience in her new book co-authored with Allen P. Haines, Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, and Energy. She says resilience does not result only after major efforts, like rebuilding after a hurricane, but also in the practice of tiny moments of resilience — small adjustments in daily routines, thought patterns, nutrition, activity and others.

On the Knowledge@Wharton Show, which airs on Sirius XM channel 111, St. John spoke about her remarkable life, how she developed resilience and the five steps needed to get there.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.    

Knowledge@Wharton: We should start with your story. You were around age five when you lost a leg?

Bonnie St. John: The growth was stunted in my leg when I was born, so I had braces. But they amputated it when I was five, and I got a new artificial leg and had to learn to walk again. But becoming an international athlete was not a natural trajectory from there.

Knowledge@Wharton: Obviously, the Paralympics has grown a lot over the last 20 years; it is now a major event. How big was Paralympics back then, and what were some of the challenges that you had to overcome to become that level of an athlete?

St. John: Well, not only did I lose my leg and then become an athlete, but I grew up in San Diego and became a skier.

Knowledge@Wharton: Those two do not go together!

St. John: Yes, there was no snow, and I am black. I am actually the first African American to win a medal in a Winter Olympics. So there was no sitting in San Diego thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to be the black ski racer.” What I say the funniest part is, my family did not have any money. My mom was a single mom on a schoolteacher’s salary. We did not have money left at the end of the month — we had month left at the end of the money, and I mean that literally. It is one thing to go skiing with one leg, but it is really hard to go skiing with no money.

“I’m actually the first African American to win a medal in a Winter Olympics.”

Knowledge@Wharton: As you moved through your career, working for various companies, I would expect that some of what you wrote in this book was kind of percolating along the way.

St. John: Oh, absolutely. Resilience is very personal for me. We are talking about mental resilience to imagine new things, physical resilience to learn how to walk — never mind become an athlete — and even emotional or spiritual resilience.

I talk in one of my other books about being abused as a child. I was sexually abused from the age of two to the age of seven. You might think, “Well, that is going to affect your relationships.” But it really affects everything. It affects your ability to network with people, to connect, to have self-esteem. So I really had to be emotional in powerful ways on all different levels. Some of what I personally use and some of the research that I did is definitely in this book.

… People ask me, “How can I be resilient like you?” So we really scoured the literature to find the best things that would help people to be resilient, across neuroscience and positive psychology — which we have University of Pennsylvania to thank for — and physiology and different areas.

The book is really a combination of things that powerfully helped me, and then we did the research to find additional tools and put the whole package together. We have been working with people since 2011, putting them through this program, and we’ve seen really powerful results. This is tested, research-based as well as personal.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re also approaching this, not from the “macro level,” which is a buzz phrase that a lot of people use these days, but more working upward from the micro level.

St. John: We coined the term “micro-resilience.” And you are right: When you look at resilience research out there — beyond what we are doing – it is always about the big things: rebuilding a town after a hurricane or rebuilding your life after a divorce. It is really big, and then you go, “Gosh, resilience is really hard!”

But if you define [resilience] as small [steps to take] — “How can I be more resilient in the next hour?” — then it is very doable. Also, when you think about your audience and who is listening to this channel, they are people who are competitive, people who are in business, entrepreneurs. What matters to them is not just rebuilding after a crisis, but “How can I be more competitive?” That is really what micro-resilience, and the research it came out of, is about: how to get that competitive edge.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have put together five ideas, basically, that are the philosophies to think this way.

St. John: We came up with research-based tools to help you get that extra edge, and we curated them into five categories. There are things that help get more resilience for your brain, which we call “refocus.” Then there’s “reset,” which is about not getting so triggered and hijacked by things that set off our emotions, our fight-or-flight responses, our stress responses. There’s a whole physiological response that goes with those. It is very draining, and frankly counterproductive. So, there are tools to mitigate that response.

“It’s like an upgrade to your human operating system.”

Under the category “reframe” are tools to strengthen your muscles towards the positive, because we are not naturally endowed with that, so it’s strengthening that.

Then there is “refresh,” which involves really simple stuff about your metabolism — just things you can do to make sure you’re not being sabotaged by your metabolism.

And finally, “renew” involves tapping into purpose. You know, entrepreneurs are so purposeful. We have worked with a thousand nurses at the end of last year — very purposeful people. But you still need to figure out, how do you use your sense of purpose as a fuel tank? How can I go at 3 p.m. and get fuel out of my purpose? That is what we cover in that section.

Knowledge@Wharton: I wanted to talk about the “reset” part for a second. These days, it feels like there are more instances of things that potentially can set people off, trigger those alarms. It feels like it is far worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

St. John: I agree. … Our wiring as human beings — the out-of-the-box wiring we arrive with — is to be very reactive to the negative, to anything that appears as a threat. Even the possibility — even if it is not a reality, and it never happens — we react to the possibility that it might happen. It triggers our cortisol, our adrenaline, and it is exhausting. It also literally narrows your vision

… We make more mistakes when we are in that mode. We are less likely to collaborate. We have less access to our prefrontal cortex, to our higher-order thinking. It is the opposite of the way we need to solve problems today, so when we are having that kind of a physiological reaction, we are undermining our ability to be our best, to show up with our best performance.

So it is important to learn to rewire that, and there are simple things that can be done. There are smells that cut through that physiological reaction that you can use — like cinnamon and vanilla, simple things. There is research on labeling — just how we label what is happening to us matters. Matt Lieberman out of UCLA did the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans to show that you can reduce those negative reactions that way.

There are a number of simple, proven things that we can do, and to me, it is like getting an upgrade to your human operating system.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does the “reset” part roll right into the “reframe” part, in your view? Because if you can lean towards the positive more so than not, you are taking away some of the things that trigger those alarms.

St. John: That is actually true. Barbara Fredrickson (psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) did some research that showed that if you can spiral to the positive, you actually crowd out the negative. It is almost like we don’t have the resources to do both at the same time. So if you can push yourself into the positive, you could stop some of that negative spiral.

“The idea of doing these small recoveries along the way wasn’t natural to me. I had to rewire my own habits to do it, but it lets me play my A-game more.”

Yes, there are things we could do to stop the negative spiral, and there are things we can do to strengthen the positive. Again, there is so much good research on what happens if you can strengthen the positivity muscles, for yourself and the people around you — better teamwork, people are better able to receive feedback, better generation of ideas. It also correlates with higher incomes.

It seems so fluffy, like, “Oh, let’s be positive,” but if you look at the research on what the benefits of that are, [you would be convinced. It includes some] great work out of the University of Michigan — Kim Cameron’s work on how this plays out in organizations. I think all of your listeners care that it is not just, “Hey, I am going to say nice things to people today.” It is, “How does this help me run my business better?”

Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of our being able to use our body as a way to initiate a mental “refresh,” do you feel like there is a greater understanding about how that is such a key component to resilience now?

St. John: Yes. And whether you are an entrepreneur, a businessperson or a stay-at-home mom, working from sunup to sundown — if you are trying to get a little bit more out of your day and be able to do it without being wiped out by it and destroyed, if you want to be able to get through with more grace and ease — all these little techniques give you an edge.

… A lot of things that we do on a day-to-day basis are not working. Our out-of-the-box wiring was designed for one thing, but the challenges we are dealing with in today’s world are different. If we can use these techniques to rewire how we show up, it just works better. People who have gone through this program say, “Wow, you are not trying to change me or stop me from working long hours or make me a different person, you are just making me the best person I can be.”

Knowledge@Wharton: I would think the part about refreshing your body would probably be the one that came most naturally to you because of your background as an athlete.

St. John: You know what is funny? You say you would expect it “came naturally” to me. I was with [Harvard professor] Amy Cuddy [recently], doing a talk. We were comparing our books on a big Facebook Live session, and we both said, “You know, you write the book that you need to learn.” I did not write this because it comes naturally to me. I am the classic Type A — drive yourself until you drop and fall over, and then say, “See how tough I am?”

The idea of doing these small recoveries along the way was not natural to me. I had to rewire my own habits to do it, but it lets me play my A-game more. This came out of the research on tennis players. The winningest tennis players in international matches do these kinds of small recoveries along the way, and that was what inspired us. That research inspired us to ask, “How can the rest of us do what world class athletes do?”

Knowledge@Wharton: Type-A individuals need to recognize that you need to be able to give yourself a break.

St. John: Yes. I like to call it like type A-plus. We’re not telling you to throttle back or do yoga for two hours, but these small adjustments actually help make your A-game better.

There was one woman that went through the program. She was a globetrotting executive. She was in Zurich and Paris, and working a million hours a week. She did the program because she was not getting good 360s, and she wanted to be a better leader. She had tried other things, but this really made a difference. But the side effect? She started dating. She hadn’t dated in four years. So it brings you to a shift in better energy for your life, as well as your work.

Knowledge@Wharton: How are you on multitasking?

St. John: Well, in the “Refocus: Using our Brain Better” technique, we talk about that. Probably as many of your listeners know, the research on multitasking shows that it actually slows you down. It takes four times longer to do things when you are multitasking. It is like losing a night of sleep or lowering your I.Q.

It is fine if you are doing something that does not require creativity, accuracy or quality. If you want to fold laundry while you are watching TV, go for it. But when you want to do something with quality, it is going to impact you in a really negative way. We talk about ‘zones,’ about carving out zones, rather than saying “Just don’t multitask.” You are going to spend a lot of your life multitasking. But if you can carve out zones where you are able to focus, people say it is like having more time, because you can get things done faster.

Some people can carve out three zones a day. Some people can only carve out three zones a week. So it depends. But using that as a technique to say, “I’m going to do this,” and communicating to the people around you that this is what you are doing, allows you to increase your focus.

Knowledge@Wharton: The other piece to this, I think, is that it runs all the way from the C-suite on down. Now, more than ever, it feels like people are just busier in general.

St. John: That is one of the key motivators of why I wrote Micro-Resilience. The speed of life keeps increasing. … [But] there is a balance [that needs to be achieved] between recovery and action. And if action keeps speeding up, and we do not have time for the recovery or it gets out of balance, we get burned out.

What micro-resilience does is speed up recovery, so we can do recovery in small bits in an intentional way, in a research-proven way. It is intentional, it is focused, it is quicker. We can actually speed up the timing of recovery and help bring your life back into balance.

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