Building Resilience in a Hostile World: Survival, Adaptability, and Transformability are All Required for Growth.

“Change is the only constant in life.” – Heraclitus

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting and reshaping our lives in ways where uncertainty is becoming the new normal. Primary changes include the social and physical disconnection from others, the shifting lines between our professional and personal lives, and the changing nature of work coupled with longer life expectancy, which implies the need to master increasingly sophisticated skills over time. How we work, the importance of work in our lives, and even the meaning of work is changing. Exponential technological advances are driving much of this transformation, from artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to digital mobility and virtual collaboration. These drivers are likely to lead to heightened anxiety about ways to expand our skills to stay relevant, as well as the uncomfortable feeling of the ever-present threat of the unknown ahead.

Understanding the concept of resilience

The definition of resilience varies, and there are differing opinions as to its exact definition. "Resilience is the ability to withstand adversity, bounce back, and grow despite life's downturns," says Amit Sood, MD, former professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

How resilient are we as a society, as workers and as individuals? How skilled are we at embracing change and leveraging it as a foundation for growth and innovation?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one that is most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

When I think of resilience, I think of it as the ability of a system, whether it is a society, a community, a family, or an individual, to adapt to challenges that threaten its survival, functioning or development. This concept is grounded in natural science research and refers to how an ecosystem builds resilience in response to change to preserve the health and function of its habitats, organisms, and associated processes.

What we, humans, can learn from the resilience of ecosystems

Brian Walker et al. contend that the resilience of an ecosystem is " the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity...". They identify three essential and interrelated aspects of ecosystem resilience: persistence, adaptability, and transformability. These critical properties of ecosystem resilience to change are transferable to human resilience to change.

The notion that adaptation and transformation are essential to resilience may seem counterintuitive in that change is a prerequisite for persistence. Yet, this dual dynamic between phases of adaptation (i.e. gradual change of existing processes) and transformation (i.e. iterative introduction of new processes) is at the heart of ecosystem resilience.

In a nutshell, the concept of resilience focuses on three central aspects: 1) persistence, 2) adaptability and 3) transformability

1) Persistence: Survival

Forget about the survival of the strongest, fittest, fastest, toughest, or smartest. These are all valuable qualities, but survival and prosperity in an ever-changing environment requires many more skills, such as adaptability, and transformability.

2) Adaptability: from dissonance to consonance

The concept of adaptability was originally expressed in a 2011 Harvard Business Review entitled Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage.

Change is often perceived as negative because it disrupts our established expectations and routines - and challenges our need for control and security. The feeling of loss of control and the distress that follows can lead to cognitive dissonance, both in ourselves and in those around us. This term was coined by Leon Festinger in the 1950s to describe the discomfort people feel when their cognition and behavior are contradictory. An example from the pandemic is our reluctance to accept social distancing, though scientists found it effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19. The cognition "I want to see my family and friends" is dissonant with data suggesting that social gatherings may be unsafe.

Cognitive dissonance provides an opportunity to change our beliefs, values and behaviors. Correcting the dissonance that arises from the desire to preserve the status quo and reject reality, requires letting go of misconceptions or denial, thereby restoring “consonance”. Reclaiming coherence reduces the feelings of fragility and vulnerability that are the expected by-products of change.

Thus, adaptability involves shifting mindsets and behaviors, which are often the hardest changes to make. It requires the use of deliberate strategies to become proactive learners and develop alternative options for dealing with changing circumstances.

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

Proactive, self-motivated learning is premised on slowing down, creating mind space for curiosity, reflection, and focus.

Curiosity, reflection, and focus are the necessary ingredients to become proactive learners. To foster the expression and development of curiosity and open-mindedness, we must unleash our inner child. This means integrating curiosity into daily life, for example, by practicing the art of listening and asking questions instead of giving answers. At the same time, we need to create the space to focus more on the things that matter. In his book Deep Work, Dr. Cal Newport argues that our generation has developed a habit of constant distractions, which impacts our ability to work in a concentrated manner, a critical skill for the future.

The willingness to learn and unlearn are prerequisites for innovation. Just as important is the readiness to unlearn and disrupt the beliefs and assumptions that prevent us from challenging the status quo.

3) Transformability: reaching our goals

"Sustained adaptability" takes the concept of adaptability one step further. It calls for continuous learning and transformation, using crises as windows of opportunity to evolve and innovate.

To keep up with the pace and magnitude of constant change, we must engage in a continuous process of transformation. Not only must we continue to evolve to meet today's challenges, but also those of tomorrow - which can seem endless. As a result, we are experiencing growing "change fatigue" to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely exhausted.

Demonstrating resilience means practicing "sustained adaptability" and taking deliberate small acts of bravery towards our goals by using our fears as levers. We start with small steps and then gradually build the courage and confidence to take larger steps. From experience, we know that micro-bravery is one of the most effective ways to build resilience.

To conclude: navigating a hostile world is a challenge; resistance to change is highly ineffective and leads nowhere. Survival is a primary goal, but adaptation and self-transformation are essential to thrive in an unpredictable and disruptive environment.

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