The Chess Moves of the Resilience Game

One day my wife Lea Ann said to me “nothing ever stops you.”

She clearly did not mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me.

I grew up as an only child with a violent alcoholic step father and an alcoholic, often bed ridden, and suicidal mother, so I spent my teenage years getting high, stealing cars, and burglarizing joints.

By the time I was 17 I had been arrested 24 times and sent to reform school 5 times. To avoid prison I dropped out of high school, joined the Navy. After discharge I obtained my GED and managed to get into a community college.

With no career direction I took a series of vocational interest tests which said I should be a doctor! Despite my complete lack of confidence that I could actually get into medical school I decided to go for it; so I worked my ass off and amazingly I got into medical school, and ultimately became a successful academic thoracic surgeon. The American Dream.

One day between cases I get a call from University of Minnesota Regents Professor Ann Masten, a world famous resilience expert. She heard about my story and wanted to meet me. She came over to my office and after we sat down at the conference table and exchanged the usual “nice to meet you’s” and she asked me how I “did it?”

I told her what I had always told every one – I just worked my ass off and didn’t let anything stop me. Simple.

Dr. Masten gave me a “yeah right” smile and proceeded to explain the concept of resilience and how I displayed the typical behaviors of highly resilient people.

Until that day I was not only completely unaware of the mountain of research into resilience but I was also unaware of the fact that I have a strong innate tendency to be resilient when the shit hits the fan in my life. Unfortunately, I also learned that not everyone is naturally so resilient. But those hidden resilience skills that I was so unaware of can absolutely be trained and developed, in everyone.

With everything going on in this aching world of ours, I thought it might be useful to share 5 stories that illustrate ways that we can be both more resilient right now and how we can train and bulk up our resilience muscles for the marathon of life. For further reading I recommend the Harvard Business Review ebooks Emotional Intelligence Collection.

Story #1: Training for Disaster on 9/11.

When the first plane hit the North tower of the world trade center on 9/11, no one knew that there was only 15 minutes until a second plane would fly into the south tower.

On that fateful day, the investment firm Morgan Stanley was the largest tenant of the WTC with 2700 employees on 31 floors of the south tower. Back in 1993 when the world trade center was attacked the first time, Morgan Stanley decided to really prepare for another attack. So they hired decorated Viet Nam veteran Rick Rescorla to institute a program of military like training and drills for their employees.

When the second plane hit the south tower, all but 7 of the 2,700 employees had been evacuated and dispersed to 3 designated recovery sites. In less than 15 minutes. Only 7 morgan stanley employees died that day.

This kind of resilience training for life’s inevitable setbacks and disasters, both professional and personal, is also possible with the habits of the Resilience Bank Account, a set of 8 habits that, if practiced regularly, build one’s physical and mental wellbeing and resilience in a compound upward spiral.

The first three habits, good nutrition, 7-8 hours of sleep, and regular exercise are crucial to keep the physical plant in top shape and to give our cognitive and emotional ships the reserves to handle rough waters.

The other four habits are meditation for presence and focus, self-compassion for rapid emotional recovery and learning, gratitude for proper perspective, and meaningful connection with others for support and realistic guidance.

Picture yourself for a moment as a patient being wheeled into the operating room for a major operation. You would want a great operative team, right? You would want the anesthesiologist, scrub tech, nurses, and the surgeon to work together to create a milieu to make your operation hum and, if a major problem did occur, the ability to handle the complication smoothly.

I view the habits of meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, and connection as our personal mental operative team. They work together, synergistically, to make everyday life hum, and when the inevitable complications of life arise, they make the difference in how smoothly and successfully those complications are handled, both for you, and for other people in your orbit.

Story #2: Face the dragon in the cave. Reality.

While the Morgan Stanley employees were evacuating the south tower, other firms were telling their employees to remain calm and that everything was ok. That false optimism, though comforting, cost lives.

Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for 8 years. After his release he was asked by Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, who didn’t make it out of the camps. Stockdale said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas. And then they said we’d be out by Easter and then out by Fourth of July and out by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again.’ ‘You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.”

The Stockdale Paradox – have faith, but confront reality – is best understood from Stockdale’s own words: “you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Reality is the dragon in the cave and resilient people face the reality head on, no matter how much fire the son of a bitch is breathing. They don’t use denial or false optimism as an emotional coping mechanism.

The formula that describes this principle is Pain X Resistance = Suffering. Resisting physical or emotional pain in the form of complaining, being a victim, denial, unjustified optimism, avoidance with alcohol or drugs always creates unnecessary suffering.

But I take it a step further. Not only do you have to face reality, and not resist it, but you have to embrace it, despite the pain. I keep in mind the mantra that Jocko Willink, an decorated ex Navy Seal uses: Problem? Good. It is a chance to learn, a chance to grow, a chance to get better, but only if you can embrace it as an opportunity.

I don’t know when this damn pandemic is going to end, but I do have absolute faith that it will and that we will ultimately prevail. I also have faith that our country and its massive political struggles will improve and heal.

Faith is the invisible force that powers resilience.

Story # 3: The Neutral Zone.

Last August our 10 year old German Shepherd dog Joker suddenly went into heart failure. He had a new murmur and a possible tumor. Joker was actually from Germany and he was a vital part of our lives. Joker and my wife Lea ann had some kind of cosmic connection – he followed her everywhere and watched over her every move.

We put Joker to sleep and naturally Lea Ann was devastated. I was unsure about getting another large dog because of the commitment and because we want to travel more. After some heated exchanges between us about getting another German Shepherd, she decided to call Germany and reserve a puppy that was due in 3 months.

Whenever there is a major unplanned event or dislocation that has a significant emotional impact – things like a major illness, divorce, financial problem, major clinical complication at work, job dislocation, or death of a pet or loved one, there is mental and emotional turbulence. The turbulence can cloud our thinking and our ability to learn and grow from the set back.

William Bridges, an expert in human transitions, refers to this period of turbulence as the neutral zone in his beautiful book The Way of Transition. It is neutral because it is a variable period of time when we must resist our ingrained surgical impulse to “fix” everything and instead pause and make the time and space for the mental and emotional turbulence to clear.

Imagine the challenges I can face with myself and my ingrained surgical tendency to try and fix everything! This habit of allowing variable space for the Neutral Zone is a critical resilience habit.

Having a period of 3 months to wait for a new puppy forced us into the Neutral Zone. Once we adjusted to our loss we were able to separate our desire for a new dog from our emotional attachments and, given our desire to travel more overseas, we bought Tuco, who can fit under an airplane seat.

Story # 4: Become a Meaning Making Machine

Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, remembers vividly the moment in the Nazi death camp camp when everything changed for him. That day he was obsessing about 2 things: should he trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup and how to work with a sadistic foreman, when it dawned on him that in order to survive, he had to find a purpose beyond the daily grind of survival tactics.

In that moment he imagined himself after the war speaking on the psychology of the concentration camp to help others understand what he and his fellow prisoners had been through. In the midst of hell and not even knowing if he would survive, his new goal gave him the strength to rise above the endless moment to moment suffering. As he says in his book: “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”

I followed his advice after I was discharged from Hazelden treatment center for prescription narcotic addiction. The daily level of personal pain and shame I felt was nearly incapacitating. But I faced the dragon, lived with the pain, and I made a commitment to figure why this happened to me and to do all I could to find the tools to live a better life for myself and others. Which is exactly what I am doing as I write this article.

Story # 5: Bricolage.

UPS drivers do things the same way, every day. They wear their uniforms the same way, they put their keys in the same place, they close the doors the same. But when it comes to getting the package delivered UPS drivers are given the freedom, and the expectation, to do whatever it takes to get the package there on time, no matter what. Snow storms, traffic jams, traffic accidents, it doesn’t matter, they have to figure out how to get the package delivered.

They use bricolage to get the job done. Bricolage is a french term that means making do with whatever is at hand to create something. Picasso said learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. Master surgeons exemplify the principle of bricolage. They do each operation the same way, they have learned the rules like a pro, but when there is a problem, they use bricolage to improvise and create solutions.

The challenge is to know when to follow the rules and when to improvise. This is the land of wisdom, and it only comes with practice and effort. Many of us may be good at applying these rules and improvisation in our professional lives like a master surgeon does, but the trick is to apply this psychological flexibility to our personal lives where we may not have mastered the rules of living and relationships.

I think of resilience as being like a game of chess. Prepare for the game by learning the rules like a pro – the Resilience Bank Account – so when the inevitable complications of life occur you will be better prepared to  ready to play the game well by:

  1. Studying the board – the reality of your situation.
  2. Taking the right amount of time before each move – the neutral zone.
  3. Imagining the future many moves out – making meaning and looking for opportunities.
  4. By improvising, to give yourself the best shot to win the game.
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2 Comments

  1. Basil Stathoulis on January 13, 2021 at 8:43 am

    Succinct article for living a life under the duress we are all experiencing. Thank you for making it so relevant.

    • Michael Maddaus on January 13, 2021 at 10:33 am

      Thanks so much Basil!

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