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Vol. LXVII, No. 8
April 10, 2015

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Be the ‘Better Getter-Upper’
Resilience Can Make a Difference, Says Olympian St. John

Bonnie St. John
Bonnie St. John
Being resilient can make a big difference. Leadership consultant Bonnie St. John stressed that point at a recent Deputy Director for Management Seminar in Masur Auditorium.

Despite having her right leg amputated at age 5, St. John became the first African American to win Olympic or Paralympic medals in ski racing. She told of how she fell during her last race, at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Despite falling, she still won the silver medal for her overall performance. After the race, she heard that the gold medal winner also fell down.

“I could’ve won gold if I got up a little faster,” she said. “It’s so important to think about resilience even when you’re at the top of the game. Sometimes the person who wins gold is just the better getter-upper.”

St. John identified two types of resilience: “macro” and “micro.” Macro-resilience refers to lifestyle choices that help people become more resilient over a few weeks or months. Examples include eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.

“Micro-resilience is the ability to do better hour-by-hour, every day,” she said. “The payoff of micro-resilience is you’re going to do better today.”

To illustrate the difference between the two, she spoke about the need to drink water during a time of stress.

From a macro-resilience perspective, if someone doesn’t drink any water while working on a stressful project, he or she will be alright, provided the person drinks more water later in the day, after the stressful time has passed.

From a micro-resilience perspective, however, drinking water during the stressful time is precisely when it’s needed most. A person’s brain contains a higher percentage of water than the rest of the body, so the brain dehydrates before people realize they’re thirsty. So, deciding when to drink water is important from the micro perspective.

St. John said that human beings evolved as hunter-gatherers over millions of years. Based on their history, she said, people alive today have inherited the genes of the “worriers, the people who reacted.” That means, she added, that people tend to spiral into the negative, which can trigger tunnel vision.

These reactions aren’t helpful in today’s fast-paced world. St. John said people need to think creatively, work together and look ahead during stressful times, rather than reacting to events as they happen.

“The good news is we can rewire,” St. John said. “We like to think of it as an upgrade to the human operating system.”

When people first become stressed, St. John said a few calming strategies are useful. First, they can describe their feelings.

“If you can say it, you can look at it and you can be an observer, not just be one with it,” she said.

To improve productivity, St. John said, employees can take breaks during the day to stretch, exercise or go for a walk.

To improve productivity, St. John said, employees can take breaks during the day to stretch, exercise or go for a walk.

Photos: Ernie Branson

One can also practice deep-breathing exercises or muscle-relaxation techniques. She added that certain smells, like cinnamon or vanilla, can calm a person down.

Next, St. John said people need to understand the limits of their brain.

“Our prefrontal cortex is really small. It’s a late add-on in the evolutionary process,” she said. It is believed to be involved in higher-order thinking. “When we respect that it’s small, we can actually use our brain better and more effectively.”

To improve productivity, she said, employees can take breaks during the day to stretch, exercise or walk.

St. John advised workers to avoid multi-tasking because it degrades quality, accuracy and creativity. Instead, they should set aside time during the day to accomplish one task. She also recommended that employees make fewer decisions during the day.

“The more decisions you make, the more tired you get,” she said. To combat what St. John called “decision fatigue,” employees can make important choices early in the day. Checklists can also limit how many decisions are made in a day.

She also said it’s important to cultivate a positive outlook through regular positivity exercises.

“There are so many situations where we tend to spiral into the negative, but it would be helpful to stay positive,” she noted.

She suggested supervisors begin meetings by asking employees to say something good that happened during the past week. She also said people can put together a “joy kit” of things that make them happy, to serve as reminders of happier times. These might include a bottle of sand from a beach vacation or a recording of a child’s laughter.

St. John also advised people to eat regularly to keep their energy up and to drink water to stay hydrated.

Finally, she said it’s important to stay in touch with one’s purpose, which she referred to as one’s “values plus goals.” It’s easy to lose track of purpose because of day-to-day details. Some people put reminders on their car’s dashboard, in their office or on their computer screensavers to remind them of what’s important to them and why they do what they do.

Although these strategies won’t slow down the world, practicing micro-resilience can speed up recovery time, she noted.

Focusing on such smaller, incremental “resets” throughout the day offers immediate and intentional activities that combat the natural, physiological, hard-wired tendencies that allow people to be hijacked by the stress of the work day, she concluded.

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