Resilience February 2020

I’ve been using a boxing analogy lately for resilience. There are various ways to approach resilience. Boxing wise, there’s the concept of rounds, taking punches, getting knocked down and getting knocked out. The concepts carry over nicely to the trait of resilience.

The simplest variation is the difference between taking punches (being tough) and getting knocked down (bouncing back). The default mode of resilience refers to being tough or taking punches. It means you can handle a lot of chronic and acute stress and remain functional. The problem with taking punches is that it causes brain damage. Not getting knocked down means you don’t necessarily learn from your mistakes. You just continue taking punches. This is useful in cases where the form of stress you’re dealing with is unforgiving in nature. Where if you were to get knocked down, it would hit you while you are down. Parenting comes to mind. It’s critical to remain in the fight, even in a beaten down form, to avoid the cost of failure.

The alternative to taking punches is getting knocked down, and getting back up again. This is the equivalent to losing or failing, depending on the context. The utility of resilience in those cases involved how fast and how well you get back up again. If you don’t get back up again, you could view that as burnout or a symptom of learned helplessness. Especially if it’s because you lack the motivation, as opposed to the ability, to get back in the fight. If you get back up again, without drawing any lessons from the failure, you will likely make the same mistake over again. Which are two common ways people fail to progress: they don’t bounce back, and if they do they’re not drawing meaningful lessons from the failure. Startup failure or getting fired come to mind. If you don’t get back up, you will never know how close you were to success. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you will fail again for the same reason that caused the first failure.

If you consider the alternative approaches to resilience, in terms of taking punches or getting knocked down and getting back up again, you realize where taking punches falls down. It doesn’t really lead to the visceral lessons that come from outright failure. Never knowing how well you’re doing, and continuing to operate in a mode of functioning that is not optimal, may just prolong how long it takes to fail and learn from your mistakes. The risk of getting knocked down, and the fear among people who favor the toughness method, is not getting back up again. If you can take enough punches to determine whether the fight has promise, go down when your situation demands it, and bounce back again quickly after outright failure, you have the resilience equivalent of a growth mindset. If you can draw lessons from each failure, both in functioning and in outcomes, and improve next time, you can probably learn the fastest too.

You can carry the analogy further when you consider other concepts like getting knocked out (taking existential risks, aka betting the farm) and rounds (where you manage your own state in order to avoid getting knocked out or getting knocked down, energy management for resilience). It’s a handy analogy for an ambiguous trait that everyone wants to possess but few master.