To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain
The quest to understand something new is a key factor to building the resilience necessary to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility.
By Kerry Hannon, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2020; Updated Sept. 8, 2020
Eight years ago, while working as an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland, Gayle Williams-Byers was in the throes of a serial killer case when she decided to take horseback-riding lessons.
This summer, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Williams-Byers, 46, now a South Euclid Municipal Court judge, started free online classes in American Sign Language offered by Gallaudet University in Washington. She also took a webinar in labor trafficking. In recent years, she has enrolled in a variety of classes and workshops, including one on how to get a commercial driver’s license — not something she plans to act on any time soon.
“I don’t have a reason to use these things in my professional life, but learning helps me to focus better,” Ms. Williams-Byers said. “It’s also something that I have some control over. I take classes in subjects I am just wildly interested in learning about it. When I expand my brain, my wingspan is greater. It lets you get a little higher, to get above the headwinds.”
Ms. Williams-Byers’ quest to understand something new is an example of what many career coaches, authors and experts view as a key factor to building the resilience necessary to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility.
The theory: To deal effectively with change, it helps to be engaged in changing yourself. “One of the things that makes us resilient is that when we see a challenge, and when we face a struggle, we engage with it, rather than shut down,” said Simon Sinek, author of “The Infinite Game” and “Start With Why.”
“What I have learned from my career is that something I learned over here helps me over there,” he said. “Even if I don’t know that is happening, any kind of learning benefits all aspects of life.”
Embrace Your Passions
Mr. Sinek, for instance, is a dance lover. “My dancer friends kept telling me I should take classes, and it would help me and my love of the medium. I begrudgingly agreed, and I took some basic ballet classes.”
Even though it was for personal enrichment, those classes helped his developing work as a public speaker. “My posture is much better,” he said. “I move more effortlessly across the stage from my hips, instead of my shoulders.”
When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before. “Resilience is about being adaptable in a variety of different circumstances,” said Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Reinventing You.”
“It is a combination of being able to pick yourself up when there are setbacks, but also it is about having the kind of cross-training necessary to be flexible in an uncertain world where we don’t know what is around the corner,” Ms. Clark said.
Learning Requires Determination
This all may require pushing yourself — not the easiest of tasks in times of crisis. “If they are relatively senior professionals, it has been years, or decades, since they have not been good at something, and it can be enormously psychologically stressful to have to face that,” Ms. Clark said. “Inevitably, when you are in the early stages of learning something you haven’t done before, you are probably going to be bad at it — at least not very good.”
Two years ago, Ms. Clark entered a program to train as a musical theater lyricist. “People in this program have master’s degrees in musical theater writing,” she said. “At first, having to surround myself with people who truly had exponentially more expertise was humiliating on a regular basis, but it was invigorating and inspiring.”
Being resilient has a lot to do with perspective. “People who commit themselves to a life of learning show up with curiosity,” Mr. Sinek said. “They show up with interest. They show up with a student’s mind-set. You don’t have to be curious about everything. You have to be curious about some things.”
Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits, according to Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like A CEO.” “Each time they hit a bump, they spend less time lamenting and quickly turn to determining what they must learn in order to climb out of the hole,” she said.
Moreover, learners develop a more optimistic mind-set, which helps them jump into action, according to Ms. Jones. “In part, this is because each time you become aware of learning something new it feels like a victory,” Ms. Jones said. “You maintain the positivity that is a key to resilience.”
Tailor Your Learning
An important element to remember is that people learn in different ways, Mr. Sinek said. “I can’t read a book a week. I learn by having conversations. I like talking to people who know more than me about any particular subject. I love peppering them with questions. And I love trying to say back in my own words what I think they are telling me to see if I understand it.”
Right now, with his speaking engagements on hold, Mr. Sinek is studying kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with epoxy and a painted gold solution, which highlights the breaks. The concept: By accepting blemishes and flaws, you can produce an even sturdier, more striking, piece of art. On a deeper level, it functions as a symbol of the human experience.
For one thing, it requires patience. “It turns out the epoxy dries slowly,” Mr. Sinek said. “If you do all the pieces at once, it all just falls apart again. I want to be done with my project and move on to the next. I can’t. I have to stick one piece and hold it for an uncomfortable amount of time and then let sit for 24 hours.”
There are myriad paths to learning from taking part in a free online class to reading a nonfiction book to watching a documentary to a complete immersion in a grade-free educational experience.
Chip Conley, 59, for example, founded the Modern Elder Academy, in Baja, Mexico, a group dedicated to midlife learning.
The academy’s core curriculum is based on helping people move from a fixed to a growth mind-set in midlife and beyond, according to Mr. Conley. “Those with a fixed mind-set define success as winning, which becomes problematic when they face difficult circumstances,” he said. “Those with a growth mind-set define success as learning. They’re not trying to prove themselves, but instead improve themselves, so they get less focused on the results and more focused on the journey.”
At the academy, options include collaborative bread baking, improv comedy, learning how to surf or do yoga for the first time and penning a poem to offer to your cohort.
Academic and Online Options
There are also educational opportunities for nontraditional students at some top universities through academic or yearlong programs for executives and other professionals. Students can audit classes, attend lectures, and work on projects with graduate and undergraduate students.
These include the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, the University of Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative, the University of Minnesota’s Advanced Careers Initiative, and the University of Texas at Austin, which offers the Tower Fellows Program.
Three years ago, Glenn Lowenstein, 60, was ready for a new challenge. The Houston resident had sold Lionstone Investments, the real estate investment company he founded in 2001, to Ameriprise. “It was a hard decision,” he said. “The business had been my dream, and then I lived the reality of it for 20 years, and all of a sudden there was a void. It was scary. When there is nothing in front of you, that’s where the resiliency has to come in.”
His solution was to return to campus. Two years ago, he was a Towers fellow. “You have to put yourself out there in an environment you have not been in before,” he said. “It’s a combination of confidence in yourself, enjoyment in exploration and going toward your fear.”
As a fellow, Mr. Lowenstein, for example, enrolled in an advanced graduate philosophy seminar. “It was way above my head,” he said. “I would try my hardest to follow every single word of the conversation. It was fascinating to me the way the graduate students articulated their arguments. It was super esoteric stuff, but I would walk out and be ‘wow, I am learning a new way to communicate here.’”
The best part, though, was his time on campus: “It was so cool to be in an environment where I wasn’t the expert,” he said. “I wasn’t the person relied on to know everything, so I could sit back and enjoy the process of learning, and that’s positive energy. My aim is to keep my mind and body and spirit healthy. I don’t think you can do that without learning.”
For those who can’t afford the time or money required for a high-level fellowship or university program, there are myriad paths to learning. Free or reasonably priced online classes are available through sites like Coursera, EdX, The Great Courses, LinkedIn Learning, MasterClass, Skillshare, TED Talks and Udemy.
Other options (online these days) include adult education centers, local libraries, community colleges and universities, and Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. One Day University, a subscription service ($7.95 a month), offers five livestreaming lectures a week and recorded talks.
For Ms. Williams-Byers, learning is “that extra oomph to turn off the crazy in life and pour yourself into something that is fantastic that you can benefit from,” she said.
That explains her decision to take up a new sport during a particularly difficult case. “I had dealt with murder cases before, but this was unsettling,” she said. “I could feel myself disconnecting from the case because of the emotional drain. The hourlong lessons refocused my mind, so I could bounce back when I returned to the office.”
When I expand my brain, my wingspan is greater. It lets you get a little higher, to get above the headwinds.
How to Cope When Everything Keeps Changing
By Cindy Lamothe, New York Times, Sept. 7, 2020
How do you make plans when it’s impossible to make plans?
The ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting. Planning for anything more than a week out can feel futile — almost silly — since no one knows what the next week, much less the next month, will bring. A surge in coronavirus cases in your area? More lockdowns? Worrying about natural disasters? And concerns about health and financial well-being make matters even worse.
“The questions are endless. And the answers are always changing,” said Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and the author of “Ricochet: What To Do When Change Happens To You.”
“One day the W.H.O. recommends this, and the next day the C.D.C. recommends something else,” Mr. Tasler said. “One day the economy is opening back up. A week later it’s closing back down.
“And all of this changes not just day-by-day, but country-by-country, state-by-state.”
It’s enough to frazzle anyone.
Knowing how to react when our plans fail, according to experts, is essential for recalibrating. Fortunately, there are strategies we can take that can help us cope when life resembles an endless stream of curveballs.
Overcome mental barriers
During a setback, it’s easy to get stuck in feelings of panic and disappointment. One of the most psychologically jarring things for many of us right now, Mr. Tasler said, is the radical upheaval to our daily routines.
“Many of us had already made pre-decisions that determined how we spend the majority of every day — what time we wake up, what we wear to work, what time we go to work, where we eat lunch, etc.,” he explained. “Now, suddenly, all those pre-decisions have had to be made anew.”
But the key to mental agility and not falling into an anxiety spiral, Mr. Tasler said, is to remind ourselves that it’s OK to switch gears. One way to achieve this mind-set shift is to use a technique called temporal distancing, which is like having access to your own personal mental time machine where you can transcend the here-and-now and visualize the future. Mr. Tasler suggests closing your eyes and asking yourself: “In 10 years, how will I want to remember telling the story of how I responded to this crisis?”
Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine, agreed that focusing on the future rather than the past is what ultimately helps us cope with difficult experiences.
“Many people throughout their lives encounter adversity that doesn’t go their way or is unexpected,” she said. “And when people successfully navigate these new life adversities, they are likely to learn things about themselves they didn’t realize.”
This is not to diminish the very real feelings of disappointment and angst we all experience after a setback — especially when we’ve invested emotional and financial resources. But if we can approach our failed plans with a sense of our own resilience, we’re better able to overcome these challenges.
Don’t underestimate your ability to adapt
Those of us who are serial planners often get stuck in rehashing our losses, rather than trust in our capacity to find new solutions. But operating from a place of fear doesn’t allow us to tap into our full cognitive abilities, said Margie Warrell, a leadership expert and the author of “You’ve Got This!: The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself.”
This mind-set also “undermines the quality of our decision making, stifles our creativity and impairs our ability to take the most constructive actions we have within us to take,” she added.
If we’re stubbornly clinging to canceled plans, for instance, then we aren’t leaving room for new possibilities to unfold.
“Right now, people are dealing with immense uncertainty, but the truth is, we’ve never really had certainty,” Ms. Warrell said. “We just thought we did. That was an illusion.”
When something changes, our mind goes into battle arguing against that change, because we’re wired to crave comfort and certainty, she said, adding that we can override that impulse “by trusting in our innate capacity to handle change and adapt to new situations.”
Instead of getting stuck in a thought-loop of what could have been, Ms. Warrell recommends we “zoom up” and look at what’s going on around us through a larger lens.
“Was it really realistic that your plans should have fallen into place just as you wanted?” she said. “I’ve learned that what is outside our control is teaching us a lesson on letting go of our attachment to how we think things should be.”
The bottom line: A big part of stretching our mental flexibility comes down to accepting that what we thought we knew was unknowable to begin with.
“Once we decide to accept that reality — scary as it might seem — most people find it to actually be liberating,” Mr. Tasler said. “Accepting the reality of what we can’t control sets our minds free to explore the possibilities of what we can control.”
Take action, no matter how small
When faced with unexpected change, taking immediate steps to improve our situation can help us quickly switch gears. “The key is to start almost stupidly small,” Mr. Tasler said. “Pick something that is so easy and so certain to be accomplished that it’s almost comical.”
A strategy he recommends is to approach your planning the way a scientist would: by conducting small experiments. For example: “If your plan consists of only online grocery shopping from a particular store this month, but you find that there are things you need at another store, then you still won because you invalidated the hypothesis that suggested you only need one store,” he said, adding you can apply this principle to other areas of your life, like work and exercise.
The idea isn’t that any of these small acts will solve your problem, “but they will start the psychological snowball rolling in your mind, steadily restoring your sense of agency, and rekindling that belief that what you do matters,” Mr. Tasler said.
He added: “Over a short period of time your mental state changes and you’re ready to tackle the bigger, more meaningful challenges.”
While it can feel like our options are limited, we can still get more comfortable taking the next step and adjusting if needed. “Don’t wait until you are sure what the future holds until you make a new plan,” Ms. Warrell urged.
“It’s important to be decisive amid the uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility of this time,” she said. “So make your plan and take action, but then be brave enough to quickly change course as the situation changes from what you had planned on.”
Reframe your situation
Many of us set intentions and made assumptions at the beginning of the year and were devastated when the majority of these plans fell apart. But according to experts, changing the way we view these experiences can help us focus on growth.
“Reframing unexpected change is saying, ‘I can learn from this and hopefully my future will be better from it,’” said Benjamin Hardy, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the author of “Personality Isn’t Permanent: Break Free from Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story.”
It also helps to know this is happening to every person in the world.
For Charlie Gilkey, a productivity coach and the author of “Start Finishing: How to Go From Idea to Done,” “The grace that we all have right now is that everybody’s timelines are messed up.”
“This is the very best time to practice proactive communication, to practice updating our plans and having a flexible mind-set,” he said.
Another strategy to cope with the constant shifting of our lives is to embrace the psychological concept of hardiness, or “transformational coping,” which teaches us to perceive stressful life events less as threats and more as opportunities for personal development.
Choosing courage over our sense of powerlessness is what ultimately helps us cope with sudden change, and allows us to foster more empathy and meaning.
“While there is no denying the heartache and hardship of this turbulent time, it’s important to be intentional to look at ways we can transform it into a powerful catalyst for transformational change,” Ms Warrell said.
And no matter our situation, Mr. Tasler said, we can always stop and take a beat to ask ourselves: “Do I want to tell the story of my fear? Or do I want to tell the story of my strength of character? And what does that mean for how I spend today?”
Mr. Tasler added that reminding ourselves of the lessons we’ve learned from past runs of bad luck can help us cope with whatever curveballs are thrown our way in the future.
“We will remember that the way we triumphed and grew and became stronger in the past periods was not by having a perfectly scripted plan with perfect knowledge of the future,” he said, “but instead by making one decision at a time.”
Learning is “that extra oomph to turn off the crazy in life and pour yourself into something that is fantastic that you can benefit from.”
When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before.
Type your paragraph here.
Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits.
Right now, people are dealing with immense uncertainty, but the truth is, we’ve never really had certainty. We just thought we did. That was an illusion... Was it really realistic that your plans should have fallen into place just as you wanted?
Do I want to tell the story of my fear? Or do I want to tell the story of my strength of character?
It’s important to be decisive amid the uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility of this time. So make your plan and take action, but then be brave enough to quickly change course as the situation changes from what you had planned on.
On Page 7:
* How to Cope When Everything Keeps Changing
* To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain