Thursday, 21 March 2013

Developing Resilience

I vividly remember being given charge of a team to take around an assault course when I was in Y12 at school. The first challenge was a small lake over which ran a taut wire. The team had a pulley block, ropes and a log and we were to take the team over on it. Unfortunately in our hurry, my team ended up with all the equipment and all but two of us over the lake, and two team members left behind. Forty or so pupils were observing, laughing, and I was solely in charge. It was a painful lesson in leadership.

I took a moment. There seemed to be three alternatives: misery – weeping or feeling sorry for myself; walking out of the problem; or thinking and acting around the problem. Thankfully, I chose the last of these.
Each time we make a choice, we create a pathway through our brain – repeated pathways create habits. This was a clear, memorable choice: difficulty could have elicited self-pity, avoidance (giving up) or strategy and action. Almost every month since, I have faced another ‘assault-course’ moment in my life – some difficulty which has brought the same three choices, and each time I have chosen the last, it has become more of a habit. On many occasions, I have seen the fresh crisis as a repeat of the assault-course experience, and replayed the choices available on that occasion, looking for the equivalents in the present.

Of course, I haven’t always chosen the last of the choices above, but the occasions when I have given up, or ducked out of difficulties are not the sort of thing I plan to write about in public. I am nevertheless convinced that our reactions to these events become habits more quickly than we realise – and start to form an intrinsic part of what we take to be character.

I was recently told that there is no word in one European language for ‘challenge’, only ‘difficulty’. There are many cultural aspects to language, and perhaps the English word challenge encapsulates a cultural determination to use difficult events to sharpen our capabilities, to grow as people. But all people face the same three opportunities when they face challenges or difficulties.

And so, in an assembly today, I invited our pupils to consider whether they had faced difficulties, or challenges, during this term. Which of the three responses, I asked them, had they employed this term? Self-pity, avoidance, or thoughtful action? Which of these three responses was being ‘inked in’ as their habitual response this term?

As Disraeli is reputed to have said: “There is no teacher like adversity”. Challenge, and the right response, develops resilience.

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