Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. He recently hosted Bonnie St. John, former Olympic champion skier, speaker, and author of Micro-Resilience, on The Psychology Podcast for a conversation about overcoming challenges great and small.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full conversation, click here.
Scott: Resiliency is already its own buzzword, but micro-resiliency has not yet become a household term. Can you talk a little about the difference between macro and micro-resilience?
Bonnie: We need macro-resilience for something really big, like rebuilding a town after a hurricane or recovering from cancer or divorce, for getting back to normal, back to life.
Micro-resilience looks at smaller problems. The solutions are smaller too. We’re looking at small things that you can do, in the midst of a busy day, while you’re on a conference call or while you’re commuting. All to answer the question: “How can I be more resilient this afternoon than I was this morning?”
Scott: I know a lot of people really want to improve their focus. You talk about creating an island in the stream, right?
Bonnie: Yes. Organizational gurus say, “We shouldn’t be interrupted so much, so you should only check your email twice a day.” For most people it’s just not very practical to do that. Instead of only checking your email a couple of times a day, you can create an “island in the stream.” We have so much communication coming at us, but we can carve out an hour here or there to get focused work done.
If you can let [the people around you] know that you’re going to have certain focus times, you’ll be so much more productive and you’ll feel like you have more time. But you have to communicate with people.
“Organizational gurus say, ‘We shouldn’t be interrupted so much, so you should only check your email twice a day.’ For most people it’s just not very practical to do that.”
For example, on my team, I tell people if you need an answer to something, right away, text me. But if [you just need me to] get back to you whenever I have a break, then email me and I’ll know I can handle it that way.
When you communicate with people around you, it becomes a mutual agreement about how we help each other be more productive.
Scott: In an ideal world, everyone is respectful of each other’s boundaries. What do you do if you have a jerk boss—who emails you at 11 p.m. and asks for a grant budget by 4 a.m.?
Bonnie: If you really don’t want that to be your life, then you need a plan for how to get a new job or a new boss.
That said, when I worked in the White House, a lot of things were emergencies. So if you choose to work in a place where that is the case, then that’s what you’re going to have to do.
But often you can negotiate with somebody. Even if you think, “This person will never let me have focus time,” if you explain to them, “I just want to do the best work for you and this is what I need” you might make some headway. As you say, some people are just jerks, but if you appeal to their self interest, you might be able to make some progress.
Scott: Let’s talk about the role of emotions. It can be a really limiting factor if you can’t get your emotions under control or you let them hijack the rest of your system when you’re under a really tense situation.
I personally hope to get some tips on what you’ve learned to prevent that from happening.
When our amygdala in our brain senses a threat, it sends out adrenaline, which sets off all of our alarms. So how do you reset that hijack? Smells and bells?
Bonnie: Smells and bells can help calm you down actually. That reaction is often an overreaction. When we were primitive human beings, we needed that strong reaction to a possible threat because we might have to fight, or run—but now often we feel threatened in an office.
Gosh, I didn’t get invited to that meeting. Does that mean I’m not going to be moving forward? Does my boss not like me? So you can feel threatened, but it’s a situation where you really don’t need to fight, you need to think more clearly and be more collaborative. Setting off your adrenaline and your cortisol actually can do the opposite, can give you tunnel vision.
If you’re getting input that makes you feel threatened, certain smells can calm that down and break the reaction. Dr. Joan Borysenko, one of the early researchers at the Harvard Mind Body Institute, talked about this. She talked about vanilla and nutmeg and cinnamon, and I said, “Wow, those are all holiday spices, do we have that association with holidays?” And she said, “No, it’s the other way around. There’s a physiological reaction, which is why we use those smells on holidays, because they calm us down. They cut through our stress response.”
Scott: Where are the bells coming in?
Bonnie: Sounds can do that as well. I sat in on one of Eileen Fisher’s meetings with her senior staff and they had one of those Buddhist metal bowls that sits on a little pillow, and at the beginning of the meeting, they ring the bell and then have a moment of silence, then ring the bell again and the meeting starts. It is amazing when you experience that, it’s like a palate cleanser: it just calms you down and makes you very present in the room.
It feels a little woo-woo but there’s actually good science behind it. It’s calming your amygdala reaction.
Scott: I didn’t know about bells and smells, but I have tried everything else: meditation, an acupuncture mat that I sleep on—in terms of smells, I really like lavender and peppermint and lemon.
Bonnie: You can experiment and see what works for you. A lot of people talk about taking a deep breath, too, when you feel like you’re getting that emotional hijack. [But] shallow chest breath can actually exacerbate that autonomic reaction. So you really want to take a deep belly breath; it’s a much better way to reverse that reaction.
“If you’re in a meeting and something’s happening and you can feel the steam starting to come out of your ears, you say, ‘Am I frustrated? Am I angry?’ Simply the act of putting words on it actually de-escalates some of that emotional reaction.”
Another great [way to calm down comes] from the research by Matt Lieberman at UCLA on labeling. When an emotion is taking control of you, you can label it with a word or several words. You don’t have to even say it out loud; you can just do it in your head. If you’re in a meeting and something’s happening and you can feel the steam starting to come out of your ears, you say, “Am I frustrated? Am I angry?” Simply the act of putting words on it actually de-escalates some of that emotional reaction.
Scott: Let’s talk about reframing your attitude. We know that optimism is such an important trait characteristic in that it is predictive of health even more than not smoking. How do you change from pessimism to optimism?
Bonnie: Reversi. It’s a technique that I created. I’ve done it with groups for many years now and it’s so much fun; it’s a quick and dirty way of doing it.
You ask people to [take an index card] and write down a limit or an obstacle that they’re facing. And then, flip over the card and write the opposite on the other side.
So if somebody said, “I need a degree to advance in my career, but I don’t have the money or time,” they flip over their card and write, “I can get the next degree.” And what it does is trick your brain for a minute to think that maybe it’s possible. We get so stuck on our limits and obstacles, we’re so convinced they’re real and they’re true, that the ability to flip the card and entertain the idea for a moment allows different creative thoughts to come into your head.
There was a guy who was in one of our workshops who said, “I can’t do the innovative things I want to do in my department because I didn’t get my budget increase.” So he flipped the card and wrote, “I can do innovative things.”
And what he realized was, if I go through my existing budget, prioritize and take out the least important things, get rid of those, I can re-apply the money to the more innovative things. It’s funny because it sounds obvious when you say it, but he was so stuck in his thinking he didn’t see it until he flipped the card.
Scott: Wow, that could become an expression, like flip the script—flip the card.
Bonnie: It also works if you’re talking to other people. If you’re going around saying your limits and your obstacles, people are just going to agree with you and commiserate and say, “Oh me too. My life sucks.”
But if you are talking from the other side of the card, people can give you new ideas too. It’s about how you’re showing up. When you talk about what’s on the second side of the card with people, you can get new ideas.
There’s one company where they decided to use reversi in their staff meetings every week and they would have one person put in a limit or obstacle and everybody else would say, ‘Let’s try to help reverse it.’ It can be fun as a social exercise as well.
“This is what micro-resilience is about: your hour-by-hour performance.”
Scott: So you conceptualize optimism not as just wishful thinking.
Bonnie: Right, [it’s] in seeing possibilities.
Scott: It’s kind of like creativity.
Bonnie: Ask yourself, “What are my choices? What am I committed to it in this situation and what is the challenge?”
And you can pull yourself into a more successful explanatory style. I interviewed Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and one of the questions I asked her was, “How do you know when you’re being too optimistic?
She said, “We tell the teachers we put in the classroom to be at the intersection of optimism and reality.” So take your kids and diagnose all their learning disabilities, understand how far they are behind in reading or math, really know what you have—and then set a really challenging goal.
Bring them along to go after it. It’s not about how do you define optimism, but are you committed to optimism and reality at the same time?
Scott: I really like that. It’s having positive imagination that’s realistic.
Scott: You had mentioned the importance of the body-mind connection [when it comes to] resiliency. [What are some] ways you can maintain high energy physically?
Bonnie: We talk about micro-managing your metabolism. For example, a lot of people say drink six to eight glasses of water a day. That’s a macro habit and it’s good. If you do it on average, it’s going to work well. But what we find is most people have great water habits until they’re under stress.
If I’ve got a proposal that I have to get out tonight or a big presentation, drinking water goes completely out the window. And that’s the time when I need it the most. The brain has a higher percentage of water than the rest of your body so you could be feeling fuzzy and the ideas aren’t coming and your brain is not performing as well—and you don’t even feel thirsty yet. This is what micro-resilience is about: your hour-by-hour performance.
Bonnie: Another example is exercise. A lot of people exercise three or four times a week, but on their big important days say, “I don’t have time to exercise today but I did it yesterday, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
But the micro perspective is different. Research shows if you do exercise just a moderate amount, you’re smarter for hours afterwards. You access memory better, you connect the dots better, you generate more creative ideas. From this perspective, you would say, “I have a big day today, I can’t afford not to exercise, because I need to be smarter today.”
Scott: You referred to purpose as a way to renew your spirit, right?
Bonnie: Yes. We all have observed this phenomenon that when somebody’s really purposeful, they’re on fire. They have so much energy and problems seem smaller. It’s like when you’re in love; you just don’t let things get to you as much. How can you tap into that kind of energy? How do you make sure that purpose is present in your day, hour by hour, in a way that gives you fuel?
Scott: Can you elaborate a little bit about how people can find their sense of purpose if they’re feeling lost?
“For most people, you need to do some work to clarify your purpose. Playing detective with your values helps you examine what you really believe in, what you’re passionate about.”
Bonnie: What we find is that, for most people, you need to do some work to clarify your purpose. Playing detective with your values helps you examine what you really believe in, what you’re passionate about. There’s also looking at what are the most meaningful goals in your life, then coming up with a tagline that pulls it all together. Can you come up with a motto that summarizes your purpose?
Once you’re clear about your overall purpose, then we can move to the micro exercises of how to tie it into your day. There’s a woman, Sylvia Matthews Berwell, and she was at the Gates Foundation. It seems like a place where there’s obvious purpose, but you can get sidetracked into paperwork and rules and egos and all the things they have to deal with while they’re trying to make the world a better place.
She hung a picture in their conference room of a 10-year-old girl from Africa, and she called her the boss. She would use that picture as a touchstone and say, ‘What would the boss think?’ It pulls you back to the perspective of not just what do the egos and the governments want, but can I look this girl in the eye and say, “This is what we’re going to do.” Would you feel good about yourself?
Having an hour-by-hour, second-by-second sense of purpose makes it easier to get through the drudgery that we all have to go through in life. One of the pieces of research that really set us on this course of action was by Jim Lair, who was looking at why certain tennis players always win.
Jim Lair videoed world class tennis players and couldn’t see a consistent difference between them—until he started looking at what they did between the points.
What he saw was they had certain behaviors that they would do to help them get their focus back. Even if the last point was bad, they would go into the next point positive. He saw that as you went down the ranks, there were fewer and fewer or those between-the-points behaviors.
Now it’s considered normal, it’s called the 16 second cure, and is taught in tennis camps and other sports. World class athletes have absorbed the idea that you need to recover along the way to be better than the best.
We wanted to bring that insight to the rest of us. I grew up in the “drive until you drop” mentality, that you just push yourself really hard and you fall over and go, “See how tough I am.”
This idea of recovering a little bit along the way is a redefinition of high performance. We’re in such a competitive, fast, paced world that driving until you drop isn’t even enough anymore. There’s a balance between push and recovery, and push has gotten so sped up, we have to speed up recovery.
If you can make recovery more intentional, more research-based and more effective, you have a better shot at keeping pace with the pace of life.