Below are a set of observations about resilience that have emerged from many thousands of conversations with a diverse range of people over the past twenty years. They are not intended to be a complete summary of resilience, instead, they are a partial set of observations intended to deepen our collective understanding of resilience as it continues to evolve as a concept across different fields.
Resilience is used across many fields.
The concept of resilience is now widely used. It’s a core concept across fields as diverse as psychology and mental health, community development, disaster management, engineering and infrastructure, economics, business, ecology and systems. These different fields hold subtle but important differences in the meaning and practice of resilience. This matters because we are often having conversations across these different fields. It’s important to be aware that in any conversation about resilience people may hold very different perspectives and understandings about resilience and what it means, depending on their personal experiences and how it is used in the fields they are familiar with. It’s worth spending time exploring how people are conceptualising resilience before going into deeper discussion.
2. Resilience is important.
The word resilience is overused. That does not however diminish the importance of resilience. Resilience has always been important to humans with our ability to overcome adversity and continue to pursue our goals, in other words, to be resilient, is one of the things that make us who we are as a species. And just like it has in the past, resilience will continue to be important in the future. As the world becomes increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain the capacity to cope with adversity and continue to function in a desired way is still important, maybe more so than when the world was a less complex place. So, maybe the word is overused, the concept is definitely not.
3. Resilience is not just about bouncing back
The dictionary definition of resilience, bouncing back, is too limited. Instead it is more useful to think about resilience as being dynamic over time, responding to disruptions while focused on staying within a desired ‘safe operating zone’ (SOZ) or returning to that zone when pushed outside. That ‘zone’ shifts over time as does the context it is imbedded in. The SOZ for a young family might look very different to that of an elderly person and both will differ over time as their lives progress and as the societies they live in change. The same can be said for an ecosystem adjusting to a changing climate or for an organisation recovering from a major natural disaster for example. Within that zone, sometimes life can just track along in Persistence mode, making small adjustments and coping with day to day events, at other times, in the face of larger disruptions some deliberate Adaptive action is required to stay in that zone. If that adaptive action is not sufficient to stay in the zone and things are heading to the boundary of the safe zone (sometimes called a threshold) or there is a desire to get into a different safe operating zone, then more substantive action - Transformative - will be required.
4. Resilience is not always positive
Dictators are usually both detestable and resilient. Similarly, negative social issues like poverty, intergenerational unemployment, addiction, homelessness and some environmental degradation issues can get locked into ‘traps’ that are self reinforcing and almost impossible to break out of. In these cases we might want to lower the resilience of the dynamics reinforcing these issues. Interestingly many of the strategies for building resilience when applied in a different way or to a different part of a system can help to break down these taps.
5. Resilience is not about avoiding stresses
It’s tempting to try to avoid stresses. Taking the lift instead of the stairs might feel good in the short term, but doesn’t burn any calories, train our cardio vascular system or strengthen any muscles, things that might catch up with us in the long run. Just as an immune system doesn’t develop fully without some exposure to pathogens, so too raising a child, expanding a business, strengthening a community, managing an ecosystem or running an organisation without exposure to adversity doesn’t build resilience. Unchallenged these systems will all grow, develop and change. But without stresses to stimulate and strain and test that new ‘growth’ it is unlikely that system will withstand a future stress or shock in the way it could if it has been ‘trained’. The challenge of course is to find the goldilocks level of stress to train the system, too little and there is no stimulus for change and growth, too much and the stress overwhelms the developing system. But the right amount of stresses at the right time can lead to new growth that is ready to face future challenges and continue to grow.