Two words: Eschewing Pococurantism
Some titles just demand to be written about. As soon as I saw these words in an article about resilience by Chip and Dan Heath in Fast Company magazine, I knew I would have to research and write about them. So here’s how they break down: eschew comes from an old French verb, eschiver, and simply means: to escape or avoid. Pococurantism is another matter. The first part, poco, comes from the same Italian word which means little. Curantism is from the Latin root cura, which means care. So, pococurantism means caring little; feeling indifferent or apathetic. Whatever.
When we eschew pococurantism, we somehow manage to avoid living the apathetic life. We refuse to live a life with little passion. What does that have to do with resilience? Everything.
Angela Duckworth, a positive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks eschewing pococurantism has a lot to do with resilience as well. Curious about differences between West Point candidates who survive “Beast Barracks” and those who don’t, she developed The Grit Survey (You can test your own True Grit by registering for free here). Turns out The Grit Survey is a very accurate predictor of success. It also provides some keys to developing increasing resilience.
Learning to Unlearn Learned Helplessness
Basically, I think of resilience as the direct opposite of what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” When I was a kid, I would have experiences over and over again that taught me how to be helpless, particularly in school. For example, if I couldn’t solve a geometry problem, what I unwittingly learned was that some math problems were too difficult for me; I simply didn’t have what it took to learn them (Unfortunately, it rarely occurs to kids that perhaps the teachers aren’t as skilled as they need to be to teach hard subjects to kids with learning differences!). The majority of my teachers back in the day operated under the assumption of what Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a “Fixed Mindset.” To them it was obvious that intelligence was innate and you either had it or you didn’t. And by word, deed and belief, that’s what they taught.
Four Keys to Help Us (and our kids) Stick with the Hard Stuff
In order to stick with things when they’re hard – one strength of heart category – most of us are going to need help, and lots of it. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping for people to hold their hearts over a tempering fire. This is one place where the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience applies: we need people around us who’ve walked ten miles in our shoes. People who “get” us and who can support us in putting one foot in front of the other to take the next small step, whatever that step might be – ruthlessly compassionate people we willingly give ourselves over to being accountable to. And it’s important that such people recognize and make room for us to fully take our next steps. Not necessarily the steps they think best for us, or the ones that have the most potential merit, or the ones that will bring the most social approval. We need the freedom and support to take the steps that are right for us.
So, that’s the next key … doing the small things we can do right now that move us incrementally further in the direction of some larger vision. Housebuilding is a great metaphor to illustrate this key (a metaphor that requires a profound understanding of applied geometry, btw). Through a whole series of thousands of steps, each cooperatively done one at a time in an ordered sequence together with other people, over time an inhabitable structure results. For those things of which we have no plan or model, creative endeavors that we or the world have rarely managed to take on and accomplish before, we need to necessarily engage in a lot of experimental trials and course corrections, done best with a curious and compassionate Learner’s Heart. Think Edison here, and his 10000 light bulb filament trials.
Grit and Gravy
This next key is where faith and trust in our ability to grow and change in positive directions comes in – Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. Recognizing the lifelong possibility for growth and learning can profoundly change our capacity for resilience, for grit. Which essentially means learning how to … stick with things when they’re hard. The reason things are hard is because we’re still learning, mostly how to grow the neural connections that will allow us to easily manage our limbic system so that it doesn’t highjack us at every emotional turn. Emotional upheaval, fear, disappointment and frustration are not the best environmental energies or skillful mindsets for learning things that require attention, direction, cooperation and sustained focus. That’s one reason we can learn to thrive with the help of others.
Finally, those steps above will shrink in importance if the first three years of our lives have been ones that massively grow our early neurons and synapses and the connections between them all through our bodies. When that happens, especially in concert with Robert Sapolsky’s Four Neuroenhancers, secure attachment often results. With secure attachment, a Growth Mindset often unfolds from a brain and heart that are able to process increasing amounts of energy and information. The frequent outcome: resilience that uses strength of heart to fearlessly orchestrate some of our life’s wildest and wooliest adventures in learning.