Boxing Clever for Resilience

ALIIt’s a truism that moving house is a stressful life event and it’s something I can attest to for myself. Having lived in the same urban property for over 20 years, I have just upped sticks with my family for a new rural location. I’m not a big fan of moving, but even I’ve been surprised by the disruption it’s brought. I guess I’d anticipated the chaos in the house but I’d totally underestimated the challenges we’d face sorting basics such as childcare and shopping, while my wife starts a new job and I continue with mine. Candidly neither of us has been at our best at times, which got me asking myself how resilient I am. And by this I meant my ability to roll with the punches and maintain my equanimity. But the more I wondered about this, the more I began to ponder if this was really what others understood resilience to mean.

What’s certain is that the term is enjoying significant currency in organisational management and professional development circles; in fact resilience, which has long been a hot topic in systems thinking and sustainable development circles, seems to be following sustainability’s own rise to mainstream prominence. And just like sustainability, resilience is a hotly contested concept. Professor David Alexander of UCL’s Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction has traced the history of resilience from classical to contemporary times, finding definitions as varied and contrasting as:

  • “to recoil”
  • “to avoid”
  • “to shrink”
  • “to rebound”
  • “to leap”
  • “to persist.”
  • “to absorb disturbance”


I have exhibited most of these during this fortnight of domestic mayhem, but I have not experienced them in the same way and neither have they made the same impression on those around me!

There’s a temptation to cut through this uncertainty and nail a definitive interpretation for resilience. But that would do a disservice to the concept: the very value of resilience lies in its complexity. So while it is safe to think of “persistence” or “optimism” as discrete qualities, resilience is perhaps better viewed as a process or mode of operating made possible by timely and appropriate selection from a suite of behaviours.

In general I’m about as fond of boxing as I am of packing and unpacking. But if you were seeking an example of what resilience might look like in action, you could do worse than watch Muhammed Ali at his peak.

Ali, of course, famously spoke of his capacity to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and there’s no denying his ability to meld grace with power. This is evident in his capacity for drawing himself in on the ropes, bobbing and weaving, ducking and diving, launching explosive counter attacks, and for mesmerizing and baffling his opponents with his feints and shuffles. In effect Ali is recoiling, avoiding, shrinking, rebounding and leaping, all of which feature in Professor Alexander’s list. And Ali is persistent too, but not in the sense that he is prepared to stand there and just soak up the punches. His persistence lies in his total attention to the moment and his constant adaptation to the actions of his adversary, all of which enables him to absorb disturbance. It is his focus, adaptability and the quality of the techniques from which he can select that make him so resilient.

So how do we develop personal and organisational resilience? Well for Brian Walker of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, it’s a case of acting outside of normal comfort zones. As a systems thinking theorist, Walker equates the moment at which resilience collapses with the point at which one system becomes another. The way to build up and maintain any system’s resilience is by “disturbing and probing the boundaries of (that system’s) resilience.

I’m all for stretch and creative disruption, but right now, struggling with the nuts and bolts of Ikea and the logistics of school drop offs and distant food shops, I feel the urge for respite. Maybe instead of pushing at the boundaries, I need to nurture my resilience by giving myself a break. Like Ali I should recoil from the action, review the situation, even have a little dance, before springing back into action with refreshed vigour and determination. Knowing how to blend these reactions and doing it well can be more valuable to getting through than simply trying to slug it out.

I wish I could remember which box we packed the tea pot in.

, , ,

13 Responses to Boxing Clever for Resilience

  1. Helen Neo 10 June, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    A thought-provoking and very human post. I too questioned my own resilience when not so long ago, I moved away from London where I’d studied, lived and worked for the best part of 15 years. I hear the term bandied about by politicians and educators and wonder if it can be taught…in a way does it conflict with another popular buzzword of the moment – mindfulness? Is there a danger we could end by being so busy being resilient that we forget to be mindful? Hope you find the tea!

    • Magnified Learning 10 June, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

      Many thanks for your comments, Helen. I agree that resilience seems to be more spoken about than explained in some circles. I personally think mindfulness can make an important contribution to resilience. It’s all down to the definition of resilience I guess. Here’s an interesting take on it:

  2. Magnified Learning 10 June, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

  3. Rob Bowden 12 June, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    Hi Nigel,

    What timing. Great to hear your thoughts on resilience. I am in the middle of a research paper on resilience and learning that was commissioned following the learning through values project. It builds on some work with British Red Cross whose entire focus is on building resilience in young people.

    It is a fascinating area and one that I agree with you, has been frequently over hyped and rarely understood. I am enjoying the challenge of doing the latter but it is not clear. Like you I went back to systems thinking, but have also branched into the worlds of economics, business, sports, healthcare and of course pyschology to draw on a range of perspectives.
    It is a work in progress and my own resilience is being tried by an impending move, much like you. My big challenge is finding space for all the new books on resilience that have now demanded another bookcase and perhaps more ikea headaches.

    I’d be keen to share ideas as they evolve and it is very much a process with the link to behaviours that you mention being the most interesting aspect for me and the locale at which values come in to help us understand resilience in greater depth. For me though the biggest obstacle is the notion of resilience in common parlance as ‘bouncing back’. Do we really want things to recover to the way they were, when the way they were was so frequently the cause of the disturbance in the first place. This is where the shift from one system to another that you talk of is particularly interesting and fits more with my current understanding of a resilience as a sustained sense of purpose – this for me takes us further because we have to define the purpose and in doing so can release great potential and avoid expending energy being resilient for purposes that we may not really want or need and that are too often given or imposed rather than discovered and owned.

    Exciting stuff and after a rest and the long awaited cup of tea I look forward to a further conversation…

    Thanks for the links too. More to read and move… or perhaps move and lose! OK, back to the boxes.

  4. Magnified Learning 12 June, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Thanks, Rob, terrific to hear your thoughts too and, wonderful, of course, to learn that you are scrutinising resilience through the rigorous Bowden lens of values. I’m really pleased to hear your concern about the ‘bounce back’ interpretation. It does too often seem that resilience is invoked to maintain the status quo, and in the context of personal development, as a quasi technical alternative to the odious “man up.” And so I warm to David Alexander’s notion of resilience having the potential to mean to “spring forward” rather than to “spring back.” Certainly like to talk more with you about this. Perhaps we could have a skype and share a virtual cuppa sometime when all our boxes are unpacked?!

    • Rob 13 June, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

      A virtual cuppa and skype sounds like a plan and I’d be very keen to talk on this and more generally.

      More soon I hope.

  5. Rachel B Wickert 13 June, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    Hello Nigel,

    Great issue!

    Resilience is a huge theme and you managed to give a really refreshing entry point into it with really useful resources too. Well done!

    Coincidentally, I wrote 2 blogs on that same theme from two different angles. One was about of Children Resilience and the other is about a financial mechanism that we are setting up to support projects sustaining resilience worldwide.

    All the best,


  6. Magnified Learning 13 June, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    A general catch up would be great, Rob. How you fixed for sometime next Thursday (19th?). Perhaps we could even treat ourselves to some virtual biscuits.

  7. Magnified Learning 13 June, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Thanks, Rachel. Really appreciate your feedback, and thanks for the links to your blogs. I love your Cyrulnik quotation: “Resilience is not just something we find inside ourselves or in our environment. It is something we find midway between the two, because our individual development is always linked to our social development.” I really ike too your approach to exploring resilience through story-telling rather than working with “abstract definitions.”

    You are right, resilience is a huge theme! This thread has got me asking all sorts of new questions of my own understanding. Do you know Rob Bowden (above)? I suspect you would enjoy speaking with each other 🙂

  8. David Shindler 14 June, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    As someone about to move house, I’m glad of the forewarning, Nigel! You might want to check out Professior Cary Cooper’s excellent site on resilience where you can take a free online assessment and get an instant report. Really useful materials there too –!

    Also, I like the observation I once read about resilience being “something you realise you have after the fact” (Diane L Coutu).

  9. Magnified Learning 15 June, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    Thanks, David for your post and for the signpost to Cooper’s site – I’ll check it out thoughly and try the online report!) I enjoyed the Coutu HBR articel too I’m trying to decide a what I think about Salvatore R. Maddi’s euqation fo resilience with hardiness.

    And good luck with your move! Is it a fairly local one or somewhere further afield?

    • David Shindler 16 June, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      Thanks Nigel. We live in Leeds and debating whether to stay here moving locally or return to Manchester where my wife comes from. Decisions, decisions…

Leave a Reply