The Adventure in Building Resilience

6 Mar 2020
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Becoming an Adventurer in your life moves you from coping to thriving!

“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.” 
– Georgie Eliot
At the beginning of the year I was invited to give a talk at an HR event. An idea had been buzzing around in my head, around adventure and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone physically, and the impact that has on your resilience both physically and mentally.
I consider myself lucky, I’ve had quite a few adventures, some close encounters with real life-or-death situations that have enriched my life. At the time they felt scary, one or two have been ‘is this it?’ moments, but in no way do I regret having them.
So, this is my (amended for easy reading) talk about the Adventure in Building Resilience…

Are you an adventurer? Do you approach each new day, each meeting, going into work with anticipation, with optimism, with curiosity?

And if not, then what are you feeling?
I want to put forward a case in favour of becoming an adventurer, because when you do that, when you embrace the unknown, take risks, maybe even suffer hardships, you start to build resilience. And that is when you move from coping into thriving.
Resilience is that ability to cope with problems and setbacks, to be able to use your skills and strengths to get through challenges, to recover and push forward again and in so doing, enrich your life. And resilient people are more likely to experience positive emotions, like pleasure, happiness and joy; they tend to be socially connected, to be more outgoing; they tend to embrace new experiences and challenges. And when they’re under pressure, resilient people have a tendency to cope better, even expand and grow.
Whereas people who are less resilient are more likely to experience negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, jealousy. They have a tendency to hunker down, avoid conflict, unable to see past the stressors…
There are 3 key elements to developing resilience:
  • Failure – not avoiding it, but rather rebounding from failure
  • Stress – not avoiding it, but embracing it and using it to propel you forwards
  • Learning – from both good and bad experiences, mistakes even
It’s a bit like catching a cold – if you grew up in a sterile environment, you never caught a cold or picked up a bug as a child, your immune system will not be prepared for life outside that bubble. So, when you do eventually step outside and you finally catch that first cold, it’s going to be the worst cold ever, it might even be life-threatening! Your immune system will be overwhelmed because it hasn’t developed any resistance or resilience. But if you played in the mud, if you interacted with many infectious children, if you ate that bit of food that fell on the floor – you’re going to be fine!
So what about adventure, and how is it going to help you build resilience?
Definition of adventure: an exciting experience that is BOLD, sometimes RISKY, has the potential for DANGER, it’s about EXPLORATION and PARTICIPATION. What if you approach everything you do with a sense of adventure – what would that mean to you?
Using three stories of adventure I’d like to explore how they help to build resilience.
Firstly, let’s look at failure. We learn as much if not more from our failures, as we do from our successes. Failure is a building block if you want to promote resilience.
So, this first story is what you might think an adventure looks like – an expedition through jungle, climbing to the rim of an active volcano, you could say this is a ‘classic adventure’, it included porters carrying supplies including live chickens strapped to bamboo poles, climbing to 3726m above sea level – we were planning to dive in the lake that sat in the middle of the larger volcano.
Back in 1996 I was taking part in an expedition with a small group of friends, all from my local scuba diving club. We were relatively fit but not extraordinarily so. The main part of the trip was diving on a tiny island off Lombok in Indonesia, and this was a 3 day expedition, diving in a thermal lake that had been dived only a handful of times before.
We set off early in the morning to climb Mount Rinjani, the volcano. It took us 12 hours to reach the rim, starting through jungle, moving up above the treeline, scrambling up loose scree, ending up high above cloud level. Now, problems started as we climbed, the expectation was that it was a 4-5 hour trek, so the 12 hours it took us was a little longer – it turned out that the dive guide leading us was super fit, in fact he was special forces fit being an ex-military diver who tested and developed diving equipment, and he hadn’t accounted for us more modestly fit people!
Nonetheless we reached the rim of the outer cone and camped overnight.
The next morning we set off to go down into the cone – we faced a climb down a sheer 50m cliff face, and one of our party had severe vertigo and this was a 3 points of contact kind of climb, no ropes, just free climbing. We made it down but the going was slow, time was ticking and some of the party were by now feeling distinctly unimpressed with the expedition : a couple of people had altitude sickness (dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, headache), the lady with vertigo had exhausted herself climbing down, marital issues had developed between one couple. Time was ticking and we were supposed to be diving in the lake by now, so that we could be back in the village at the base of the volcano by nightfall.
A group meeting was called. A vote was taken. Like a bad Brexit premonition, the leavers won!
The wife of the unhappy couple was adamant that she would continue whilst the rest of us turned back (the expedition guide went with her while we followed the porters back).
So, failure. And also stress and mistakes to learn from.
We’d started the expedition with such expectation and anticipation but it didn’t work out quite how we expected. How can that be positive, how does that build resilience?
  • We pushed ourselves hard, we know that we are capable of fairly extreme physical exertion (for us). And I know that standing up talking in public is nowhere near as scary as having to climb down that sheer cliff face!
  • I learned a valuable lesson in being prepared – in this case, altitude tablets would certainly have helped, as would having a better idea of the distance involved – I am going to excuse us for the expedition because this was a time before widescale computers and the internet, no tripadvisor, googlemaps, etc. But it’s something I do all the time now, make sure I’m prepared by googling where I’m going, street viewing the building, a little researching on the company or people I’m meeting, it helps to reduce stress if you make things familiar.
  • Not taking someone else’s word for things, understanding that they have their own perspective, abilities and experience. Take it as a guideline not an absolute – trust yourself, your own research and decisions.
  • Surrounding yourself with people you trust, who you support and who you are supported by. In any business, whether you’re the owner, or an employee, you need good people around you – ones who have their hands on your shoulder, and ones you can put your hand on.
  • And having compassion for the failure. At the time of the vote I was one of the remainers, I secretly resented abandoning the trip. Subsequently I dived in a thermal lake a year or so later, in the Philippines – it was uncomfortably hot in the water (over 40 degrees) and barren, nothing lives in that environment. It turns out that our volcano expedition was all about the journey – which is often true in life!
So, on to the second element to building resilience – stress and embracing discomfort.
A few years ago I had a business trip to Micronesia. It’s a string of tiny islands north of Australia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I was actually visiting the island of Guam for business, but it’s a short flight to neighbouring Yap where I wanted to spend the weekend diving. Yap has large populations of grey reef sharks, and I was diving just with a guide (not in a group), we were near the end of the dive at around 4-5m and we were using reef hooks, which help you stay in one place in strong currents without damaging the reef.
My dive guide indicated that it was time to go and he unhooked from the reef and drifted up. I could clearly see the sun shining through the top of the ocean and the boat just above us, the water was crystal clear.
But I couldn’t unhook. The current was really strong and the thin nylon cord was under a huge amount of tension. I couldn’t get the clip to work either, a quick-release one that you just slide down to open but I couldn’t pull it down to unhook from it. I checked my air and, to my horror, saw it was down to zero – I’d ignored one of the basic tenets of diving, always come up at 50 bar pressure. I knew I had dipped below that but getting distracted with the view I’d totally overstayed my welcome.
My stress response system kicked in, I had a moment of panic, that flash of “this is it” as I tugged helplessly on the reef hook, but it wouldn’t budge. I felt my heart rate increase, vision narrowing just as it would in a life-or-death fight/flight situation anywhere.  How stupid for an experienced diver, to be so close to the surface that I could practically touch it – and yet to potentially drown here.
I took a gasp of air, it felt like I’d drained the last remnants from the tank, gathered my thoughts and pulled myself down hard along the cord to grasp a piece of rock and release the tension off the reef hook. It came free and I kicked hard to the surface…
Fast forward a few years later, I was working at a trade show in Germany. It had been a long few days, flying out on the Wednesday to do set up on Thursday, trade show open from Friday through to Sunday, back to back meetings, dinners out with clients, etc, it was now Sunday afternoon and we were just treading time until our various flights home – and I was more than ready to go! The VP of the company called me over, and I thought he was just going to do a rundown of the weekend, how I thought it went, any issues, etc.
But no.
He thought that this was a really good time to tell me that they wanted to change my contract – basically more work, less money. I’d worked for this company for around 20 years, the last 4 or 5 of which had been the most stressful time of my working life due to internal politics largely driven by the man sat in front of me.
In a heartbeat I was taken back to that moment of being trapped on the reef, being able to see the surface, gasping for that last puff of air, and the panic of thinking “this is it”. It was like an out-of-body experience.
But then, as had happened before, I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts and pulled myself down hard to release the tension. Only this time it wasn’t the reef hook coming free but my thoughts: it’s going to be fine – but not with this company any more.
Psychologically and physiologically I had been in this place before – embracing discomfort and bouncing back from stress builds resilience.
By taking on challenges that push you out of your comfort zone, you prepare your mind and your body.
Stress is physical. If you never go through any hardships, any stressful moments, any discomfort – then the moment you do, and if it happens to be a big one, you will surely be swallowed up by it.  Learning to pull into it prepares you for the ups and downs because life is messy!
Now my last story is about learning from experience, good and bad, because resilience is not something you can just get, it is learned and has a cumulative effect.
A few years ago I was diving off the coast of South Africa, on a baited Tiger shark dive. They work like this:
A short RIB ride out to the dive site where a small amount of chum is put in the water, it’s a bit like ringing the dinner bell. First to arrive at the table are Blacktips, 20-30 of them whizzing around, whilst their fins are breaking the sea surface you get kitted up and slip into the water with them.
After a short while 1 or maybe 2 Tigers come along.
There’s an old washing machine drum on a shot line filled with a mixture of oily fish, and the divers have to maintain buoyancy at around 10m (the seabed is around 15-20m), staying in a fairly close group. If someone drops down or away from the group, they will become an individual of ‘interest’ to the Tiger, who just might investigate a little closer as they’re perceived to be a weaker or more vulnerable individual – and unfortunately without hands to feel with, they explore with their teeth!
So, we’re out on this dive, all fairly experienced divers except one guy. He’s just completed his open water certification and has around 20 dives under his belt. Only he hasn’t built up any experience or resilience.
For us, this wasn’t our first experience of Tigers, and we’ve dived with a number of different sharks from harmless dogfish in the UK, to massive whale sharks the size of buses, Ragged-tooth sharks, Zambezi (Bull sharks), numerous reefs sharks, etc.
These Tiger shark dives are probably at the top in terms of excitement level – it requires a competence in technical diving, being able to control your buoyancy mid-water, your stress and anxiety levels, your breathing, your body positioning so that you don’t stick your hands out which might look like a tempting morsel. All that whilst trying not to think about feeling a bit seasick (in big ocean at 10m, the swell picks you up and drops you down constantly), or needing a wee or hearing the Jaws music play in your head…
This inexperienced guy felt overwhelmed, he went into flight-fight mode which isn’t great given the environment. Within a couple of minutes of entering the water, he was back on the boat.
Experience counts. You can only get experience through, well, experience.
This is true in the workplace. Feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, unable to do what’s required will make you want to run away, freeze or fight – the opt-out clauses of the stress response system. When you build up your experience incrementally, so that you learn from it, the good and the bad, the mistakes, you build resilience and confidence.
A few years ago I trained to be a hypnotherapist, the course took a year which class-based learning one weekend every month but in between we had to find willing volunteers to practise our new skills on. At the end of the year we graduated not just as qualified therapists but as walking, talking therapists which, when you work with people, is crucial.
You can’t buy it, it’s not a talent you’re born with. It takes time to develop, and whilst you gather that experience to you, both good and bad, you also build that resilience. You learn what works and what doesn’t, your limitations and your capabilities, you go through ups and downs and come out the other side.
I hope these stories illustrate how exposure to failure, understanding stress and your own learning teaches you to rebound, recover and get back up. And through having a mindset of adventure, you promote that resilience.
Remember, adventure is about being BOLD, RISK, DANGER, EXPLORATION, PARTICIPATION
So what does this all mean for you? How do you bring adventure into your life? I’m not suggesting you go out a buy a ticket to a jungle, climb the nearest volcano or take on a physical challenge but if you can bring the elements of adventure to your everyday how would that change your outlook on life, on work?
Think about:
  • Being curious, approaching events and tasks with a degree of optimism
  • Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, participating, through activities like public speaking, connecting with people you might not normally
  • Not overthinking what other people might think but trusting in your own instincts
  • Understanding your stress response system and how that stress can be used to propel you forwards, not hold you back
  • Picking yourself up when you fail and trying again, with compassion for yourself
  • And having connection with your experiences, make them meaningful
  • Making this the most important place you could be at this particular time
You can think about your life for your own highs and lows, because your personal life feeds into your work and vice versa.
Instead of thinking “What’s the worst that can happen”, ask yourself “What’s the best that can happen?”
As Georgie Eliot said “Adventure is not outside man; it is within.”
If you’d like to hear my talk on the Adventure in Building Resilience, please do get in touch – it’s one of my favourites to give!

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