What’s the New Narrative? Habit-Forming Approaches to Resilience

Pace layering and changeLast year I created a website to encourage people to put life back into lifestyle. I was hearing a general disenchantment with the polished image of lifestyle influencers. Many colleagues and friends loved to hear my stories about the Made in Italy, and couldn't find anything resembling that genuine spirit of Italian style.

So I took the plunge and added the publication to my writing rotation. I was channeling a general sense of malaise with the perfect portrayals that left no room for real persons with family life and budgets to juggle to see themselves in the picture.

Then my developer died unexpectedly and I lost a dear friend and colleague of fifteen years. For a few weeks I was reeling from the loss and a bit lost in figuring out how to continue the project alone.

Little I knew then that we'd all be in a similar situation, losing friends and family members with the associated pain and stress a few short months later. That we'd do that mostly isolated while navigating the uncertainty of a pandemic.

Now all of a sudden, everything is raw and life-challenging.

Transitioning least favorite part of change

Nearly two months in, and everyone is still thinking about work in a new light, while playing catch up with emotions. Front line workers in health, food, and essential services are putting their life on the line daily. Millions of people are experimenting with work from home changes.

Parents are negotiating work and life along with child care and education. Left more to their devices, children are likely getting more responsible and showing greater resilience than expected.

Everyone is called to making decisions with imperfect information and on the fly. Lest we fall victim of hindsight bias, it's useful to remember that managers, parents, family members, colleagues are all making decisions before they know outcomes.

Unpredictable situations tend to be fluid. Say someone makes a decision that mitigates bad outcomes, then nothing happens. Will you get upset at the costs? Even when knowing that the decision could be the reason why nothing bad happened?

Everyone's feeling their way along a spectrum, transitioning from what was to grappling with what is. Harder still to think about what shall be. This is the human part of the curve few are talking about.

For many, style has taken on a new meaning. To me, it's the best way to express agency, a personal way of doing things. It includes appearance, but it runs deeper. It's who you are and how you behave in the world.

Don't jump to conclusions

Everyone is undergoing change at about the same time, but not together. Because of the need to stay apart, each person is physically facing the crisis alone. In some cases within a family unit. Along with the added logistics, the separation from normal routine may trigger pitfalls in judgement.

A group of psychologists outlined a few simple strategies for dealing with them. For example, unknown risk attracts more attention, but it's hard to sustain when the inability to think exponentially makes the numbers seem low. A good strategy for dealing with this issue, “We've been at it for a while, yet must be as vigilant as when it was all new.”

Another problem is the lack of immediate feedback loops. It takes a few days for a potential infection to emerge. In this case, it's helpful to, “Focus on your own planned behavior and not population statistics that change daily.”

Even though looking at log activity is a natural response to a situation that has such enormous consequences already felt across the world, your reactions may vary. Venkatesh Rao says#:

The log level is the lowest level of psychological functioning where a coherent sense of universal time passing is even possible. Further collapse leads to varying degrees of PTSD and traumatizing kinds of atemporality (there’s interesting research on this) driven by progressive fragmentation of identity into subhuman shards.

Math is the solution of last resort. When it's difficult, if not impossible to jump to conclusions through a neat narrative that explains what's going on, data is the ultimate pacifier. It's concrete and available.

Create a narrative

The status quo bias is hard to fight. An aversion to loss is baked into the human DNA and makes it harder to embrace change. But a loss of common narrative coming from the usual sources can be liberating as well.

After the initial shock and survival period, psychologically, we could think, “This crisis can help us to look at many things anew.” The broader debate on building physical things# that can reinforce infrastructure is likely a clue of recent institutional bias against action. A data point worth considering.

In many, alas not all, parts of the world, this experience is also showing us that where there's a will, there's an ability. Suddenly, it becomes easier to get things done quickly. For example, companies went from a few people working remotely to entire teams working from home.

Digital transformation happened without transition. Policy is playing catch up, and so is management. What was taking years because of fear of the unknown and resistance, took just a few days. Necessity is the mother of invention, as goes the popular saying.

There's little that compares to an emergency for focusing everyone. Narrative drives perception of agency rising and falling for every agent, says Rao. Right now, everyone feels they're losing the plot: Individuals, companies, institutions, etc.

It's easy to see the narrative plot as a zero-sum game, in terms of winners and losers. Without clear lines between who's winning and who's losing, it's hard to preserve the idea of personal agency. But if you can step away from societal pressures and defaults just a little, you can figure out what is meaningful to you, right now.

Use your mind to your advantage

Culture plays a big role in navigating the tension between personal style or agency, workplace norms and societal pressure. Transitioning is uncomfortable. You're not what you'll be, you're no longer what you were. It's typically the messy part of organizational change. Hard to say what's happening at societal level at this point.

There's one thing you can control: What you read, think, and say. For the past four weeks, I've had conversations with people all over the world as part of my involvement with Not Everyday Life.

I've learned that some people are rediscovering the vast power of nature to calm and inspire them. Others are creating art to deal with emotions: Writing, painting, coloring, taking photographs. Online learning adds focus for introverted children, others use it as an outlet to escape not available in classrooms.

Role reversals between teachers-pupils and among generations are accelerating. Working from home is highlighting individual contributions that otherwise are missed at the office. Many observed that their companies are operating as flatter organizations when everyone is remote.

After the initial adjustment, some individuals and companies are investing in training programs. Others are rediscovering stillness, and its value in creating space for reflection and better thinking.

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal says willpower has become the thing that distinguishes us from each other:

People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer.

And a key to figuring out “I want” things, our real goals and desires. But this area of your brain is the smallest and has evolved more recently. This is why it's important to create routines and habits.

Charlie Munger says, “Organized common (or uncommon) sense — very basic knowledge — is an enormously powerful tool.” What we need right now is new habits in business.

Leaders can adapt to:

  1. Accept the nature and impact of a new situation—strategy is not linear planning like a to-do list, it's even less so now. Exponential speed and uncertainty create chaos. Crisis is a dangerous time in which you need a solution fast. Strategy now requires fast and appropriate responses to changing conditions. 
  2. Make things happen to keep momentum—crises don't shape character, they reveal it. Leonardo del Vecchio, chairman of eye-wear company Luxottica, stepped up support of employees. IndyCar company Dallara shifted gears to produce ventilators and acted on the suggestion of a 29-year old employee to pool vacation days in order to preserve pay for all employees, rather than reduce it for many through furlough measures.
  3. Find a new frame of reference—by definition, the rules of an infinite game must change to stay in the game. Staying in the game makes business sustainable, playing with boundaries creates opportunities for innovation, generating time provides duration, eternal birth plays on the necessity to refresh, evolve, and reinvent.

In Lawrence Thornton's novel Imagining Argentina, Carlos Rueda says, “So long as we accept what the men in the car imagine, we’re finished. […] We have to believe in the power of imagination because it is all we have, and ours is stronger than theirs. And that is why we will survive, because they do not have what is necessary to defeat us. The real war is between imagination and theirs, what we can see and what they are blind to. Do not despair. None of them can see far enough, and so long as we do not let them violate our imagination we will survive.”

Imagination is a powerful ally. Everything that looks stable and solid now was invented at some point. The most important part leaders can play is to define the challenges, build new fair guidelines that take needs into account, and communicate with clarity.


I send out a chatty weekly email with links to resources to feel less lonely, lead better, and absorb some Italian style in good company.