Issue #50: Belonging and Transformative Resilience

"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become." — Carl Jung

Yesterday I got the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. My first reaction? A sigh of relief. I can finally begin to see a flicker at the end of the tunnel, a glimmer of an oasis in the vast desert hinting at the social liberties my little extroverted heart desires.

I started Future of Belonging due to my stubborn urgent optimism that, although growing loneliness, disaffiliation, and displacement portended a terrible future, we had choices and opportunities to build futures that addressed the mistakes and shortcomings of our present. After nearly 18 months of writing and over a year of living in the age of COVID, I’m excited to turn the spotlight on pathways to architecting those better futures.

I was delighted to connect with Ama Marston over a month ago to discuss her book, Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World, and work focused on transformative resilience. Our conversation focused on the mindset, solutions, and approaches for moving through crisis and trauma that transformative resilience offers, many of which align with fulfilling the need for belonging. As you read more about transformative resilience, I hope that you reflect on how these practices and perspective have arisen in your life and work over the last year and start to see inspiration for your commitment to cultivating greater belonging in the future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Vanessa Mason: Thanks for taking the time to chat. I was watching some of your videos on transformative resilience and just find your work so intriguing. I'd love to hear how you define a Type R individual and transformative resilience and then dig in.

Ama Marston: Transformative resilience really is an evolution, building on the decades of good work about resilience in ecosystems, economies, and individual people. Traditionally, the notion of resilience is defined as bouncing back. It comes from a technical background of seeing how far metals can be bent and then return to their former state.

That definition has been helpful for a time, but the reality is that we, as people, leaders, whole organizations and even communities, don't often return to our former states after a shake up or trauma. In a way it's often not even desirable to go back, because if you do, you've missed out on the opportunity to evolve, learn, and grow.

So, transformative resilience is the notion of using disruption, adversity, and challenges to evolve, build new strengths, and draw out new lessons to innovate.

The Process of Transformative Resilience

Vanessa: I was just reading this BBC Future article with psychologists talking about the mass trauma we're experiencing with the pandemic. One defines trauma as a break or rupture in meaning-making and the ways that we look at the world and ourselves. You've worked with a lot of global leaders who have to lead their organizations and communities through times of crisis. When looking at our current moment with this question of do we build back better, or do we transform, what are some forces that you're seeing that are encouraging the world to adopt and practice more transformational resilience? 

Ama: We all have the ability for transformative resilience. It may not happen all at once. We have to return to some stage of normalcy or at least not being in immediate danger. We have to have a little bit of distance. People often say, “Let's make this happen! Let's just transform this situation.” They are eager for it to happen right away. It may be a while before we see what the outcomes are and the different avenues forward, especially with something like the pandemic. The decisions made now will build different futures for us.

There is a process, a cycle, which I think somebody like you, who looks at futures will appreciate. We start out with our normal or status quo where we're comfortable. That can be something that's quite dysfunctional but we've become accustomed to and learned how to operate within that. Then there's a disruption that is introduced into our lives, our work, our communities, our systems. It throws us into chaos. There's often a period of denial: “Why me? Why is this happening? Is this really happening?” You go through a process of just trying to wrap your head around it, whether that's as an individual leader, a group of people or at a global level.

Eventually, you have a catalytic idea or something that helps you to start seeing in new ways. You start experimenting and seeing what works in these new realities. Often you want to try in small ways to pilot in your own life. You may not call it a pilot, but you’re testing things out, seeing what works, and getting a little bolder and braver with it, as you find something that's working. Eventually you take the lessons from that and integrate that into what becomes a new normal and a new way of operating. That can take years.

Building Transformative Resilience in the Age of COVID-19

Vanessa: How do we start building transformative resilience?

Ama: Mindset is where we start with everything. Like both your glasses and my glasses, it is the framing of how we see everything in front of us. Our mindsets are so pervasive that we don't often remember that frame or that lens and how they shape the way we ask questions, view scenarios, undertake partnerships, and take action.

One of the positive things that's taking place is there is a recognition that we need to build back in different ways. We can't return to where we've come from, and I think that's particularly critical, given the extent to which inequality has been highlighted during this period. We don't want to go back, especially people who have experienced the most inequality.

We've also found that at least in the US, also the UK, where I was living for a decade, many of the systems are very rundown and in need of more support. We need new ways of thinking for today's world where the systems serve larger, more diverse populations with a range of different needs. What's encouraging is that there is a mindset among many leaders that we need to evolve and grow from these disruptions. There are a lot of catchphrases at the UN or in the Biden team about building back better.

It reflects an important mindset. A lot of what comes next will come down to the decisions and policies, and the partnerships we undertake. When talking about leadership, I want to be inclusive. People are stretching themselves and reframing their mindsets at many different levels of leadership (e.g. leading a family or a process, a team, an organization or entire community or nation).

Avoiding ‘Toxic Positivity’ and Acknowledging Losses and Setbacks

Vanessa: We talked about some of the positive forces carrying us forward. What are some forces that you're seeing pulling us back to the ways that we were before?

Ama: There’s a subset of leaders and people who really want to bury their head in the sand and pretend that this isn't really happening or it's going to go away soon and we're just going to get back to normal. There's still a lot of narrative about “bouncing back”, which is often not possible and leaves us ill-equipped for new realities after the magnitude of something like a pandemic that disrupts whole communities, health systems, economies, and daily life. We will never be the same after this. It would really be a tragedy if we didn't learn anything new from this. And, we also have to be cautious about over-emphasizing the opportunities in this moment when so many people are suffering.

Ama: Without acknowledging losses, there's a danger of toxic positivity and sweeping under the rug so much of the difficulties for many people, especially where they've lost loved ones or they're barely hanging on financially.

Leading and Adapting Through Turbulent Times and Addressing Community Needs

Vanessa:As we look to course correct for that toxic positivity and the pain that lies ahead, what are ways that you've seen leaders create space for acknowledgment of reality and encouragement of creativity? To be fair, our reality can be so incredibly paralyzing and overwhelming, making you want to bury your head in the sand. How do we open our Pandora’s box of emotions?

Ama: I don't mean to sound cliche, but a lot of it is emotional intelligence and reading the moment of where people are. Many of the leaders I’ve talked to who are peers of mine are leading different teams and organizations. One is leading a scientific organization in Europe, another is leading a not-for-profit, another is a corporate leader...all of these happen to be women leaders that I'm thinking of. Some of that is by virtue of women often being very self-reflective, though men can be too. But these leaders have had to really care for people's well-being.

Before getting to their day to day of what they're supposed to deliver and accomplish as leaders, they have managed measures like mental health checks, as people have been more isolated, particularly those living far away from family or living on their own. Leaders have been stretched in new ways. The most effective leaders have adapted to find a more flexible line between the personal and professional and talk about things like mental health, support, mindset, and acknowledging difficulties.

Ama: I unexpectedly spent quite a bit of time in New Mexico where my mother lives and where I lived as a very small child. New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the US and has a lot of inequality issues. There are 24 reservations of different indigenous communities, some of which don't have running water and electricity. There are huge political divides with the Mexican American community. It's been really interesting watching the governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, balance acknowledging all of the losses: everything from deciding to shut down the economy, and what that means for small businesses and balancing that with public health needs and policy needs.

I really admire how she's tried to be compassionate but also make difficult and unpopular decisions and just be okay with that. It is difficult at a time when there's also a lot of threats against public leaders and particularly female public leaders. She's somebody that I've watched with a lot of admiration, as she tries to specifically address people's individual experiences and needs, particularly the Navajo reservation that has had higher rates of COVID infections than any state. By addressing those particular losses and needs and not just brushing it over and telling people, “Rah rah we'll get through this,” she’s balanced acknowledging and supporting people through loss with policies like additional funding for small businesses for Native Americans. She rallied people around lockdowns. She was one of the first to impose a second round of lockdowns, done before California. It wasn't a popular decision and was difficult for many people. She needed to say, “We're working towards something together, we're going to transform this situation, we're going to get it in hand. It's hard now, but there will be hopeful positive outcomes.”

The Possibilities of a Type R Mindset

Vanessa: That's a really powerful example of balancing hope for the future and vision and acknowledging the complexity and pain of the present. Thinking about transition, if we have a country or a state where everyone from leaders down to every community member has the mindset of a Type R individual, what becomes possible in a world like that? What are some of the opportunities? What could our human relationships look like? What does that world look like and feel like? What are some of the notable tradeoffs?

Ama: I should first define what a Type R is. Type R is an individual, a leader, a whole organization, a family or community that's able to reframe challenges, grow and evolve, to create transformative resilience. As I said before, we all have the capacity for it and we all are probably already displaying some of the behaviors every day in small ways. Many people often have this mindset of “you're either born with it or you're not.” That’s detrimental fixed thinking. In many ways, a type R mindset reflects a growth mindset in the face of adversity. The type R mindset uses these challenges for innovation and new lessons.

So what becomes possible with that? The word greatness comes to mind (said somewhat jokingly). It's not really a term that I use that often because it feels so grand. But, with the ability to reframe and acknowledge losses, challenges, hurt, disappointments, and setbacks, and learn from them, you can move forward instead of getting stuck. It allows you to be open to new possibilities and collaborate with others instead of being shut down. It allows you to experiment and come up with solutions and ways of operating that are better suited to the current times. You can project and make decisions now as we reframe based on what we think may happen. I see transformative resilience as the key skill set for our times.

Somebody once said to me in a way that I think was well intentioned, “You're so resilient but that's not the same as success.” They said that to me five or 10 years ago,  not knowing all that would come and that I would write an award-winning book about it. I've thought about that comment lately. The fact that I'm here and doing as well as I am despite multiple rounds of hard-knocks and setbacks in many ways comes down to transformative resilience. That’s true of a number of people, communities and even organizations I’ve seen who have faced a number of difficult circumstances and grown through them. We have to start acknowledging that that is a kind of success. Our definitions of what success looks like have been problematic in  many ways and are harmful for many people who don't fit within certain societal norms, don't look a certain way, or either don't choose traditional paths or have access to conventional markers of success because of bias they face. 

Transforming Outdated and Biased Systems

Ama: In the context of racial equity and gender equity, we see the challenges of not operating differently. I've seen a lot of people of color on social media and in my life say ‘hope is just being used to brush people's difficult experiences under the rug and maintain the status quo’. Or they’re saying that we can’t expect individuals to just keep going, no matter what's thrown their way.

Transformative resilience builds the capacity of individuals and leaders and also looks at transforming outdated and biased systems. The goal is not to place the onus on individual people to deal with those outdated systems and say, “You just have to be more resilient” even if you lost housing benefits or even if somebody is prejudiced against you at work and is not letting you advance or even if you’re living with the threat of police brutality. This is not about telling people just to “suck it up” and to bear injustice and inequality.

These are issues that I really care about and they’re at the top of many people's minds. This moment of disruption has really brought them to life, especially the racial and socioeconomic inequities. That's important to acknowledge and ensure that we don't force toxic positivity onto people suffering most due to bias, racism, inequitable impacts of an economic downturn and COVID19.

Vanessa: Thank you for bringing that up. With my work at the Institute for the Future, we do a lot of work with organizations. They're constantly interested in futures thinking, because they're seeking new opportunities. But I think that in that rush toward novelty we forget that there are things that we should be unlearning and undoing. Your warning against toxic positivity is a welcome reminder to folks that inertia and reinforcing the status quo can be harmful. We need to have the awareness and courage to ask ourselves, “What can we let fall away?” 

Charting Transformative Futures

Ama: A lot of the choices that lay before us with those future scenarios will come down to whether or not we approach those choices through a transformative resilience and Type R lens. Even that Type R mindset could lend itself to so many different outcomes. The question comes down to “Do we choose to tackle and transform these outdated systems and outdated cultures? And, if so, how?” 

Vanessa: IFTF published a set of post-pandemic scenarios using the alternative futures methodology to answer that question.  The transformation scenario centers on the notion of social solidarity which includes principles like mutualism and interconnectedness which are sources of strength and risk. By balancing these principles in a way that centers social and emotional well-being, we start to work toward those principles of transformative resilience that you mentioned. 

Cycles of Disruption & Transformation

Vanessa: As you think 10-15 years ahead about transformative resilience, what should we keep in mind about the decisions we make today?

Ama: One thing that has certainly come to mind, through my own life being very disrupted by COVID as well as my work and talking to different clients is this notion of the cycles and the process of transformative resilience. I’ve had the realization at a new level that we will have more and more disruptions more closely timed together in the coming years vis-a-vis climate change like the winter storm in Texas, or the California wildfires. Experts expect that we may have more cycles of pandemics that come up every few years. We have growing political division in the States, and other countries around the world.

We may not complete the full cycle of transformative resilience before another disruption comes along or we may have cycles moving in parallel — status quo, disruption, chaos, catalyst, integration/experimentation & renewal/new normal. For example, we may have gotten to the experiment stage in climate change and then there's another social disruption of inequity that kicks us into chaos and rethinking. We need to build skills and cultures that can manage that complexity. We need to get comfortable with the fact that we're probably not going to come back to a place of comfort and normality in the future, and that that's just going to be part of the world that we live in. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Ama: I’m excited to collaborate with people like yourself and policymakers and thinkers. I’ve co-created this new paradigm with my mom who is a psychologist. With my background in international affairs and leadership we felt we could make a contribution together. I look forward to further seeing what transformative resilience means in different contexts and how it can guide concrete policy decisions and contribute to social justice.

It can go in so many different directions, but I think a lot of it comes back to mindsets, processes, cycles and reflection so that we can tell and show ourselves that there will be something on the other side.

Vanessa: I often say we are entering this age of omni crisis with overlapping and cascading crises that leave us living in more continuous chaos. We think of futures and imagination as luxuries rather than rights. We should aim to build a world where our future descendants have better opportunities than what we have now. We need to have everyone participating in that process of imagining, designing, deciding, and building together. Thank you for joining me today.