How To Build Resilience
As We Age

How To Build
Resilience
As We Age

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Picture yourself at age 70. Will you be more like Crabby Karl or more like Sunny Susan? Together, let’s try to discover how to build resilience as we age.

how to build resilience attitude outlook

For the longest time I believed that I had the genetic disposition to be the crabbiest of all Karls. My mother was crabby, my grandparents were crabby…believe me, I thought I came from a long line of crabby people, dating back to Genghis Khan.

When my mother was young, she was more Sunny Susan than Crabby Karl. She was my role model for tenacity: she worked harder than anyone I knew; she was always experimenting and figuring out better ways of doing things. On any given day, she might have something to complain about, but no more than what seemed reasonable, and she was always up for a good belly laugh.

As the years went by, I noticed that she became more Crabby Karl, and less Sunny Susan.

The Crabby Karls of this world are difficult company.  You spend a disproportionate amount of mental energy propping them up and stepping on eggshells.  I hated watching someone I love become this way.

How do you help someone age gracefully?  Can you change their mindset? How do you get someone to think more positively, help them build resilience, and become more open-minded?  How do you break their victim mentality and replace it with a sense of hope?

As a teenager, I had no answers.  My shortfall in wisdom was compensated by having an accomplice:  my elder sister. We had an unspoken agreement to share the responsibility of keeping mum from the doldrums.  We’d often say things like “Everything will be OK, Mum…you should stop worrying…look on the bright side…let’s forget about the past…”.  My sister was playing Good Cop and so was I.

My sister did more than her fair share.  She spent the most time with mum. She organised outings; took her shopping; introduced my mother to friends; she even took mum with her on her holiday to Europe when she was 18.

It’s common for the children of low to medium income immigrants to form the view that money solves everything.  If you are one of these, you should think again. I didn’t think again. When I started earning, instead of spending it on booze and cars or building a share portfolio, I gave mum a share of my salary and covered most of her expenses.  When I was 32, I bought a house and moved my mother in, staying with her when I was at home in Australia, and flying her business class back to visit her family in Malaysia, or to visit me for the many months I worked overseas.

On the rationale that a warmer climate would be kind on her arthritis, we convinced mum to spend winter in Malaysia each year.  We accidentally stumbled on a good thing. In Australia, Mum suffered isolation. In Malaysia, she reconnected with old friends, played mahjong, walked everywhere, and grew her social network – it was as if she remembered how to be young again (I’ll come back to the science behind this in a later essay).

So for the three months of winter each year, everybody was happy.  There is no way of saying this without sounding heartless, but the truth is that my sister and I enjoyed the respite.  We could focus on our own lives, confident that mum was supported by her network of family and friends in Malaysia. Each spring, Mum seemed to return from Malaysia a new woman.  Sunny Susan, in fact.

At the time, we had an inkling that all our efforts, all the apparatus, the holidays and the ‘tag team happy squad’ amounted to a dependency on us.  What we didn’t know was that dependencies of this kind are doomed to fail.

My mother’s decline continued in the same trajectory.  The gratitude bought with money never lasted long. She suffered episodes of depression, and her dependency on us deepened further still.  There were days that we could not get her out the door, or even out of her room.

At that point, we got a lesson on the nature of having relationships with the Crabby Karls of this world:  the more they depend on you, the more you become the target of their ire and frustration. You get the blame for doing too little, too much, doing it the wrong way and not doing it soon enough.  And when you’ve done it just right, they’ll complain that you wasted money doing it.

Did our efforts exacerbate the problem?  Philosopher Nassim Taleb coined the term “antifragile”, that is to mean the exact opposite of “fragile”.  Whereas “resilience” resists shocks but essentially remains the same, “antifragile” resists shocks AND gets better.  Did our efforts deny my mother the opportunity to become antifragile? What could we have done differently?

There is even more at stake.  You might have already asked yourself the question:  what effect did this have on my sister and I? And what if crabbiness is a learnt behaviour?

At aged 21, I wrote in my journal a list of things I will and won’t do as I age.  Things like: “stay active”, “think positive” and “be open-minded”. The obvious reason I’m not replicating the list here for you is that you can find similar platitudes on an internet search: “how to age gracefully”, or “how to build resilience as we age”.

I call them platitudes because they have the fatal flaw of assuming that crabbiness is something you can snap out of. In my early forties, I started up a business that took a heavy toll on my mental well being. Some of you might relate to the symptoms:

  • Mental loops (processing the same problem in your head over and over);
  • Sleeping less than 6 hours a night (like a nicotine addict, I convinced myself that I’d be fine with 4-5 hours of sleep);
  • Being overly critical of myself (which undermined my confidence);
  • Procrastination (revisiting decisions, putting off starting something, turning to time-wasting activities like shopping on eBay);
  • Irritability (“why don’t these people get it?”);

It got to a point where I could feel the stress in my body: a dull tightness in the chest, heart palpitations, and more frequent sports injuries that took longer to recover from. Platitudes such as “eat well, exercise and think positive” weren’t working for me – I felt at the time that I was doing all the right things, eating and exercing well. I’d think to myself: “I am positive, I’m just facing great uncertainty”.

Mercifully, the wake-up call didn’t come in the form of a heart attack or a divorce, it came in the form of a two-week stay at hospital with pneumonia. Lying in a hospital bed surrounded by people who needed respirators just to live a normal life, I knew things had to change. But how do I build the resilience to improve my situation?

Why do so many people become Crabby Karl as they age? Is it a function of the stresses of modern society? Is it genetics? Something in our upbringing? If it’s a trait that has been passed on to me, then is there a risk that I will be passing it on to my children?

Lucky to have inherited my mother’s tenacity, I didn’t want to accept these explanations. There must be something we can do about it.

A clue came from a little self analysis. As a young man, I often wore “crabby” as a badge. When you criticise something, you appear a little superior, as if you “know” better than “them”. For example, if I say things like: “Those people have no idea how to run a restaurant…whoever designed this should be shot…why didn’t he pass the ball…” — you see how superior I sound? When you appear annoyed, people around you work harder to appease you, give you more attention or take you less for granted. A little crabbiness gives you gravitas at work – you come across as being serious, under pressure, working on important things.

Practise being crabby, and over time crabbiness becomes second nature. Neuroscientists say that your brain changes physically by adapting to the things you do more regularly. Practise being critical too often, and over time you embody negativity because your brain is wired for it.

Neuroscientists aren’t saying anything the Ancient Chinese didn’t know:

Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Lao Tzu (4-6 Century B.C.)

A Book On How To Build Resilience

I’ve spent the best part of the last 10 years researching, conceptualising and honing my thinking. The output is a collection of strategies, mental models and practices to help me age gracefully.

The good news is this: you might be unlucky at birth – wrong parents, wrong school, wrong geography – but if you’re lucky enough to be reading this, then you get to choose who you become as you age.

I’ve been threatening to write a book on this topic for the past 10 years. In the spirit of Agile, I plan to write 36 essays starting with this one. In future essays, I will go deep on:

Always, I will be looking at what the science says, rather than push personal opinions. I promise no platitudes, only pragmatic ideas that can be applied immediately, and often for immediate gain.

The last point is an important one. For Gen Xers, the time to start putting these ideas into place is now. Who you are now is a product of what you did in the last decade. It follows that what we do in this decade defines who we are in the next decade.

I feel strongly about this mission. I have no ambition of taking over the world like Genghis Khan. I’m doing this to help people age as gracefully as we can. At stake is the quality of the second half of our lives, our mental health, whether we’ll be tolerated or loved and respected by others, our children’s prospects, and how we will be remembered when we’re gone.

Thank you

Thanks to Jocelyn Rikard-Bell for the lesson on tone control, and thanks to Jermir Punthakey for reviewing early drafts.

© James Lau  April 8, 2020

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