A Resilient 2020

A Resilient 2020

Well done! We made it to 2020.

The beginning of the year is a natural time to set goals, but it doesn’t appear likely that a new year will miraculously bring a new you. Be aware: New Year “Resolutions” can apparently do more harm than good (Amy Cuddy, 2017).

So how about first, a recap of the last 12 months? Celebrate what you achieved in 2019, what you learned, what you wouldn’t do again. What did you do well?

Slow down, recollect, then turn to what you want next.

Be honest. You don’t have to tell anyone your goals. They can range from light-hearted to critical, and be as long or short term as you need.

The key is to make the decision about what you do and don’t want.

Six quick goal setting tips:

  1. Be realistic
  • It is better to make small, achievable changes than pledge to act like a whole different person because it’s January. Try not to let your goals start with “I will never…” or “always”. Cuddy suggests “self-nudging” – setting incremental goals that will bring you closer to large milestones. Consistency is key.

2. Get physical

  • Write out your intentions, get a wall planner or make a vision board – whatever suits. In the digital age, words on paper provide more connection and intimacy with your goals. A word document is just too easy to lose.

3. Give it your best

  • Do you feel a little fear? Good. Entering the flow state is only possible when the challenge engages your skill. Without proper challenge, you’re just relaxing. Sometimes the fear of trying is all that stands in the way. Imagine the worst case scenario. You fail? You try again. No one is judging you as much as you think.

4. Everything has a price

  • Every experience, behaviour, interaction, relationship… can cost. You may or may not be on a financial budget, but no one has limitless time and energy. Five minutes of a destructive behaviour can be energetically expensive. Carefully consider what you can afford to spend time and emotional energy on.

5. Get over last decade

  • A study found participants who wrote down their regrettable decisions and sealed them in an envelope reported “feeling significantly better about their past decisions”. Physically symbolic closure can lead to real emotional closure. Learn from your mistakes, then leave them in 2019. Look forward.

6. Keep it simple.

  • Simply saying no to destructive behaviours and yes to constructive action is often all that is needed to reach your goals. Deep down, you know what is good for you and what isn’t. Strive for delayed gratification. Actioning that is a matter of impulse control:

Our History of Resilience

Our History of Resilience

With a professor-of-paediatrics-dad, a psychiatric-social-worker-mum, two competitive brothers, special forces, triathlon, ocean swims, surfski racing, medicine and an MBA, resilience promised to be an easy gig.

While engaging and fulfilling, it’s been a long, complex and difficult road. We have helped tens of thousands of people and many businesses.  Evolution has been slow. It has been maddeningly difficult to scale what should be a very good business.

In the early days, my family and medical colleagues thought I had lost it. Executives considered me very strange. Why on earth would you try to build resilience when it was genetic? Surely, it is not our role to fiddle in the personal affairs of our employee’s health, suffering, emotions and thoughts? Why prevent disease when you can get very rich treating it?

Today, “resilience” along with a bewildering list of synonyms is a core topic in parenting, education, business, NGOs, governments, infrastructure, ecosystems and sport. Billions are being invested in new ventures. It is a celebrity feeding frenzy dosed with gurus, placebos, and scams amidst true experts.

This reflection on history from my perspective explores the big challenges, important foundations for success, the science and evidence, mistakes, and how the future might look.

Discovering Resilience

“Resilience” first popped into my consciousness in 1994 thanks to Daryl Conner (Managing at the Speed of Change).

He introduced the role of resilience in leading change. The idea was not new. My parents were pioneers using medicine to shape better lives. Sport taught me the disciplines of expertise. Special forces demonstrated the incredible depth of human will. Sports medicine framed it in modern science. My spin on the idea was simple:

“Can we use business and organisations to develop the capacities of excellence in more communities?”

At the time health insurers had studied the impact of simple physical wellbeing programs. Foundations were being established. A good program included leadership engagement, health risk assessment and relevant lifestyle education. The early studies showed:

  • Health risk factors could be reduced
  • Sickness events and costs reduced
  • Absenteeism reduced
  • Staff turnover reduced
  • Morale and productivity improved

In a nutshell, health status improved, sickness care costs reduced, and the organisation was getting a positive ROI. Studies showed that an organisation could expect a net present value of $2 to $3 for every $1 invested. This was the US market with double the health costs of most developed economies. In a public funded health system, the incentives for organisations to manage health risk are limited.

In 1989, we were developing simple health risk assessments and basic workshops in health risk management, exercise and nutrition. In 1992, I built my first healthcheck to be completed electronically. Early adopters were definitely interested but mostly these were senior executives and professionals.

When a client asked me to include “stress management” with an executive health program. I discovered Merv Dickinson (with a PhD in leadership psychology). We designed interventions to grow self-awareness and self-mastery skills and kicked off a partnership in executive leadership development.

This was a transformative time for me. Merv mentored me into the world of emotions, mind and spirit and how to facilitate leadership teams. Our first resilience programs were up and running. Enlightened business was interested.

After an MBA and five years of an executive health clinic, I was finally ready to launch the Resilience Institute. The intention was clear. Engage leaders, run quality health assessments and provide evidence-based and motivational workshops to encourage behaviour change. And we got it. We could show that various physical, emotional and mental measures and experiences changed positively. There was a positive buzz in our engagements.

At the time and through most of 2000 to 2010 there was little competition. We had a free run. The market was tiny. The concept was peripheral at best. It proved tough to create a viable business. However, it was a productive period. We completed healthchecks on thousands of people, ran hundreds of workshops, pioneered the concept into Australia. Data became important and we learned to collect and present health and resilience data while respecting privacy and security.

Emotional Intelligence, Neurobiology and the Resilience concept matured. I trained with Daniel Goleman and then Andrew Shatte, learning how to assess and coach the emotional and cognitive aspects. We formed small teams with our colleagues in Australia, Europe, Singapore and the UK.

We slowly increased our reputation and impact in a number of global organisations. Clients like PwC, GE, AXA, and various Banks teamed with us and pushed our development.

Then in 2014, I realised we had to digitise further. Training was going to digitise, and the world of Apps was expanding. We had to expand from simple online digital assessments. The next period was really interesting. We ran a series of psychometrics and analytics on our assessments, experimented with new platforms, recorded all our workshops into short micro-training videos, considered how to build tracking and artificial intelligence into the platform. Our Resilience App was born.

At the same time, the rest of the world sprang to life. Resilience became mainstream. Organisations sought it out. Entrepreneurs, scientists and celebrities rushed to start businesses to make money while doing good. The variability is enormous from overnight charlatans to super-credible, deep specialists providing expert solutions.

As I write, hundreds of start-ups are investing billions in establishing solutions. There are already 10,000 apps in the market offering various self-improvement options. Many established businesses such as consulting firms have become ‘experts’. Your accountant may have become your psychiatrist. Consultants have resilience on their calling card for good measure. It is a chaotic time. As a provider, organisational buyer or individual consumer it is messy.

Defining resilience

Resilience today is where Logistics was in World War 2. The challenge is to integrate a vast number of interacting and moving parts. Each part has specialists protecting their domains and striving to dominate the solution. Will it be the sports scientists, psychologists, neurobiologists, doctors, coaches, tech giants, or the big four?

Our first challenge is to define, clarify and simplify language. Wellness means many different things and depression can be addressed with multiple approaches. What are we buying? Wellness, mental health, wellbeing, well-being, emotional intelligence, mental skills, stress mastery, peak performance or medical services.

Two axes are required to make sense of both the need and the required solution. The vertical axis attends to level of function from a diagnosis of disease to an example of excellence. The horizontal axis helps define the territory. Quickly examining your understanding and testing where you might move the solutions will uncover confusion.

Providers, purchasers and research would benefit from clarity.

Our second challenge is to integrate the concepts in a realistic, evidence-based and practical framework. This requires respect for each of the fields involved. While defending the boundaries we have to be flexible and generous. A psychologist might wish that CBT is the only solution to depression. With wisdom and flexibility, they might acknowledge that sleep, fitness, connections, breath training or medication may work better for some clients.

Our Diagnostic and Development model seeks to define the level of function and the options available to focus attention. Even experts suffer from mental illness and those who are sick can benefit from non-medical interventions. Some of us view the world through a more physical lens while others prefer emotions, mind or spirit.

There are many paths to resilience. To be a good coach, trainer or consultant is to recognise the perspective of the client and adjust the options you present in a language they can connect with. A good framework and basic training in the different disciplines will help us move more people in a positive direction.

Measuring Resilience

While any assessment might be helpful to increase self-awareness, we can do better. For the reasons above, a good assessment must be evidence-based, integral and practical. Most are based on one framework (say, CBT), one level of function (depression), and only one level of resilience (mental or emotional). Many psychological assessments are built on theories and tests with paid students. They don’t always translate to other communities.

The right assessment has to be clear, simple, the right length, reliable and valid. This takes years of psychometrics with different populations, experiments with reporting, and evaluating the impact of interventions. The web and apps have transformed our ability to run such assessments, but people will only complete them if they are compelling.

Wearable technology allows us to add objective measures such as steps, heart rate, sleep, heart rate variability, and even blood pressure. Combined with subjective answers, we are moving toward much more powerful assessment tools. We may well get to the point of having a panel of measures that could align:

  • Physical: heart rate, blood pressure, heart rate variability.
  • Emotional: heart rate variability, positive: negative emotions ratio.
  • Mental: focus time, switching, idea generation, situational agility.

Evidence for Resilience

Decisions on investment are driven from three perspectives. One is the organisation (and leaders) who believe it is the right thing to do. They value their people, want to reduce suffering, ideally increase wellbeing and performance, and be a good employer. They trust that it works and want a credible provider. Their people engage whole-heartedly.

The second is based on economics. This organisation (and leaders) ask what return the organisation will get from the investment. They want to know what costs will reduce and what benefits will accrue in dollars. If they cannot see a financial return, the state of their people is not their concern. They are not in the market. Their employees need help.

The third is based on fear. This is why safety and mental health are such lucrative services. The organisation (and leaders) are terrified of risk and being punished. They want to know what risks they face and must be seen to be mitigating these risks with an expensive report. They tend to gravitate to the bottom of the spiral and may end up spending significant resources mitigating risk that exists in a very small number of people. The rest run for the exit.

Ideally, a good resilience solution addresses all three needs. Organisations must understand and mitigate risk, improve the function and productivity of people, and seek to be a good employer. It is our duty as professionals to demonstrate the effectiveness of an investment in resilience and the potential ROI. It is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Solutions have to bring an evidence-based, integral framework, measure with an effective assessment, provide a comprehensive dashboard, offer both face-to-face and digital engagement options, set meaningful goals and follow up with reassessments.

There is good evidence that resilience initiatives deliver results. Many still focus on single factor gains such as health improvement, positivity or optimism. We have been able to show that resilience as a whole improves, each of the 11 categories improve and every one of the 60 factors improves in the post training assessment.

Even better, a good assessment can indicate where your risks and strengths are so that the company can target the right training to the right people. In my view, this is the challenge facing the enlightened organisation.

The Future of Resilience

We have eliminated many of the risks and fitness tests of survival. Natural forces are temporarily at bay. Much of the suffering – physical, emotional and mental – is linked to self-neglect. The pressures of modern life trigger slow burn distress for which we are completely unprepared.

The costs measured in lifestyle diseases, loneliness, distress, anxiety, and depression are enormous and increasing fast. With nature at bay, communities, families and individuals are going to have to step up to owning resilience. When we neglect our body, emotions and mind, there is a personal and community cost. When we build these resources there are massive benefits. Especially, when nature provides a shock – fires, floods, earthquakes.

We understand this. The evidence is clear. The unsustainability of inaction is obvious. Enlightened communities and organisations are on the job. Over the next decade we will see an enormous increase in human resilience investments. The upside of helping people build resilience and risk of not doing so, will be clear. The reality will confront governments, health systems, education, business, communities, families and individuals.

Assessments will combine with data analytics and artificial intelligence, providing powerful insights into where risks and opportunities lie and how to engage them with precision. The implementation, training and coaching will move from consultants to in-house resources. Just like a sports team has an extensive support, logistics and specialised coaching resources, so a business will bring these resources in-house.

Some people are already on board. They take full responsibility for tracking and growing their resilience. They search for experts, put in place the daily disciplines, and experiment with devices. They are thriving from the benefits. Just watch Frankie and Grace.

Many are on the threshold. With the right communications and engagement, they too can rapidly take advantage of resilience.

Some are resistant or simply so overwhelmed by other concerns that self-neglect is a way of life. Here we will need kindness with wisdom and courage. They may need a firmer hand and more intensive support to help them bounce, grow, connect and find flow. This is a gritty challenge.

10 Tips for Rest, Recovery and Rejuvenation

10 Tips for Rest, Recovery and Rejuvenation

Written by 

The Season for Stillness

We tumble to the end of another warp-speed year. We spin through our tasks and grasp at floods of information.

We press too hard, too fast and for too long. Reservoirs are sucked dry. Self-awareness fades. Self-regulation is impaired. Your health and your relationships are at risk.

It is time to slow down, repair, rejuvenate and reconnect with what matters.

In a world of optimisation, ambition, pride and duty, we push hard on multiple fronts. The rest, recovery and rejuvenation cycle is squeezed out between ever shorter bursts of dopamine. We are child-like in our impulsive tapping, swiping, checking, buying, rushing, feeding… compelled to chase the next hit.

As I come to the end of 2019, I feel battered. My mind is a little flat. Attention is fragile. Relationships are edgy. I know I need a good break. I am struggling to disconnect, calm my hypervigilance, and allow the natural cycle of recovery. I sense it in our family, friends and colleagues.

Rest, recovery and rejuvenation (R3) is the next competitive edge. Ironic!

My end of year message it to give rest, recovery and rejuvenation your full attention.

At a cellular level, the R3 cycle is vital to repair and rejuvenation. It is the key to longevity and sits at the biochemical core of fasting, sleep quality, intense activity, meditation, and cold water baths. It is a promising solution that supports this process of slowing, cleaning and repairing hard working cells.

The R3 cycle is key to musculoskeletal strength and physical wellbeing. Intimacy, touch and dreaming (REM) sleep stimulate the R3 cycle for emotional wellbeing. The default network is the R3 cycle for cognition allowing us to focus, engage and refresh our minds.

Our end-of-year pause is an opportunity to capture the R3 cycle for life and family. Please make an effort to allow for adequate rest, recovery and rejuvenation as your year comes to an end. Engage your family in this process so that you may reconnect in more intimate ways.

Share what works well for you.

Reframe Fatigue

Reframe Fatigue

Research Highlight: Fatigue is a key risk

Are you often exhausted when you get home after work?

If your answer is yes, you may need a reframe.

Research Highlight: of the most successful 10% of people, only 2% scored “I am exhausted when I get home/after work” with ‘very often’ or ‘nearly always’. In other words they experience little fatigue.

Question: What is your relationship with fatigue

Condition: Control, own and master your energy

Discipline: Actively and skilfully combat the experience of fatigue

Caution: Prioritise your sleep, recovery and relaxation

Life is VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). We are juggling far too much information and far too many tasks. Most of us do not rest, recover and sleep like professionals. The consequence that most clearly differentiates success and failure is fatigue.

54% of the least resilient people answer that they are exhausted when they get home “very often” or “nearly always”. Unfortunately they often tell others how tired they are.

Reframing Fatigue

Our super-skill series examined what the most successful people do. Reframing targets the top five habits that can undermine you. Fatigue is the first.

A CEO had been up all night organising a recognition of 2000 people’s excellent work. A colleague said: “you must be tired?” His answer: “I don’t do tired. It has been a great night.” Unsurprisingly, his resilience score was very high.

You may be thinking ‘what a jerk, he should be more honest.’ Our data shows that successful people do not indulge in the experience of fatigue. They find more skilful ways to reframe the situation. What if the response is: “Sure, it has been a long night but what fun. I will sleep well tonight.”

True fatigue is a very real and important signal that you need rest, recovery and sleep. Successful people know that life is demanding so they prioritise rejuvenation. There will be times when you have to work hard. When you tell others you are tired, can you really expect them to trust and respect you?

To reframe fatigue, think deeply on your relationship with fatigue. Do you experience it frequently? Do you advertise it to others? Do you take immediate action to remedy the signal?

Reframe skills for fatigue?

  1. Be alert for the fatigue signal. Check your body, emotions and thoughts. Assess it carefully and identify the level of risk. Act deliberately to remedy the situation.
  2. If you are truly exhausted, take time out for recovery and sleep. If your life and job are important to you this is your priority. Learn the lesson and establish excellent recovery disciplines. Few do this well.
  3. If you must work through fatigue here is a reframe:
    • Lengthen your posture and lift your chin
    • Breathe diaphragmatically and slow through the nose
    • Concentrate on the energy and life force in your being
    • Focus your mind and work in short, engaged bursts
  4. Never think or say: “I am tired/exhausted/fatigued/wiped out”

*Research from our sample of 21,000, click for full report.

Calm, Control and Connect

Calm, Control and Connect

The untapped power in your Vagus Nerve

Imagine you are surprised by an unexpected reward at your end-of-year function. You are asked to step up to the stage. With a trained vagus nerve, you notice surprise and weakness in your limbs but within milliseconds you become calm, control the anxiety and connect to the occasion with pleasure and gratitude. Your acceptance speech resonates.

With a neglected vagus nerve, you panic. Your mouth is dry, vision blurs, you feel too weak to move, your heart is thumping, and you can barely make it up the stairs. When you try to say thanks, your mind freezes, and nothing comes out. Embarrassing for all of us.

Best you understand how to work with your vagus nerve.

First introduced in 2012 by Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory has become a powerful concept with a range of practical applications.

What you will learn:

  1. The vagus nerve: what it is and how it works in your life
  2. The physical mechanisms of freeze, fight and flight
  3. The learned skills of relaxation, connecting and finding flow
  4. How you might recover from confusing adversities in life
  5. How vagus training can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure,
  6. What you can do to increase the power (tone) of your vagus nerve
  7. How Vagal Tone underpins mental health, wellbeing and resilience

Fast Theory

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve which exits low in the skull, runs down both sides of the neck and into the lungs and heart before diving down into the abdomen. It is a very long and critically important nerve for life. For a deeper dive, please follow the references.

The vagus nerve works with other cranial nerves to influence and modulate our facial expressions, head movement and tracking, hearing and voice. In the chest it influences breathing and controls heart rate – speed and variability. In the abdomen it influences peristalsis (food movement), gut neurology, bacteria, inflammation. Further, it is a key element of urination, bowel movements and sex. It works in synchrony with your sympathetic system or causes chaos.

Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical structure scheme and location diagram of human body longest nerve. Infographic with isolated ganglion, branches and plexus. Inner biological ANS. (Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical)

The dorsal vagus fibres are ancient (reptiles) and slow. The ventral vagus fibres are much newer in evolution (mammals) and can be trained. Polyvagal theory dissolves confusing concepts like PTSD, autism, anxiety and psychological safety into a clear and testable biological reality. This leads to a set of practices to be safe, well and effective in life.

The Vagus Nerve and Sympathetic System in Action

Each of these reactions or responses are possible and available to us. Consider some of the more challenging situations you might face and see if you can recognise the pattern.

Freeze (old or dorsal vagus) reactions:

  • Old reptilian reflexes to extreme threat (play dead)
  • Blood pressure drops, bowels and bladder can void
  • Can be a feint, collapse or tears
  • Poses risk to human brain as blood flow drops
  • Executed by the body to protect the body
  • May leave us with confusion, regret or even guilt
  • Experienced in extreme threat such as war, natural disaster or abuse

Application: when we are truly overwhelmed this is the best option. We collapse, look dead and lose feeling. Those suffering PTSD may find comfort and healing by understanding their reaction was the body’s reaction rather than their failure to fight. Aspects of depression such as loss of energy, fatigue, confusion, self doubt and reduced motivation might be linked.

Fight (sympathetic system and anger) reactions:

  • Body floods with adrenaline increasing blood pressure and pulse
  • Blood flows to combat muscles – face, jaw, neck, shoulders and chest
  • Associated with a flare of inflammation
  • Narrow vision and focus on threat can lead to poor risk assessment
  • Can leave us with impaired memory and regret
  • Experienced when violence or force may help you counter a threat

Application: When we see anger this way, it is a destructive force to entertain in your body. The inflammation, immune system compromise and heart damage is well documented. It must be used sparingly if at all.

Flight (sympathetic system and fear) reactions:

  • Adrenaline charges the heart and lungs
  • Blood shunts to the large muscles of lower limbs
  • Inflammation follows
  • Thinking is disabled but may still lead to regret
  • Underpins phobia reactions (fear of heights, spiders, etc.)
  • Usually the best of a bad choice

Application: flight, fear, anxiety and worry are all linked. In PTSD, phobias, panic and generalised anxiety, we cannot contain the flight reaction. Our bodies have ‘run away’. This is the most common form of suffering experienced today. If we can see it we can train as below.

The Vagus Nerve has three trainable levels

The human vagus nerve can be trained to work better. Firstly, we learn how to fire the ventral fibres. These relax and rejuvenate us restoring peace after freeze, fight and flight. Second, with repeated practice such as with rehearsal practices, breath training or meditation, the vagal nerve becomes myelinated. A fatty sheath enfolds the ventral fibres accelerating their action on the body – specifically heart, lungs, inflammation and gut.

Once we calm and control the primal reactions, now the vagus connections to the face, ears and voice become active. Heart rate variability increases. We actively seek connection. Myelination of the vagus is more advanced.

Finally, feeling safe and connected we have a strong platform for play, curiosity and performance. Now we have high functioning vagus nerve which is well myelinated and we have rehearsed and practiced tricky situations so much we actually look forward to challenges.

Let’s explore those three levels:

Calm and Control:

  • Ventral fibres of the vagus activate and initiate calm and control
  • Heart rate slows and heart rate variability increase
  • Lungs relax, diaphragm engages, and inflammation clears
  • Hearing improves and voice softens
  • Head movement, tracking and balance improve
  • Awareness of body, emotion and thought sharpens
  • Thinking, idea-generation and decision-making improves

Application: Calm and control is the foundation of safety and wellbeing. Without it, we increase the risk of ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, PTSD and Depression. Basic breathing techniques, neck massage, meditation and cold water can help. A supportive person with kind eyes and a melodic voice can help some activate this response. Sleep improves and health improves.

Control and Connect:

  • Now calm and safe, our attention focuses on the situation
  • We can hear voices of those who matter more clearly
  • Our voice becomes mellow and prosodic
  • We establish a relaxed and enjoyable eye contact
  • Facial expressions around eyes increase
  • Empathy increases – physical, emotional and mental signals
  • Honesty, intimacy and respectful sharing come naturally

Application: As we power up our capacity to connect through eye contact, voice and touch, we heal autism, loneliness, depression and anxiety. We are establishing the foundations for high trust, collaborative relationships. Happiness, enjoyment of life and vitality flourish.

Connect, Play and Flow:

  • Feeling safe, energised and connected the impulse to play arises
  • Laughter, provocation, chase and evade emerge
  • The sympathetic system is engaged with vagal tone high
  • Play is how all young mammals learn to survive
  • Physical interactive play trains us to perform (sport, drama, combat)
  • Eye contact, prosodic voice, facial expressions and respect sustain it
  • This is how we develop the capacity for Flow

Application: when thinking stops, time pauses, and grace unfolds we are in play or flow. Your vagus nerve is a force for joy, success and meaning in life. You have put the time into practice. You have done your drills and had plenty of failures. Your ability to be relaxed, flexible, connected and effective is established.

Once can imagine your vagus nerve is thick and glistening. It works really quickly now. In the beginning you lay awake in anxiety and hyperventilated for hours. Now your vagus detects your body’s freeze, fight and flight reactions before you do. It has already restored calm, control and reconnected you to what really matters.

Practical tools to increase vagal tone

  • Breathe out long and slow followed by a pause
  • Establish and train your diaphragmatic breathing (8 min/day)
  • Learn a contemplative practice – meditation, yoga, kindness
  • Splash cold water on your face or swim underwater
  • Whole body, foot or neck massage
  • Gargling water and fasting
  • Listening to prosodic music (Abba, Johnny Mathis)
  • Laughter and singing
  • Face-to-face connection (and yes, less device time)
  • Unstructured play and structured practice or rehearsal
  • Sunshine and vitamin D collaborate with the vagus nerve effects


  1. Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2012
  2. Stephen Porges, The Pocketguide to Polyvagal Theory, 2018
  3. Elizabeth Williams, Daily Vagus Nerve Exercise, 2019
  4. Robert Bright, The Polyvagal Theory, 2019