Olympian Bonnie St. John shares her insights on resilience.
Bonnie St. John overcame poverty and losing a limb to become the first African American to win a medal in skiing at the Winter Paralympics. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, the Rhodes Scholar talks about developing resilience in her new book, Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, and Energy. She says resilience does not result only after major efforts, like rebuilding after a hurricane, but also in the practice of tiny moments of resilience — small adjustments in daily routines, thought patterns, nutrition, activity and others.
On the [email protected] Show, which airs on Sirius XM channel 111, St. John spoke about her remarkable life, how she developed resilience and the five steps needed to get there.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: We should start with your story. You were around age five when you lost a leg?
Bonnie St. John: The growth was stunted in my leg when I was born, so I had braces. But they amputated it when I was five, and I got a new artificial leg and had to learn to walk again. But becoming an international athlete was not a natural trajectory from there.
[email protected]: Obviously, the Paralympics has grown a lot over the last 20 years; it is now a major event. How big was Paralympics back then, and what were some of the challenges that you had to overcome to become that level of an athlete?
St. John: Well, not only did I lose my leg and then become an athlete, but I grew up in San Diego and became a skier.
[email protected]: Those two do not go together!
St. John: Yes, there was no snow, and I am black. I am actually the first African American to win a medal in a Winter Olympics. So there was no sitting in San Diego thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to be the black ski racer.” What I say the funniest part is, my family did not have any money. My mom was a single mom on a schoolteacher’s salary. We did not have money left at the end of the month — we had month left at the end of the money, and I mean that literally. It is one thing to go skiing with one leg, but it is really hard to go skiing with no money.
“I’m actually the first African American to win a medal in a Winter Olympics.”
[email protected]: As you moved through your career, working for various companies, I would expect that some of what you wrote in this book was kind of percolating along the way.
St. John: Oh, absolutely. Resilience is very personal for me. We are talking about mental resilience to imagine new things, physical resilience to learn how to walk — never mind become an athlete — and even emotional or spiritual resilience.
I talk in one of my other books about being abused as a child. I was sexually abused from the age of two to the age of seven. You might think, “Well, that is going to affect your relationships.” But it really affects everything. It affects your ability to network with people, to connect, to have self-esteem. So I really had to be emotional in powerful ways on all different levels. Some of what I personally use and some of the research that I did is definitely in this book.
… People ask me, “How can I be resilient like you?” So we really scoured the literature to find the best things that would help people to be resilient, across neuroscience and positive psychology — which we have University of Pennsylvania to thank for — and physiology and different areas.
The book is really a combination of things that powerfully helped me, and then we did the research to find additional tools and put the whole package together. We have been working with people since 2011, putting them through this program, and we’ve seen really powerful results. This is tested, research-based as well as personal.
[email protected]: You’re also approaching this, not from the “macro level,” which is a buzz phrase that a lot of people use these days, but more working upward from the micro level.
St. John: We coined the term “micro-resilience.” And you are right: When you look at resilience research out there — beyond what we are doing – it is always about the big things: rebuilding a town after a hurricane or rebuilding your life after a divorce. It is really big, and then you go, “Gosh, resilience is really hard!”
But if you define [resilience] as small [steps to take] — “How can I be more resilient in the next hour?” — then it is very doable. Also, when you think about your audience and who is listening to this channel, they are people who are competitive, people who are in business, entrepreneurs. What matters to them is not just rebuilding after a crisis, but “How can I be more competitive?” That is really what micro-resilience, and the research it came out of, is about: how to get that competitive edge.
[email protected]: You have put together five ideas, basically, that are the philosophies to think this way.
St. John: We came up with research-based tools to help you get that extra edge, and we curated them into five categories. There are things that help get more resilience for your brain, which we call “refocus.” Then there’s “reset,” which is about not getting so triggered and hijacked by things that set off our emotions, our fight-or-flight responses, our stress responses. There’s a whole physiological response that goes with those. It is very draining, and frankly counterproductive. So, there are tools to mitigate that response.
“It’s like an upgrade to your human operating system.”
Under the category “reframe” are tools to strengthen your muscles towards the positive, because we are not naturally endowed with that, so it’s strengthening that.
Then there is “refresh,” which involves really simple stuff about your metabolism — just things you can do to make sure you’re not being sabotaged by your metabolism.
And finally, “renew” involves tapping into purpose. You know, entrepreneurs are so purposeful. We have worked with a thousand nurses at the end of last year — very purposeful people. But you still need to figure out, how do you use your sense of purpose as a fuel tank? How can I go at 3 p.m. and get fuel out of my purpose? That is what we cover in that section.
[email protected]: I wanted to talk about the “reset” part for a second. These days, it feels like there are more instances of things that potentially can set people off, trigger those alarms. It feels like it is far worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
St. John: I agree. … Our wiring as human beings — the out-of-the-box wiring we arrive with — is to be very reactive to the negative, to anything that appears as a threat. Even the possibility — even if it is not a reality, and it never happens — we react to the possibility that it might happen. It triggers our cortisol, our adrenaline, and it is exhausting. It also literally narrows your vision