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  • Jennifer Duckworth

5 Lessons in Resilience - A Narrow Escape!

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I’ve just returned from a holiday in Wiltshire on a narrowboat. It was a very relaxing holiday and I’ve returned to London calm yet invigorated.

I’m a work psychologist with a keen interest in employee wellbeing. Just before the holiday, I had spent a fascinating few days training on how to use an awesome resilience assessment tool called the RQi (the Resilience Quotient Inventory) with the Thrive consultancy and training group.

I’d vowed to take a rest from ‘work thinking’ during the break. But then I found myself discovering parallels between the RQi’s key elements of resilience, and everyday life on a narrowboat!

What is resilience?

Most occupational psychologists agree that the definition of resilience concerns our ability to adapt to and ‘bounce back’ from adversity in life, and to experience personal growth through challenge and change.

And the great news is that our resilience is not pre-defined and static. As the American Psychological Association puts it:

“Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

Why is resilience important?

We all have to deal with high pressure and uncertainty at different times in our lives, and right now it’s particularly tough as:

o change is constant

o our work/life boundaries are stretched, and

o our social support may be reduced.

Research shows that focusing on building our resilience can help us cope with these stressors and improve our emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Lesson 1 - Purpose and fulfilment

The RQi resilience model tells us that this element of resilience is all about being engaged in activities that give you satisfaction, meaning and purpose. The week on the boat had a very simple goal – cruise for 3 days, enjoy the experience, turn around and return to base. You also have absolute clarity of direction as your waterway is straight and without junctions.

And whilst the lock system initially looked a little daunting to the uninitiated, I found that you gain a simple, smug satisfaction of a well-navigated lock, without mishap or yelling, and potential added bonus of admiration from passers-by!

Lesson 2 - Supportive relationships

This component of resilience is about our social networks and the benefits they bring.

The sense of belonging you gain in the boating community is swift and quite special. Everyone gives you a cheery wave as they pass by and offers of practical assistance – on both lock operation and nearby pub locations – abound.

Cooperation in the family unit was more sporadic, if I’m honest. Competition between two pre-teen siblings is hard to quash, and they raced to out-do each other on every task at first.

However, strength was not on their side, so when they realised that only together could they haul open the 2520 kg iron lock gates, true teamwork finally emerged!

Lesson 3 - Being in nature and practising mindfulness

The RQi resilience model highlights the environment as playing a major role in reducing risk from stress, and research shows that exposure to daylight and the natural environment can have a direct positive impact.

In addition, physical practices (such as yoga, mindfulness and sleeping well) all act as protective factors against stress.

Narrowboating is made for mindfulness - the practice of paying full attention to the present moment. The pace of life reduces to 3 miles per hour, and unlike many holiday destinations, there was nothing famous or remarkable that demanded a visit. With no radio, a tiny TV screen and inconsistent reception, we had little engagement with the external world, save for herons, red kites and stripy yellow snails.

Lesson 4 – Practising patience

I particularly enjoyed the rhythm of the lock system etiquettes and enforced patience that they brought. As my family and friends will attest, I am not known for my tolerance levels, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from those Wiltshire locks.

For the inexperienced, this how it works – once your boat is in the lock, you must lift the paddles on a lock gate to either introduce or drain water, aligning it with the next level of the waterway. To let your vessel out, you must then push open the huge gates.

And here’s where the patience bit comes in. Push the gates too soon…they won’t budge, wasting energy, sweat and (ahem) a few colourful words. Sit back, enjoy the sun, watch the birds and then push them a few minutes later…they swing back easily (as the water has properly equalised the pressure on both sides).

Lesson 5 - Slow and steady wins the race

And calmness at the end of the process also key. One time, in the pursuit of efficiency, I opened the paddles at the back end of the gate too early, before our craft had exited the lock fully.

This meant the boat was held in limbo, my husband was trying to drive it forward, but it was paralysed by the drag from the flow of water out the back of the lock.

This struck me later as a great analogy for today’s uncertain workplace – in our rush to take action quickly, we can sometimes get stuck as a result. We are unable to then progress unless we slow down, consider where we’ve gone wrong, fix things, and start over.

So, a few lessons well learned in building resilience – through purpose, relationships and mindfulness - and cultivating patience on the canals in Wiltshire, where I least expected to!

I hope you can take something useful from this piece too.

If you’d like to discuss any of these topics further, or just explore how we might work together, please get in touch via Babel Projects

I’d be delighted to have a 30 minute, no obligation call with you to chat about resilience, wellbeing … or just narrowboats!

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