Management / The American View: Don’t Tell Me to Bounce Back

The American View: Don’t Tell Me to Bounce Back

The global pandemic is stressing most people out. That’s normal. We’re living in difficult times. The next time someone admonishes you to deal with that stress by simply ‘becoming more resilient,’ throw an egg at them as hard as you can.

I found my old racquetball gear while cleaning the garage last weekend. I wasn’t looking for it specifically; my wife and I were cleaning while the weather was good. What else are you going to do while locked down at home over a long pandemic weekend? We’d already cleaned the house, attended to a bunch of repair projects … and we’d been putting off cleaning the garage for years. We eventually hauled a dozen large trash bags full of junk to the kerb along with triple our normal load of recyclables. We also took a carload of material to the local charity shop … which included my old racquetball stuff.

The racquets themselves were in pristine shape, still in their cases, so someone can hopefully get some use out of them despite their age. I’d bought them back in 1995 when I was with the 555th Medical Detachment (Surgical) at Fort Hood, Texas. In those days, we were required to do physical fitness three days a week, rain or shine. Most of the time, that meant lots of push-ups and sit-ups followed by a long formation run. Tedious as hell and miserable during the winter … especially when it rained. The 555th had found a loophole: on rainy days, units could substitute activities in the base gym for the traditional Army outdoor workouts. There was brutal competition for gym access on rainy days, but a tiny outfit like ours (we only had 11 soldiers) usually managed to beat the gym’s reservation system and get into their racquetball courts.

I’d never played the sport growing up and I wasn’t any good at it. It didn’t matter. A good hour of play was a hell of a cardiac workout even when you lost. On the whole, I enjoyed it. That’s why I bought a couple of high-end racquets: to keep up with my troopers. After I left the 555th I only played a time or two again. The Air Force didn’t allow sport to stand in for fitness training and none of my civilian friends played. My sports gear moved progressively deeper into storage until it found a home in a dusty cabinet in the back of my garage, behind a case of motor oil.

I found a canister of brand-new racquetballs in the cabinet, never used. They were knackered, though: 25-year-old blue rubber orbs. Texas weather had worn them out to the point of being useless, even though they’d never once taken a hit. That got me to thinking.

There’s a reason why it’s taken nearly ten years to perform a thorough cleaning of our garage. I’d rather do nearly anything else than all that backbreaking labour in the stifling heat.  

Strictly by coincidence, the subject of racquetballs came up in conversation later that day. I was speaking with another cybersecurity professional about user training needs during the current lockdown phase of the pandemic response. I’d mentioned how the combination of isolation from one’s peers and the constant bombardment of terrible news was causing people to suffer from perpetual heightened anxiety. People were stressed out to the point of fatigue all the bloody timefrom the need to be constantly ready to spring into action in the event the experts changed direction and advised that some new measure was required to protect one’s family.

My conversation partner suggested that perhaps users might benefit from a class she’d recently taken on developing ‘resiliency’ skills. To illustrate her point, she described a vendor’s video that where the instructor used an egg and a rubber ball as props. The egg broke when the instructor dropped it on the sidewalk, while the rubber ball bounced. This, as she related it, explained why people need to learn to ‘bounce back’ and ‘become more resilient’ to stress.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the specific video course that my friend described, but I’ve seen far too many courses using that exact same analogy and they’ve all been awful. I’ve had to teach this nonsense too; I taught suicide prevention classes in the Air Force. They, too, were hung up on the idea of ‘improving Airmen’s resiliency.’ If Airmen would just get more fit, drink less, be healthier, and engage only in wholesome, fulfilling relationships (the thinking went) then they’d be able to ‘bounce back’ from hard times and bouts of depression like n.

There’s some small truth to that thinking; overall emphasis on physical and mental health can help a person endure stress. The idea that living like a saint makes one immune to stress, depression, and trauma is condescending horse manure. If anything, it’s an insidious way to blame a victim for their suffering while absolving one’s organisation from any responsibility. ‘Oh! Bob only got depressed and thought about harming himself because he hadn’t exercised enough. His suffering had nothing to do with our terrible working conditions or our abysmal leadership.’ I despise that sort of smarmy nonsense.

Some people seem bound and determined to get themselves hated by everyone they meet. It’s like they’re unlocking achievements on Steam or something.

I also hate the egg-and-ball analogy because it completely misses the mark. Yes, an egg will break when dropped on a hard surface. Duh. It’s not engineered for that use any more than a human is. If you drop a human out of a 10th floor window, they won’t ‘bounce back’ when they reach the street either. See previous, re: ‘duh.’

Yes, a rubber ball usually will bounce when dropped from a reasonable height or when thrown at a reasonable velocity against a surface that isn’t festooned with sharp spikes; that’s what most rubber balls are literally engineered to do. Unlike a human or an egg, though, a rubber ball can’t convert stored chemical energy into cellular growth or write a sonnet. Comparing the two as if they were analogues isn’t terribly useful.

More importantly, even if we set aside the apples-to-cinderblocks comparison, these kindergarten level analogies miss several crucial points that could actually help deliver their message. Frist, any rubber ball will burst like an egg when it’s thrown or dropped with enough energy; all materials have their limits. Second, rubber balls – like people – lose their ability to bounce as they age, suffer environmental stress, and break down. They’re … is ‘bounciest’ still an acceptable word? let’s assume it is – at their bounciest when brand new. The more you hit, throw, or drop a rubber ball, the more they degrade. Further, the longer you have rubber balls – even if you never use them – the more they degrade. Inevitably, all rubber balls will reach a point where they no longer bounce back when dropped or thrown … and might very well break when impacting a surface.

That’s why I threw away the can of unused racquetballs I found in the back of my garage. After 25 years stored in the Texas heat they were no longer viable. To be clear: I’m not suggesting that people should be discarded as irredeemably broken when they get old. That would be ludicrous. Quite the contrary: I’m suggesting that we discard and replace the stupid egg-and-ball analogy once and for all and treat people like people.

Just … without the close proximity or persona contact, all right? At least, not until this whole ‘global plague’ thing blow over.

People are not simple objects. Trauma, stress, and depression aren’t in any way akin to being dropped on a sidewalk. ‘Resiliency’ isn’t a mystic cure-all. Telling someone that they can simply ‘bounce back’ from a shock or from prolonged stress isn’t just wrong, it can be actively harmful. Telling someone that their suffering during a period of prolonged stress is their own fault for not living a virtuous enough life … that’s despicable. Don’t whine if you get slapped for saying it.

Let’s be clear: getting adequate sleep, exercising, eating well, avoiding intoxication, staying connected with friends and family, and all of the other ‘resiliency’ tips can help a person endure stress. It’s not an inoculation against or a cure for stress. It helps. That’s all. It won’t keep a person from contracting COVID-19; at best, it might help them recover. Likewise, ‘resiliency’ skills and practices might help a person deal with the prolonged, constant anxiety and dread that accompany the current pandemic defence measures and the 24/7 bombardment of apocalyptic news stories. An energetic jog will not make the world’s horrors vanish any more than an enthusiastic throw will help a timeworn, heat-damaged racquetball regain its elasticity.

Right now, we need to be focusing on how we can help our people endure. They need our attention, our support, and our compassion … not pithy platitudes or awful analogies. People aren’t cartoon characters. There are no easy solutions. Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something.


Pop Culture Allusion: None this week


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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