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Filling the work-friend shaped hole in your life
ALSO: an eye-popping LinkedIn job interview scam
Over the last few posts I’ve reflected on how our relationship with work is evolving, changing from being like our relationship with school and becoming more like our connection with college. I’ve talked about how this looser bond with work is likely to present a challenge for employers and bosses. But today I want to consider what these changes, left unchecked might have our sense of personal wellbeing.
Over the last two years I’ve immersed myself in unpicking the truth about resilience. It’s taken me in some fascinating directions - most notably a fundamental exploration of the relationship between resilience and social connection. It was best expressed by a casual remark of someone in my research who said, ‘well, you can’t be resilient on your own can you?’ To understand human connection, it helps to understand disconnection and the routes between the two states.
The Dutch psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk tells a beautiful story about one of his former colleagues who worked with him treating patients who had experienced childhood adversity. ‘Steve Gross used to run the play program at the Trauma Center, he says, ‘Steve often walked around the clinic with a brightly coloured beach ball, and when he saw angry or frozen kids in the waiting room, he would flash them a big smile. The kids rarely responded. Then, a little later, he would return and “accidentally” drop his ball close to where a kid was sitting. As Steve leaned over to pick it up, he’d nudge it gently toward the kid, who’d usually give a half-hearted push in return.’ But Van Der Kolk explains that what happened next was transformational, ‘Gradually Steve got a back-and-forth going, and before long you’d see smiles on both faces’.
I find it impossible not to be warmed by the description of this playful exchange. It’s a simple reminder of the joy of connecting, and that true connection requires both understanding and reciprocation. Connection with others is about recognising that our individual experience is understood and our emotions are shared. One of the reasons why we get frustrated with a viewing companion being distracted by their phones is because part of the pleasure of sharing a sofa to watch something with someone is the delight of feeling emotions in synchrony. Being in synchrony with others makes us feel alive, the absence of it makes us feel alone.
Bessel Van Der Kolk is a specialist in trauma, and he explains that the reactions to those adverse experiences that make up trauma are characterised in a typical way, ‘Shame becomes the dominant emotion and hiding truth a central preoccupation.’ Because of the concealing behaviours that come from shame it serves to disconnect victims from those around them. It causes victims to build mental walls between themselves and others. In other words, trauma unsynchronises us from the world around us.
It’s worth us reflecting on what the story of the beach ball tells us about our own lives. The poet David Whyte says the power of friendship is to be understood by another person: it is the ‘privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of having been granted the sight of the essence of another’. All of these themes are timely because if our workplaces are going to see less friendship and connection, it will be a tragedy if this connection is not replaced elsewhere in our lives. The waning role of work in our lives and our identities is by no means a bad thing, but it’s vital that we strive to fill the hole created by investing in meaningful connections with others. If resilience is the strength we draw from others, then now is the time for us to ensure we’re not doing this alone.
I explore these themes in my new book, Fortitude, on sale this week.
More on Fortitude:
Through a deference to an old generation of US psychologists, UK schools have ended up teaching a 1980s Reaganite version of resilience. I chatted to Oscar Williams at the New Statesman
Financial Times review: ‘an easy to read and well-researched book that will appeal to anyone who has had to sit through a “resilience” course, or who feels queasy every time a senior executive trots out platitudes about the importance of resilience’.
Truly fascinating glimpse of things to come? - a poster on LinkedIn explains how they were scammed into thinking they had accepted a job at a real company. Only problem was that it was all a hoax designed to get them to ship a new Macbook to a thief’s address
The power of group identity to make us feel more connected - this is a vital lesson for anyone responsible for building bonded teams right now
Cover image by Dall-E