In the arts, we think of bricoleurs as those who can create a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available. Bricoleurs rule in the do-it-yourself realm, and we need them now more than ever to help us piece together what it will take to help businesses bounce back from economic setbacks.Bricoleurs are those who can create a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available. They rule in the DIY realm and we need them now more than ever to help businesses bounce back from economic setbacks. Click To Tweet
I call this building block of resilience “psychological muscle,” but other psychologists have called this construct “bricolage,” a French loanword that means the process of improvisation or tinkering. Those who can engage in bricolage have an ability to extemporize a solution to a problem they have never encountered before. In the world of music, we say that people “improvise” when they can simultaneously compare, perform, and sing on the spur of the moment without any preparation. When people make or do with the tools and materials on hand—usually to fill an unforeseen and immediate need—we think of them improvising, too.
The bricoleurs among us tinker and play with ideas—constantly painting credible pictures of possibilities. After assessing thousands of executives in pre-employment and promotion situations, I have found this ability most related to advanced critical thinking skills, and in previous writing I’ve called it “strategic thinking abilities.”
People with this kind of psychological muscle constantly keep a global perspective, continually asking “what?” before “how?” They don’t let obstacles stop them and can create order during chaos. They see patterns and trends before anyone else does, and they can think on their feet. They also quickly and adeptly set priorities, setting aside the trivial many while zeroing in on the critical few. Surprises don’t derail these bricoleurs because their psychological muscle memory triggers their best instincts.
Resilient organizations are replete with these bricoleurs who know what race to get into. These companies don’t survive setbacks; they thrive in the newly minted reality, whatever it is.Resilient organizations are replete with these bricoleurs who know what race to get into. These companies don’t survive setbacks; they thrive in the newly minted reality, whatever it is. Click To Tweet
Nature or nurture? Do people come into the world armed with genes to fight the pathologies that would prevent resilience? Older theories about resilience stressed the role of genetics in helping develop hardiness. Often, they argued, we saw resilient children born to resilient parents, which implied, at least tacitly, that the ability to bounce back from adversity was a genetic predisposition. But wouldn’t the fact that biological parents also raised the children make a strong case for “nurture”?
More recent studies have shown that resilience can be learned. For example, George Vaillant, the director of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School, observed that within various groups he studied during a 60-year period, some people became markedly more resilient over their lifetimes.
In his book Aging Well, Vaillant asks what makes for successful maturation—what are the factors that separate the “happy-well” from the “sad-sick” in later life? Six factors measured by age 50 predict those who would be in the “happy-well” group at age 80: a stable marriage, no smoking, little use of alcohol, regular exercise, maintenance of normal weight, and mature adaptive style, which I’m calling psychological muscle—the trademark of the bricoleur.
Building on the work of previous scholars, Vaillant studied 268 members of the classes of 1941 through 1944 for an in-depth, lifelong study of “normal” adult development. At age 50, 106 of the men had five or six of these factors working in their favor, and at 80, half of this group were among the happy-well. Only eight fell into the “sad-sick” category, the bottom quarter of life outcomes. In contrast, of 66 men who had only one to three factors at age 50, not even one was rated happy-well at 80. In addition, men with three or fewer factors, though still in good physical health at 50, were three times as likely to be dead 30 years later as those with four or more.
As Vaillant’s study confirms, our defenses are always better when we are not hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or drunk. Feeling safe, secure, and “held”’ allows us to develop the psychological muscle that will sustain us through hard times. Although it is not easy to change our defenses by ourselves, fortune favors a prepared mind, so bricoleurs improvise and then develop the psychological muscle memory that gives them confidence that they will overcome the next obstacle.
All companies need more bricoleurs, and there’s been no better time for individuals to develop their own bricolage skills.