Most of us read, eat, sleep — and who knows what else — with our devices (I didn’t have to look up the definition of “Technostress” to understand what the term meant.) Pair that with a weak economy and continued pressure to innovate in an ever-changing landscape and you have a confluence of factors that are leading to fatigue, panic, headaches, depression, or worse.
Many of the most technologically innovative organizations are turning to meditation, yoga, and technology detox retreats to help their employees stay focused, improve creativity, and reduce stress. Organizations recognize that they need to help build resilience in their employees if they hope to keep them healthy and thriving in our modern work environment.
That’s why I was thrilled to invite J. Galen Buckwalter to present at the Managing Experience conference this year. Galen has been working in the space for more than 20 years and we had a chance to discuss his life, career, and why resilience became such an important role in both.
LKD: I am excited to have you on board with us for MX 2014. You’ve had an interesting career trajectory: from being a Professor of Research in Gerontology to Chief Scientific Officer at eHarmony and more recently founding a startup. Is there a through line for your career, and if so, how do you articulate it?
JGB: My career is not all that linear in its trajectory. It all started as a Mennonite farm boy where every day meant tracking 50 some cows through their birthing and fertility patterns, their diet and nutrition. Overlay that with the need to get the crops planted and harvested, I think a common theme may become evident across the seemingly chaotic career course.
I love quantifying nature’s cycle’s beginning with the most fundamental problem of science–measurement.
I have an almost instinctual drive to research life’s cycles. My dissertation began as a study of the neuropsychological sequelae of autologous stimulated lymphocytes used in the treatment of recurrent brain tumors. It was an incredible opportunity to spend time with people before and after a potentially radical new intervention for cancers that were surely lethal without treatment. My goal in starting the study was to see if there were any indications that the treatment was causing deficits above what was to be expected as a result of the incredibly invasive surgery.
As I began to spend time with these people, I saw the fear and the hope in their eyes. And then after the surgery I saw something else entirely, some with no recollection of me or why I was there, some with a sense of unrealistic hope, of belief in change.
But most patients, within a matter of months, receded entirely from the world. Most of these people had shown Herculean strength just to survive to get to this point in life started to show a very predictable sequence where they seemed to increasingly shutter themselves, distancing, stopping one function one day to turn off another the next.
These were the days I was just learning research but very early on in the process of data collection it became quite clear that the treatment was not affecting the process, rather what I was watching was the end of life, the cycle of death.
My committee didn’t really know what to do when I informed them that I needed to have another proposal colloquium. This time I was proposing to study the neuropsychology of death, to see if neuropsychological profiles were capable of predicting the time to death. This is one of several studies in my life that are more important to me as a researcher than to anyone else. it gave me a sense of trust in my own interests and passions.
I attribute much of the very personal sense of satisfaction I take in knowing my data and the cycles and patterns, which the data hint at, to my childhood spent immersed in the rhythms of life. A traumatic spinal cord injury at 17 left me in a wheelchair and had an impact on my decision to pursue this field.
My college career was not one that was laser planned to get me to a defined end. I thought I would be really good as a physician. I took a pre-med chemistry course. But when I went to Lab the first time, all the students were directed to pair up. As people were going through that awkward, very non- eHarmony-matching process, the Professor kindly directed me away from the group and with all the fatherly charm of Attila. He told me I would have to work by myself were I to take his course because he was not going to allow me to impede a “normal” student’s process. So undergrad was pretty much a wash for me.
I only applied to one program. The Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary caught my interest because it overtly attempted to integrate Christian faith with academic psychology.
I came out of my training with a solid foundation in three areas that have either taken the time to further develop or focused on as my strength at alternating times of my career. The three strength areas are basic psychology, experimental design/statistics, and psychometric analysis. Given my fundamental interest in the cycles of life, data has always been essential.
I made my way through grad school doing the stats for other students. When I got around to applying for jobs I had done over 70 dissertations.
Data is good but the ability to apply information from data to help people is great. That’s where eHarmony came in.
Almost 5% of all marriages in the US now begin at eHarmony. Divorce rates are lower and marriages report greater satisfaction. That was one of my side jobs for the three years before eHarmony launched. But my personal journey with eHarmony changed with its success. It’s then I realized I’m a startup kind of a guy.
LKD: Lately you’ve been doing work focused on building resilience. Why did you become interested in that topic?
JGB: To be honest, a fair amount of my interest in resilience stems from my life as a disabled man.
After I left eHarmony, I was beginning to realize that despite my best wishes and what I had long been told, my disability was not a static thing. One example: I thought that pushing my own chair day in and day out for what was now a couple of decades was a great way to stay in shape.
After years in a wheelchair you move with the chair and gravity and curves. It’s quite a sensual mode of motion. But as I edged into my 40’s it became apparent that my shoulders were irreparably harmed from the repetitive movements that weren’t at all natural, like breaking down and schlepping my chair in and out of my car three to six times a day. Fireman’s shoulders they called them. So in mid life I was left with the harsh realization that I could no longer enjoy the independence of a manual chair.
The truth is that a transition to a power chair, and its 300lbs of mainly battery weight, and a van with a lift that needs to have a huge amount of space to operate, it all adds up to a greater degree of dependence, both on technology and on others. Adjusting to my initial injury wasn’t a walk in the park, but this change hit me like a ton of bricks.
In retrospect I think I stumbled through undergrad and most of grad school, as well most of my first marriage, in a major depression. Admittedly I was self-medicated with the complete array of recreational and prescribed medications. But when I finally got my act together and finished my education, I could fully put to use the years of time when I had plowed through most every statistical design, along with all of the texts available in the incipient discipline of neuropsychology, I do think the record supports my assertion that I was one productive research professor.
A lot of years in the 90’s when I was at University of Southern California I exceeded my target of five pubs a year and I was putting in two to three credible grant applications every year as well.
I was fully taking care of myself, a quadriplegic, that required one to three hours of personal care every day.
During the 90’s I also was in a band that was active in the underground LA club scene, toward the latter years I met, fell in love with and married my life partner Deborah and I did a fair amount of statistical consultation to supplement the less than staggering income of a research professor. As luck would have it one of those consultation gigs was nameless for a year or so while I did the basic test development for them. The name they settled on was eHarmony.com.
So would blown shoulders stop me? It came too close for comfort, close enough to make me realize I wasn’t impervious to the loss that I continued to experience as part of my disability.
That’s when I decided to learn everything I could about resilience, to see if I could become more resilient myself and to see if perchance my years of self-experienced resilience could inform the field in any way.
LKD: What is resilience and why is that concept important to people who create human experiences?
JGB: Resilience in the broadest context is anything we can do day in and day out to help ourselves recover the next time we get super stressed out, hit by a bus, or have to pitch to the Board. Resilience is something that you don’t observe until the shit goes down.
But while you can only see resilience in action after trauma, after severe stressors, we can only develop resilience when we are not stressed out. If we wait for things to get intense with the expectation that is when we will fine-tune our resilience, well the only thing we will fine tune with that approach is a disaster.
Resilience is what we do to maximize our body and our brain’s ability to handle stress, or more accurately, to train our body to get back to normal after we get stressed.
Our body comes hardwired to respond to stress, literally, by generations and generations of adaptation and mutation. Our fight and flight system is a finely tuned system. Our problem at this stage of evolution is to train our body to not let the effects of stress go haywire.
We still live with a physiological system built by millions of years of evolution in a dog eat dog, homo sapien outlive Neanderthal kind of a world. When someone cuts us off on the 280 our initial response is exactly the same as it would have been a couple of million years ago were some chump hyena to try to snag our fresh kill.
The hormonal reaction to such an affront is pretty much unparalleled in the mammalian kingdom, with the exception of the human pregnancy but that’s another discussion entirely. When we get attacked, or think we are getting attacked, there goes the catecholamines quickly followed by cortisol by the buckets full. But this is the way we evolved so it has to be all good, right?
Actually, stress is all-good, particularly in some people, provided it resolves in a timely manner. Provided we win the fight, lose quickly and come to terms with it or get the hell off the battlefield, it’s all-good.
Stress hormones go up, stress hormones go down, no harm, no foul. But if our stress hormones stay on overload, if we go from one battle to the next, or we are psychologically impacted by a stressor to the extent that we start fighting that battle even when we are far away from the battlefield, then the stress is guaranteed harm to us.
In fact, a plausible argument can be made that unresolved stress is the hallmark disorder of western civilization, underlying everything from the relatively benign spare tire we see among people with a bit too much stress and a few too many doughnuts, to the endocrine profile known as metabolic syndrome where the spare tire combines with a sneaky rise in blood glucose, a loss of good cholesterol and increase in bad and an inexorable increase in triglycerides.
Then it’s only a hop and a skip and a jump to full blown diabetes which takes you to the inevitable big one, the myocardial infarction, which we are getting much better at staving off with CABG, stents and angiography.
All because we can’t get off the battlefield, either realistically or figuratively.
Training ourselves to be resilient is a combination of behavioral, relational, emotional and cognitive states that we can learn to control.
Our physiology may not have yet evolved to be able to bring the stress hormones down but we can in effect develop our big old prefrontal cortex when we are relaxing, waiting for the next battle. When the next battle comes, we can count on the structure and the chemistry of our pre-frontal circuits to literally assert itself over the sympathetic adrenal medullary system.
Resilience is our best attempt to kick start evolution and give us a work around until evolution catches up in a few million years.
LKD: Many of our attendees work in house at organizations that create many of the tools and applications that support our industry. If you were going to give them some specific advice about how to begin incorporating what you’ve learned about resilience into their work, what would that be?
JGB: There is the potential to build strength in most every experience you have, or create, with a person. Frankly, implementing resilience into the experiences you create for people is not rocket science, there are no secret mindfulness methods to be employed that are going to allow people to fully engage with their strength (yet).
But amongst the whirl of images and thoughts that you design for people, how would that change if you always began with the overt intention of messaging strength? Be it optimism, attachment, grit, self-care, emotional control; some aspect of cognition, emotion, or behavioral/relational health?
With the increasingly effective palette that is yours to create with is it not possible to include an experience of subtle but consistent growth? Of acceptance of the person where they are at in their particular journey?
Meaning, purpose, grit, empathy, humor, relevance…
Let the picture sink in. You surely know this person, she may or may not be a leader day in and day out, but as the stress level rises or heaven forbid something traumatic happens, you notice her more and more. Rock solid. A perpetual smile. Now think about her life.
LKD: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Galen! We’re excited for your presentation at MX!
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