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Resilience, or the law of the stimulative arrears

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Exactly two months after Amancio Ortega was born, all hell broke loose . The year was 1936, and in Spain it marked the commencement of the bloodiest war the country had ever seen. For the Ortega family, the out- break of the Spanish Civil War meant that they would have to flee their home in the small mountain village Busdongo de Arbas. Together with hundreds of rural families, they left for the city in hopes of finding work. After several difficult years, Ortega senior found a job on the railroad in La Coruña. It was hardly enough to feed four hungry children, so Mrs. Ortega supplemented the family’s income by working as a housemaid.

When Amancio was thirteen, he walked home with his mother one evening after a long day at work. They stopped at the local grocer’s and there Amancio overheard a conversation that would change his life . He heard his mother pleading for credit, while the shop clerk insisted: “No, señora, this time you have to pay.” At that moment Amancio – at least, according to well-informed sources, because he himself rarely gives interviews – decided to get a job and never go to school again. The very next week he was an errand boy and shirt-folder at a local sewing workshop.

Several months later, World War II broke out. No, it certainly wasn’t written in the stars that 50 years later, Amancio Ortega would be one of the most successful people in the world. The life story of the man behind Zara, Massimo Dutti, Bershka and Oysho reads like a fairy tale. From a cash-strapped worker’s son to the richest man in Spain, the richest man in the fashion world, and one of the richest people in the whole world. The Spanish have dubbed his story “From Zero to Zara” – in other words, from rags to riches. For many, Amancio Ortega is the personification of success. His story is far from unique. Just think of former US president Barack Obama, raised by a single mother. Or Nelson Mandela, who spent twenty years in jail, or the orphan Steve Jobs, or single mother J .K . Rowling, or former drug-world errand boy Jay-Z. It is the main theme of countless novels, films and fairy tales; it is the American Dream and the hope of millions.


The success of the “rags-to-riches” genre has a lot to do with the perception of the general public that these stories are highly exceptional. And in a sense they are. Unfortunately, in reality, few people who grow up in poverty or live precariously can become superstars . Conversely, there does seem to be an observable link: people who are extraordinarily successful have often had to overcome many obstacles. The British psychologist John Nicholson conducted years of interviews with successful people and came to the conclusion that they all had the same thing in common: at one time or another (usually fairly early in life), they succeeded in fighting their way out of extremely difficult personal and professional incidents.

Could it be that the success in these stories is not “in spite of disaster” but “because of disaster”? That there is a causal relationship between misfortune and success? Charles Dickens, the literary godfather of the rags-to-riches genre, formulated an answer in his novel Great Expectations: “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching . . . I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

Not limited to literature, the phenomenon occurs in all different shapes and forms. “Never waste a perfectly good crisis,” as Winston Churchill put it. And indeed, some of the biggest companies in the world owe their current success to a crisis in the past . Samsung Electronics, for example, was close to bankruptcy in 1990 (after 20 years at the top in Korea) when manager Lee Kun-Hee had to come up with a crisis plan. That plan made Samsung a world leader in high-tech electronics. Nestlé was a small Swiss company that dealt in powdered milk until World War I, after which they grew into one of the largest food companies in the world. The German brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht were only trying to survive a period of scarcity just after World War II when they came up with the concept of what would later become supermarket chain Aldi. Fifty years ago, the “Asian tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) were among the poorest countries in the world.

And it turns out to be more than just an economic phenomenon . The Dutch historian Jan Romein already described in 1937 how, in history, a “law of the handicap of the head start” seemed to oppose a “law of the stimulative arrears.” In his influential essay on the dialectics of progress, he cites the example of street lighting in London . While many cities already had electric street lighting, London still used old-fashioned gas lamps. The explanation is simple. In the 19th century, London was one of the most prosperous cities in the world and one of the first to have the budget to introduce street lighting. At the time, gas was a logical choice. Other cities that were only able to introduce street lighting later could opt for a newer technology – electricity. In London, then, we may speak of an “inhibiting head start”: they were the first to have the money and the opportunity to install street lighting, but were in the end saddled with an obsolete technology, while other cities, which started with a lag, had much more advanced street lighting .

Ethically, periods of adversity also provided great leaps forward. The recognition of universal human rights received enormous impetus from the horrors of World War II. The most brilliant art is created from lack. Think of Frida Kahlo or Vincent van Gogh. The greatest discoveries are born of necessity, such as the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The most beautiful music emerges from pain and sorrow.

And then there is also psychology. There, too, the phenomenon of growth through crisis is well known. Only it’s known as “PTG,” or “post-traumatic growth.”


Since the 1960s, extensive research has been done into the consequences of psychological trauma through confrontation with violence, abuse, disaster or illness. In the 1980s, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was also identified as a condition. Unfortunately, so much attention went to its treatment that research into the other side of the coin was diluted. Nevertheless, only a minority (between eight and 30 percent) of the people who experience a trauma develop PTSD. The great majority recover quickly from the trauma and a significant portion (varying between 30 and 70 percent) seem to experience positive development afterward.

Professor Stephen Joseph of the University of Nottingham described the phenomenon of PTG on the occasion of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987, when a ferry capsized on the North Sea near Belgium and 193 passengers died. For around 500 of the survivors, the experience in some cases of waiting hours to be rescued from the ice-cold water was particularly traumatic.

Therefore, a Herald Research Team was established at the Institute of Psychiatry to monitor the victims for symptoms of PTSD for several years. Although many of the survivors did indeed exhibit stress-related ailments, Professor Stephen Joseph also noticed that some of the victims actually seemed to be doing remarkably well after the disaster. After three years, he asked all the survivors this question: “Has your view of life changed in a good or in a bad sense since the disaster?” Forty-six percent answered negatively, 43 percent positively.

For some people, Professor Joseph later explained in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us, trauma leads to greater psychological well-being. People who experience PTG, or post-traumatic growth, are more content with themselves, have a broader perspective on life and also enjoy their social relationships more intensely. The trauma seems to be a sort of catalyst for positive change, in which someone’s perspective and inner strength are significantly altered. Joseph adds that this does not necessarily mean that they are also happier.

Fortunately, very few people in the world experience a disaster of this magnitude . The chance that we will be confronted with loss and pain in our lives, however, is close to 100 percent. It can be a divorce or death, a professional failure or natural disaster. Even in the safest countries in the world, the question is not “if” we will experience calamity in our lives, but “when” and “how.”

We can be almost sure that something will happen to us. But however bad it is, all traumas also offer a chance for growth and success. The question is: What determines whether a trauma upsets or improves a person’s life?

In this context, consider this short notice that appeared in the newspaper several months after the MH17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in the Ukraine (in July 2014). All 283 passengers on the flight died:

“After the indescribable grief and loss of his daughter Erla, son-in-law Robert, and grandchildren Merel and Mark in the disaster during the Malaysia Airlines flight, it is with great sorrow that we inform you that Henk Palm has died at the age of 93.”

Died of grief. Losing your child is without doubt one of the worst things that can happen to you, and yes, it can be fatal. But what about the family of Ali, a Malaysian PhD student in the Netherlands, who was killed in the same disaster. Did his parents feel the same way? That they would die of grief? Instead, after the death of their beloved son they decided to follow his advice: they planned a family trip to Rotterdam to get to know Ali’s world. Later, I read that the parents of 21-year-old Kristina, who was on the same flight, found their daughter’s “bucket list” (a list of things you definitely want to do before you die) and wanted to finish it for her.


Why does one person succumb to his grief, while another draws strength from it? Why does one lie down despondently while the other fights back? Henk Palm’s age was certainly an important factor in his death. And Ali’s parents had other children to distract them from the event. But these factors are not sufficient to explain why one drowns and the other learns to swim.

The difference in these situations lies in ourselves. Resilience, the ability to rebound when life gets us down, determines how well we can withstand a crisis. Resilience is capable of deflecting all that life dumps on you. And if life drops you like a brick, resilience enables you to bounce back like a rubber ball. It determines not only whether we can survive a crisis, but also whether we will grow as a result.

We know that we will face setbacks in life. People who are successful seem at first glance to be people who always have the wind at their backs. But in practice, what they have in common is that they didn’t let a strong headwind beat them back; they learned from their negative experiences. Resilient people succeed like no others in turning every disadvantage into an advantage. Success is not about dealing with positive events, but about dealing with negative events. Resilience gives you the ability to convert bad experiences into wings.

The good news is that our ability to rebound, in contrast to intelligence or character, is only partly determined by our genes. This doesn’t mean that we always have a good grasp of it. After all, we cannot choose the traumas we will experience in life. But we can increase our resilience to the extent that we can better withstand those shocks. Compare it to warming up your muscles before you go jogging.


Research on post-traumatic growth shows very clearly the importance of resilience in times of crisis. In the current crisis, resilience is in my opinion the one characteristic we need to invest in, both as a society, as organizations and as individuals. If burnout stands on one side of the resilience scale, the promise of engagement stands on the other.

More and more researchers agree that engagement is the closest thing to what we might call an “antidote” to burn-out. Professor Arnold Bakker of Erasmus University Rotterdam has spent much of his career studying engagement. Together with Wilmar Schaufeli at the University of Utrecht, he worked out the “Utrecht Work Engagement Scale” (UWES), which is now used worldwide as the reference for measuring engagement at work. Bakker identifies three characteristics one must possess in sufficient measure in order to be enthusiastic. These three characteristics are vitality – when someone is full of energy; dedication – when there is a positive attitude towards work; and absorption – when someone is completely involved with work and for- gets everything around them.

In his research, he discovered how engaged employees are lively and enthusiastic, full of self-confidence and able to give their lives direction. Through their positive attitude as well as their high activity level, enthusiastic employees create their own positive feedback in the form of esteem, recognition and success. Since the UWES was developed in Utrecht in 2000, the research firm Gallup (among others) has conducted research on the prevalence of engagement. While burnout figures are climbing alarmingly high, the figures for engagement have remained stable for nearly 20 years. Worldwide, some 15 percent of employees are enthusiastic. What is striking is that enthusiastic people are also really engaged outside working hours. Of course they some- times get tired, but they describe their fatigue as a pleasant state because they have a sense of achievement .


For many it might seem too good to be true. This sort of enthusiasm is often written off as an addiction. And most people can’t stand “workaholics ”. Bakker’s research shows, however, that engaged employees are not addicted to their work. Workaholics feel an inner urge to work hard and don’t know how to stop. Engaged people work because they like it, but also enjoy doing other things besides working in their free time. The difference might seem small, but its effect is big: a work addiction leads directly to burnout, while engagement leads you away from it.

Just as burnout arises from a combination of context and personality, engagement is also born of the interplay between the two. On the work floor (the context), autonomy, feedback and a good social network are good predictors of engagement. On a personal level, extraversion, emotional stability and conscientiousness influence engagement. A proactive personality also has a positive link to engagement. People with such personalities intentionally turn their environment to their advantage. They identify opportunities, take action and carry on until they see meaningful change.

Bakker talks about “job crafters”: people who actively seek out challenges, consciously apply themselves to learning new things and freely volunteer for projects. They strive for goals because those goals fit within their personal interests and not because other people say they should. For example, a management assistant can make it her responsibility to show new employees around the office even though it is not explicitly part of her job. Job crafters also look for help when they need it and ask for feedback. An employee can actively request feedback from colleagues; that way he can do his job even better.

Engagement is thus a fixed quantity to a certain extent, but fortunately there are variable personality traits that also play a role in its creation. Resilience – the interplay of optimism, effectiveness, stress-resistance and self-esteem – is not inborn, as are other personality traits (such as ex- traversion). Resilience can be learned. To the extent that employees become more skilled in these traits, they also make more frequent use of work-related resources. Of these regular feedback, social support among colleagues, a variety of skills and opportunities for development are the most important. According to Bakker, investing in variable “personal resources” offers the greatest protection against burnout .


But engagement is more than just an antidote to burnout, and only seeing it in this context is a missed opportunity. From Bakker’s research it appears that engaged employees are not only happier and more enthusiastic, but they also have better physical health, such as healthy heart activity. One possible reason for this link is that engaged employees are more likely to participate in relaxing activities that distract them from their work, such as sports, social activities and hobbies. This energy enables them to concentrate better on their work. Moreover, engaged employees have a positive influence not only on themselves, but also on the lives of those around them. They contribute unconsciously to the engagement of their colleagues and are often at the root of innovation and creativity in the workplace, so that the company itself also experiences the positive results.

An American study found that engaged employees are 27 percent less likely to indulge in absenteeism and that the productivity of engaged employees is 18 percent higher on average than that of non-engaged employees. A study conducted by the Dutch government concerning sustainable employability calculated that a 1 percent increase in productivity among Dutch employees would yield 6 billion euros a year. For a company with 100 employees, that translates into an annual revenue increase of 95,000 euros.

As if all those advantages and potential profit margins were not convincing enough, engagement also happens to be the greatest predictor of “flow.” This state was identified by the American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a mental state in which a person is completely absorbed in his or her activity, such that all space, time and surrounding events seem to disappear. It is the highest state of focus and motivation in which all negative emotions disappear and one is completely involved in what one is doing .

Flow is much more than just a pleasant feeling. Flow is an accelerator for resilience. Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that flow not only makes people happier, it also makes them more successful . This is not illogical if you consider that flow is the ultimate state for processing new knowledge and driving up production. The more moments of flow employees attain, the more productive they become, enabling them to have more moments of flow, and so on .

A world-renowned example of flow is the painting of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. It is said that the artist was so completely absorbed in his work that he did not sleep, eat or drink until he collapsed from exhaustion. When the work was finished, he was supposedly nearly blind due to the amount of paint that had dribbled into his eyes over the years.

But you don’t have to be a world-famous painter to experience flow. Most people have had such an experience at some point. It is often associated with sports, music, meditation and art, but moments of flow are possible in every profession. The great frustration for many is that they can’t summon flow whenever they want to. Here, too, the answer lies in strengthening resilience.


Investing in resilience isn’t just a source of opportunities at work. The concept also touches on the most basic human needs. One of the first areas that scientific psychology tried to map out was exactly that: What constitutes the basis of human well-being?

Abraham Maslow made his reputation in the 1940s with his world-famous “pyramid of human needs,” which connects intrinsic human motivation with a hierarchy of needs. At the very base of the pyramid are bodily needs, followed by the need for safety, social contact and esteem. At the very top is self-actualization. The idea is that bodily needs must be met first before a human being will try to fulfill the “higher” needs. To put it simplistically: first you look for food, then for a roof over your head, and only then will you have time to make and maintain friendships.

Maslow’s pyramid has been sharply criticized over the years because in practice it turns out that the “lower” needs do not always have to be fulfilled before you strive for the “higher” ones . Nevertheless, we see that resilient people usually tick all the boxes until they reach the top. In life, this is the best place to be: on top of Maslow’s pyramid . And thanks to science, the way to the top is increasingly more accessible. A well-known pronouncement of the American psychologist Daniel Gilbert in this regard is: “Soon (psychological) science will be able to tell us exactly how to get what we want in life, but it will never be able to tell us what life we want. That will always be our decision.”

Science can tell us a great deal about the way we can realize our ambitions, but the decision to do so will always be ours. It is a question of seizing the opportunities we are offered and insisting on opportunities where possible. And that is as true for individuals, companies and organizations as it is for society.

At the top of the pyramid shines not only the promise of resilience, which among other things protects against burn-out and stress, but also the promise of happiness. It may seem far-fetched, but it’s not. Happiness today is more within reach than ever.


I met “the happiest person in the world” a few years ago in the heart of the Alps, at a conference in which there was a session entitled “The Science and Art of Happiness.” Each speaker in this session discussed “happiness” from his or her own perspective .

Daniel Goleman (known for his bestseller on emotional intelligence) moderated the conversation between John Kabat-Zinn (the father of mindfulness), Tania Singer (who has conducted groundbreaking research on empathy), Richard Davidson (known for his research on neuroplasticity) and several other highly placed guests. Every single one of them a pioneer in his or her discipline, debating the subject of happiness. That I had to see.

And then he entered, “the happiest person in the world .” With his red-orange robe, bald head and ear-to-ear smile, Matthieu Ricard looked as if he had run away from a Buddhist monastery. He walked around glowing the whole time, as if he had just swallowed a ball of gold.

He said: “What is happiness, or should we call it ‘well-being’ instead? Because, of course, happiness is no more than an agreeable feeling. It is a deep sensation of serenity and satisfaction, a state in which all emotions can be present. Even grief.”

Not a bad definition, it seemed to me. I glanced at the program to look at this man’s profile . “PhD in cellular genetics, confidant of the Dalai Lama, doing research on Buddhism for 40 years .” And he wasn’t finished yet:

“But how do we go about our quest for happiness these days? We often look outside ourselves. Unfortunately our control of the outside world is limited, temporary and often even imaginary. If we turn inward, we quickly notice that we have a better chance. Is it not the mind that translates our experiences in the outside world into joy or sorrow?”

Then Ricard went into the way in which we can make our minds more sensitive to happiness in practice, and that was according to him (hardly surprising, coming from a monk) through meditation: “A manner of transforming the mind so that it absorbs happiness instead of rejecting it .” I looked in the direction of neuroscientist Richard Davidson . How would he react to this assertion? And indeed, he took the floor.

Davidson explained that he had tested Ricard’s assertion by having him meditate daily in an MRI scanner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It must have been very uncomfortable for Ricard to meditate in a big tube with 128 sensors on his head. But the results were astonishing. While he was meditating on compassion, the strongest gamma rays ever measured in neuroscience were registered. Gamma rays are associated with heightened awareness, alert functioning and a supreme state of happiness. Since then, Ricard has been known as the “happiest person in the world.”

There are many things you can take away from Ricard’s scan experiment. He himself emphasized how meditation has a powerful effect on neuroplasticity, the biological variability of our brains. But personally what I remembered was the following: happiness is not just a desire, it is attainable, moreover measurable, and it does indeed reside within.


Over the years, science has jumped on the bandwagon in the search for happiness. If psychology was until recently committed mainly to the reduction of human suffering, today the big question is how science can contribute to increasing human happiness. In light of this increased interest, Rotterdam professor emeritus Ruut Veenhoven decided several years ago to start up a “Database of Happiness,” a database that now holds more than 9,000 scientific publications on happiness .

Research on happiness has grown to the extent that it appears to be too big to comprehend. However, several neurological scientists at University College London succeeded in combining scientific research on the “resources of happiness” into a compact mathematical formula that predicts happiness. The formula was tested with both fMRI scans and surveys and the findings were published in the authoritative scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . The formula is:

HAPPINESS (t) = w0 + w1 γ – crj + w2 γ – evj + w3 γ – rPj


Happiness = basic mood (W0) + what you’re satisfied with (CR) + what you get on average (EV) + the difference between what you get on average and what you get now (RPE). The recurring ∑ functions weigh each factor based on recent history.

To summarize, this formula teaches us that we are happy if something exceeds our expectations. In that sense, the formula confirms what many thinkers, writers and philosophers already knew. A famous quote on the subject from Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who suffered from the neurological disease ALS since his youth, is: “My expectations were reduced to zero when I turned 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

In addition to the importance of the unexpected as an aspect of happiness, this formula makes clear that happiness is mainly determined in practice by a subtle interplay of the constant and the temporary, on the one hand, and by the inner and the outer, on the other. On the inside, we can distinguish emotional, psychological and mental factors. We can tinker with these factors in order to exploit our mental resilience. And that is exactly what we should strive for in these disruptive times.


We all have mental capital. Some people’s start- up capital is greater than others, but those with the greatest advantage do not always reap the biggest profits. That too has to do with the law of the stimulative arrears. That capital helps us through life and determines how resilient we are.

Each of us has the ability to make the most of his or her life. The choice of whether to squander or redeem our mental startup capital lies with us. For some, this means little more than adopting a positive attitude towards life; for others, it means working hard to increase their own resilience. Regardless of where you start, investing in mental capital is a risk-free investment. You can only profit from it.

You don’t become more mentally resilient overnight. It is a choice that you make and requires two decisions. The first is the decision to play an active role in your own life, and the second is to feel and take responsibility. Both sound more logical and easier than they are in practice.

All too often, we let ourselves be swept along by what happens to us. We like to immerse ourselves in a bath of self-pity and, at the same time, we usually prefer to blame others. What we too often overlook is that how things turn out doesn’t really depend on whose fault it is and what a pity it is that it happened at all. Life comes as it comes. But it is still our life and the only way to change something about it is by being more proactive. If we don’t want others to determine what direction we take, then we must take control ourselves. Even if that means a hefty portion of rebellion is needed.

If you want a better mind, you have to want to take hold of your life. It’s not enough to make a few New Year’s resolutions on January 1 that gradually fade over time. It’s not enough to say during the pandemic that you will do things differently after the pandemic and you just keep on relying upon your old habits. You have to actively set yourself achievable goals and arrange your life so that you can achieve them. Take time to think about your dreams and expectations, because maybe you’ve neglected something that’s very important to you.

Resilient people learn from negative events and actively seek out new opportunities. Within themselves, with others, in their surroundings and in the outside world. They are also not afraid to accept help and actively seek out resources. They make connections out of strength, joy and hope and this yields benefits on several levels: mental, psychological, social, financial, economic, societal – you name it.

As an individual, you will have to roll up your sleeves and get to work if you want to increase your mental capital. This also applies to companies: unless they make an effort, it is impossible to make the mental capital of their employees grow. Unfortunately, many executives – even in the midst of the current crisis – are very reluctant to invest actively in their mental capital and that of their employees, because it takes time, money and energy. Even the recognition of burnout as an occupational illness has still not changed things much. In the corporate world and in the media, the debate gets hung up on the question of who is to blame for employees’ burnout. Is it the companies that urgently need to change? Is the government responsible? Or does the cause lie with the employees themselves? It’s interesting to conduct this discussion in a nuanced way, but the answer will always be somewhere in the middle . Employers, employees and the government will have to change together. Each bears part of the responsibility. Let us focus primarily on how we can solve the problem, and not so much on who has caused the problem and to what extent.

Fortunately, some companies do take on the current crisis by investing in resilience. And this has been fruitful. Not only for the employees, but also for the companies themselves. A positive brain strategy ensures that employees perform better and are less likely to call in sick, but by adopting a brain-friendly strategy, the frontrunners in terms of resilience also attract the best and brightest minds.

As an upcoming talent, which company would you choose? The company that offers high wages and serious material advantages, but few opportunities for further development and a high risk of burnout? Or the company that in addition to material advantages also offers the chance to grow and increase your mental resilience?

Choosing to invest in mental capital is the first step. But then comes the hard part: getting started. Most people and companies have only a vague idea of what resilience actually means. All too often I see well-meaning attempts fail because they are not embedded in a broader vision or because the measures taken counteract one another. To enhance resilience, we first have to find the resources that will help us jump higher. What characteristics ensure that we bounce back when life gets us down? What drives resilience?

An important point: the tools for mental resilience are within us. Self-control or willpower gives us the strength of motivation. Consciously engaging with our consciousness and subconsciousness is the second tool, and ensures that we can reduce the negative effects of stress considerably. With focus, we can increase our cognitive intelligence. And finally, we can appeal to and stimulate our optimistic ur-instinct to provide the emotional basis for cashing in on mental capital.

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