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A Big Test

February 23, 2011

As many of you can well appreciate, I have found it incredibly difficult to watch the images of death and devastation streaming from New Zealand over the internet via television news feeds. Although my closest friends have either checked-in to say they are safe and well or are fully engaged in response operations, I cannot help but imagine that someone or several someones I know will appear on the list of casualties as the days go by and the list grows.

Despite my grief, I am trying to remain optimistic and have taken the opportunity to reflect on my optimistic assessment of the recovery from the M7.1 earthquake in September. Seismologists believe that event almost certainly triggered this shallow but strong M6.3 earthquake on Monday (USA time) that left many Christchurch landmarks in ruins. Despite the horrible images coming from Christchurch, I remain hopeful that Cantabrians, and indeed all New Zealanders, will impress us with their resilience in the face of such utter devastation. My faith in this outcome is rooted in the cultural metaphors of a nation that has managed to make a big mark on the world despite its small size and isolated geography.

In Commonwealth nations, sporting contests in rugby and cricket (among other sports) played between two nations are referred to as tests, not games or matches. The term test connotes the intensity of the competition among fierce rivals, the high standard of play that accompanies the selection of each side’s best competitors, and the enormous stakes involved: national bragging rights.

When it comes to tests, the past and the future matter very little. A side with a long record of success — like the All Blacks — is only as good as the players available to it on the day of competition. Its past campaigns may inspire the players and develop a sense of pride that bodes well for future competitions, but these factors matter very little when the players finally meet.

Christchurch has a great and proud sporting tradition. But the test it faces today — between the forces of nature and social will — will require something far greater than the talent and will that saw it to this point in its history.

Rugby aficionados refer to the pattern of their contest as a “game of two halves.” More often than not, past performance not only matters very little, but fails to carry over from the first to the second half of play. The physical and mental battles require continuous reorientation,adaptation and recommitment to the goal of winning.

Christchurch itself is now engaged in its own game of two halves. As one resident interviewed by TVNZ said with typical Kiwi candor, ‘September was tea party stuff, this is much worse.’ The remarkable way they responded to that event has neither prevented nor fully prepared them for what they now face.

Like their vaunted Crusaders and All Blacks rugby competitors, Christchurch residents face the challenge of confronting their situation anew at each moment. They cannot rely on past successes, they cannot place all their hope in future miracles. Their success will come through hard work, commitment to one another and a relentless focus on the present.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the mindset that predispose people to success. She notes that people seem to have one of two default mindsets, which may be expressed as preferences in any number of aspects of their lives. She proffers simple pairs of statements to determine which mindset people use to approach various situations in their lives.

For this situation, Dweck might ask people to agree or disagree with the following propositions:

  1. The ability to recover from a major disaster depends on the resources available to me and others after the event.
  2. The ability to recover from a major disaster depends on how I and others use the resources we have after the event.
  3. Our resource endowments — what we have managed to accumulate — determines how well we will adapt to our new circumstances.
  4. How we develop our resources, especially our human and social capital, determines how well we will adapt to our new circumstances.

Those who express a stronger preferences for statements 1 and 3, I would suggest, are more likely to approach their current situation with a fixed mindset. They will have difficulty finding the strength to move forward and they will find their progress more difficult and more limited than those with a growth mindset.

The growth mindset people will find it easier to agree with statements 2 and 4. They will find a way to take advantage of every opportunity to rebound from this tragedy. They will consider themselves bent but not broken despite their losses. They will see the challenge as an opportunity to rise above the limitations others impose upon them or they themselves might have seen in their previous situations.

Whichever mindset people greet their present circumstances with they will fare much better if they spend less time looking ahead or behind the present moment than they will by being present to themselves and for one another in each moment. Focusing on what we can control, paying attention to our reactions to the ups and downs that come our way and looking for every opportunity to work through our difficulties and accept what we cannot change will make it easier to see where we can make a difference and to greet each opportunity with the senses of creativity and optimism that make each challenge easier to overcome.

I don’t know how this test will end. But I don’t advise betting against the Kiwis. They may not soar like eagles, but they are resourceful and very well adapted to their environment.

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