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On Personal Resilience….or On Orchids vs Dandelions

I’ve written about organizational excellence and its likely antecedents and consequences. Successful organizations possess characteristics such as nimbleness and the capacity to adapt amidst rapid change and they tend to find ways to engage their employees through intrinsic motivators.

Changing perspective, I thought it would be useful to turn the focus on individuals rather than organizations and explore the traits that underlie success at the individual level. Sure, it helps if one is intelligent, has had a good education, is psychologically stable and has a passion for what one does. All these certainly help. However, it is often the case that people have all these and yet don’t quite “make it.”

Resilience denotes finding ways of adapting in the face of adversity such as trauma, loss or other significant sources of stress: family and relationship problems, health issues or workplace and financial stressors.

The ability to “bounce back” has to do with a number of factors, some related to our upbringing, but our genes may also play a significant role. Indeed, persistence through failure may be something we learn but it may be more of a trait that we inherit. In a paper in the journal Development and Psychopathology (in 2005) entitled “Biological Sensitivity to Context” Bruce Ellis (Arizona) and Thomas Boyd (Berkeley) looked at childrens’ susceptibility to their family environment using a Swedish idiom as their guiding metaphor. Swedes refer to Orkidebarn (“orchid child”) and maskrosbarn (“dandelion child”). Dandelion children have the capacity to survive—even thrive—in whatever circumstances they find themselves in. They are psychologically resilient. Orchid children, on the other hand, are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the parenting they receive. If neglected, orchid children have a tendency to wither. If they are nurtured, they not only survive but often flourish. This asymmetric upside underscores a key premise of the orchid-dandelion hypothesis: that genes and personality traits that underlie human weaknesses (despair, aggression) also underlie our strengths (resilience, empathy, generosity).

As with every metaphor, we need to be careful not to stretch it too far, but the orchid/dandelion dichotomy may offer an important lens through which to examine this important topic. What do you think?


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