The School of Hard Knocks

I’ve just read another article by Professor Adrian Furnham (gosh he’s a great source of material for AspergerManagement!), all about resilience.

I remember talking to a person with Asperger a few years back who was quite low at the time. She had been through a difficult period in both her personal and professional life. Though she liked her boss, she didn’t feel that he understood her and so was finding work a real trial. She was desperate for support and, I think, may have been slightly depressed clinically.

She then said something though that I have always remembered: “deep down I am very strong”. I resonated with this as it is how I have always felt also and it is something that I have seen written about on quite a few occasions about people with Asperger Syndrome (AS). Deep down Aspies are strong – we are resilient.

So why do we become low and doubt our ability to cope when, deep down, we know intuitively that we are strong?

Well, as Professor Furnham says: “people inherit certain aptitudes and personality traits, and a variety of specific and personal experiences shape the person we become”.

That certainly applies to having AS of course and as I have seen written so many times before people with Asperger wouldn’t want to change or be anything other than they are. It’s [AS] “incurable” anyway and we just have to live with it. Not such a problem mind given the benefits that our unique way of thinking affords though which can be invaluable in a work context.

What I think is more of a problem, or at least it has been for me, are the residual after effects of negative experiences. As someone who went through a very bad corporate upheaval and “night of the long knives” a few years ago where I was personally according to others made the scapegoat, I know only to well how difficult it is to put such things behind me. As Professor Furnham says “adversity can test people to their limits, traumatise or break them”.

However, there really is no way of avoiding these setbacks if you want to work – and get on – in the corporate world. As the article also goes on to say: “we all face degrees of adversity over the course of a lifetime and we may well be stalked by ghosts from the past”.

It is this I think that presents the challenge for someone with Asperger: the knowledge and self-consciousness of knowing that we are “different” which means that, as the article states, “powerful memories that shape and shake all aspects of adult functioning” are sometimes apparent.

The benefits – and necessity – of overcoming these hurdles in the world of work are, therefore, incalculable.

As Professor Furnham goes onto to say “resilience is best learnt at the school knocks” and as someone who learns best – as I suspect many other with Asperger Syndrome do – by doing things, this also applies very much to the corporate jungle.

The article then goes on to state that some people are made by adversity insofar as it hardens them. They become stronger, more resilient and less fragile. It is for these reasons that military training introduces levels of adversity such as sleep deprivation to prepare personnel for the stresses and challenges that they will inevitably encounter.

Resilient people cope better. They bounce back faster, carry less baggage from the past, feel less influenced by fate and more in control and, therefore, more able to maintain a steady course when the economic/political weather deteriorates.

It is the carrying of “less baggage” that I feel could be pertinent in the case of Asperger. As the piece asserts, resilient people know who they are, who they can count on and where and when to get help. They are self-aware.

We, i.e. Aspies, I believe know who we are but need to fully accept this and the “baggage that comes with it. For example, I know that I am unlikely to ever fully become one of the crowd or inner circle in organisations, but I can get on and do things and deliver which will mitigate this. I can also build support structures by identifying those I can trust and draw on them when I need assistance, something that I haven’t done readily in the past for fear of being perceived as less than capable. If something goes wrong now – which I accept they inevitably must at some stage – I simply accept they have and don’t dwell on it. I let it go and move on and try not to think about it.

As Professor Furnham says “ these are the coping skills that make resilient people hardy” We all get stressed, but doing such things can reduce the resulting effects quickly and efficiently.

So, his next question “can you learn resilience” or “change a person’s mindset so that they move away from vulnerability to resilience?” becomes for me as a person/manager with AS salient.

As mentioned, I think that we already have resilience, but we do also need to overcome more the residual self-doubt that emanates from being “different” which in my case has somewhat sapped my confidence, morale and energy going forward as a result of being – to a degree – an outsider.

The article offers a checklist to assist in moving forward:

  • Visualise first and then enact how your capabilities will enhance your performance

What I do here is think about passed successes – and there have been many. If I think about how I have done this something previously then it negates my propensity to dwell on the possible negative thoughts that can seep in mentally. I also try to do what Asperger Coach Barbara Bissonnette suggests: focus on small wins to build confidence.

  • Remind yourself of what you are really good at and what others value you for

An easy one from my Asperger perspective: my original mode of thinking affords me the real ability to visualise and see the wider picture. People also value my ethics, honesty, integrity and genuineness.

  • Take control of your life and drop all your negative thinking.

Never an easy one I accept, but one I can and do keep working on. I read a book recently by a former international rugby player called Brian Moore in which he states that he always has to fight Gollom: that mystical figure that intrudes upon the brain and with negative thoughts. Indeed it amazes me how many high achievers often cite how they have and have to confront this issue.

I insist on training myself to fight these inner thoughts whenever they start to creep in. Looking back I can see that I have achieved so much in my career, something which gives me a great platform to build on.

  • Try serious optimism – do the “glass half full and opportunity thinking”

This is the previous point. The past is the past for me. I use it to my advantage and don’t dwell on the negatives.

I have just bought a book called: “Why Success Always Starts with Failure”. I have always thought that the most valuable lessons have come from the most difficult/hardest experiences. Without the travails that I refer to previously in this piece, I honestly don’t believe that I would be able to move forward to the degree to which I now feel able.

  • Reduce your stress levels by being more realistic, calling on the support of others and expressing your feelings more.

This possibly is the most beneficial message of all. As mentioned previously I have in the past failed to approach other people for advice because of the fear of appearing inadequate or less than capable. My Asperger feeling of “differentness” has, I believe, exacerbated this.

I have learnt that – providing the call for assistance is genuine and not abused too often – then the opposite is the case. People in the main are keen to assist if you approach them in a positive fashion, i.e. “I would really appreciate drawing on your experience and expertise”. It makes them feel valued and important.

The same applies to expressing individual needs. We all have them, especially so in the case with Asperger. If you project any request as a learning exercise, then most people will view that request positively.

The one caveat I feel should be added to this section is: choose your helper carefully. There are some people – not many – who will view any request as a sign of weakness. In the case of Asperger this can also be dangerous: a minority will play on and exploit that vulnerability and the less than enhanced capability of dealing with conflict which has meant a reaction on my part and an escalation of tension.

  • Learn to be comfortable with conflict

It’s always there isn’t it and, as a manager, you need to develop the coping skills to deal with it.

Regretably because of my AS, some people in the corporate world have sensed an uncertainness and vulnerability. I have developed my own technique for dealing with it.

Central to this is remaining calm. My golden rule which runs through my mind via a warning sign when conflict appears is: whatever the provocation “do not react”. Once you react you lose control and gravitas.

I have also – by fighting Gollom – refused to allow myself to believe that my Asperger means I am automatically to blame. I may be different, but there is nothing wrong with me and, looking back, I can how many problems have largely, initially resided with the other person.

Accept this and expect conflict in the world of work. When it occurs, remain calm, focus on the problem within the other person, i.e. empathise, and seek reconciliation.

  • Invest time in your learning

I learnt and read widely about Asperger Syndrome, wrote my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome, did an Open University degree in Psychology to understand human behaviour better and read books such as The Rules of Work by Richard to understand what goes on in the workplace and how I can cope better.

There is always something you can learn in this area. Make learning about resilience a priority and seek out and learn from those who cope best.

I have learnt so much in this area which makes all so much easier to understand – and survive and operate successfully managerially.

  • Work on your mental and physical fitness

I play sport, go jogging and force myself to physically exercise. For example, I walk up the escalators in the London Underground.

My psychology studies, enhanced understanding of Asperger and confrontation of any Gollom’s have all vastly improved my mental well-being.

I also watch my diet and avoid non-Asperger friendly foods like gluten wherever possible. Over the last few years I have greatly increased my fruit and vegetable intake and only drink alcohol at weekends when I am not working. I feel good as a result and it has vastly increased my confidence.

  • Reframe the way you see setbacks

See my comments above re: the most valuable lessons come from the biggest setbacks/negative experiences.

  • Buck up, tighten up and toughen up.

Believe me, I am a nice person. Because of my Asperger Syndrome I am kind, considerate and don’t hold grudges against people who trespass against me.

However, I also need to fight the “people are being unfair to me” syndrome that emanates from my Asperger tendency for self-pity. I also need to be in a corporate context prepared to defend the company’s interests when need be and to not worry about being unpopular when required.

From a personal perspective I also need to ensure that I am braver when being attacked personally. If I am – as I have on a couple of occasions – being subjected to bullying, then I know I must stand my ground and confront that person, irrespective of the possible consequences. I owe that to myself and maintenance of my self-esteem.

Professor Furnham’s article finishes with a core message: “if you have had some serious setbacks, they may have given you the opportunity to learn all those resilient reactions. If not, they may have caused you to be rather vulnerable, deeply risk-averse and susceptible to stress.

This is certainly been the case for me and Asperger. My experience in the night of the long knives that I refer to earlier in this paper mean that I cannot duck these issues and also mean that I also need to take on-board the final comments of Professor Furnham: “maybe the earlier one learns, the better. The later you leave it, the harder it becomes”.

The message is clear: “resilience is an extremely valuable life characteristic that can, and needs to be, nurtured”. Deep down people with Asperger are strong and resilient. Let’s remember that and not allow ourselves to feel anything otherwise.

In the workplace, fight that Gollom!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome