Some might say Bonnie St. John has lived a life more akin to Forrest Gump.
After having her right leg amputated at 5 years old, the 53-year-old became the first African American to ever medal in a Winter Olympic competition. She’s a Harvard alum who won the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and was then appointed by President Clinton as a Director for Human Capital Issues on the White House National Economic Council.
Throw in mother, CEO of the Blue Circle Leadership Institute, best-selling author and resident expert on resilience for ABC’s Good Morning America to her long list of titles and accomplishments, and you realize the only thing that might be missing is a stint on a shrimping boat.
In all seriousness though, when you take a deeper dive, it’s easy to see why St. John’s latest book, Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, & Energy, co-authored with Allen P. Haines, has been flying off shelves since February.
She lost a limb as a child, she was a victim of sexual abuse and she faced a steep climb to becoming one of the best one-legged skiers in the world. She knows resilience on a grand scale. However, in Micro-Resilience, she explores quick and easy evidenced-based strategies for rebounding immediately in those daily hard-to-deal-with moments that attempt to throw us off balance.
“The CIO of Ford said to me, ‘Imagine the rate of change you’re experiencing right now. This is the slowest rate of change you’ll experience for the rest of your life,'” St. John said. “With that degree of change going, it’s not just enough to say, ‘Yeah, I’m resilient.’ We have to get good at it by practicing throughout our daily lives.”
It’s Not About Omelettes and Truckers
As a child growing up in San Diego, Calif., St. John had a condition called proximal-femoral focal deficiency, which is a deformity that causes one leg to be shorter than the other. By the age of 5, doctors decided that amputating her leg above the knee and fitting her with an artificial leg would be the best solution.
So how did St. John, who lived in an area of town riddled with gangs and violence, get into skiing?
“A friend of mine in high school named Barbara invited me to go skiing with her over Christmas,” St. John said. “She made a certificate out of notebook paper that said, ‘One week of skiing over Christmas vacation,’ so I went. We went out on the bunny hill and she picked me up over and over again. It wasn’t easy, but she changed my life. Years later, I asked, ‘Didn’t you think it would ruin your Christmas vacation to take your one-legged friend skiing?’ She was amazing.”
St. John fell in love with the sport and worked in a drugstore store so she could afford to ski on the weekends. Her talent bloomed and her passion turned toward NASTAR racing. She was supported by a group called the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which would raise money to help her with expenses. But, in order to compete and move closer to her goal of reaching the Winter Olympics, she worked odd jobs and trained year-round, on glaciers in the summer and at a ski academy in the winter.
“There was one time I was working at a diner, doing the breakfast and lunch shift,” St. John said. “I was on my feet for eight hours a day and didn’t have a car. I’d get up at 5:00 a.m. and walk a mile to this diner in Colorado, wait tables and then walk back. It was killing me on an artificial leg. Why would somebody do that? Skiing is hard. Walking a mile to wait tables is really hard. I wasn’t doing it because I was passionate about omelettes and truckers. It was about getting to the Olympics.”
The hard work and sacrifice paid off. St. John made the 1984 Paralympic Ski Team and competed in the third World Winter Competition for People with Disabilities in Innsbruck, Austria, where she won a silver and two bronze medals.
“When I competed, it wasn’t even called the Paralympics. They hadn’t made up the word yet,” she said. “We didn’t have an Olympic Village. We stayed in little hotels, and I even shared a bed with someone. It was not at the level it is now. When I see our athletes are given use of the full Olympic Village, they have trainers, they have masseuses and everything available to them, I’m so happy to know I was one of the trailblazers to help give this sport credibility and grow into what it is now.”
Thinking on the Micro Level
She’s known as the first African American to win a medal at the Winter Olympic or Paralympic Games, but as St. John was combing through the research on resilience and zeroing in on writing the book, another sport caught her eye.
“The top tennis players do small recoveries between their volleys to recover their focus, drive and energy,” St. John said. “That was one of the key pieces of research that led us to think about micro-resilience, and how if these tennis players are more resilient because they’re doing these small recoveries, then couldn’t we all do that?”
So, St. John and Haines set out to create “touchstones” to help individuals and teams bat down those unexpected setbacks, and mental and physical blocks that can get in the way of obtaining a competitive advantage in the workforce and away from it.
For example, research says that in the hours after exercising, one’s cognitive functioning improves in terms of generating more creative ideas during problem-solving tasks, and improving memory recall.
“The typical way that we view exercise is we say, ‘I exercise four times a week for an hour, and I know I’m in good shape,'” St. John explained. “That’s what we think of as macro-resilience. We coined the term ‘micro-resilience’ to describe not what happens on average, but what’s going to help me today.”
So, thinking about exercise on a micro-level, one might say, “I have a big project due today so I’m not going to fit a workout in. I’ll just exercise tomorrow.”
“With mico-resilience, you would make the opposite decision,” St. John said. “It’s too important not to exercise, because you want your brain to be giving you peak performance.”
Finding Comfort in Failing
When St. John isn’t on the road speaking to corporate clients or leading seminars, she can be found on the hill in Windham, NY, skiing just for the fun of it, or donating her time to offer advice at homeless shelters, community events and schools.
“When I speak at schools, I often put up a slide with a whole list of my failures because I don’t think kids see that as much anymore,” St. John said. “With T.V. and social media, everybody looks perfect. Because people’s lives are broadcast all the time on social media, people feel uncomfortable doing anything wrong. So, having a diverse set of goals like I’ve had, you’re going to try a lot of things, and the majority of them probably won’t work. But, if a few do, great things happen.”
In fact, in writing her first book, she sent 19 different proposals to agents and publishers. Most didn’t even reply.
“I tried something else and kept at, and finally something worked,” St. John said. “Barrier is a precursor to success.”
And there’s nothing micro about those words.
For immediate tips on how to use Micro-Resilience, visit Microresilience.com and watch six short videos to gain fast tools to handle life’s unexpected setbacks.