Bonnie St. John (California & Trinity 1986)
Saturday 21 January, 2 – 4pm, Rhodes House
In the run up to the 40th Anniversary of Rhodes Women alumni weekend, the Rhodes Trust invited Bonnie St. John to speak to scholars-in-residence on her exciting new concept called Micro-Resilience, and how it helps renew and recharge focus, so as to increase productivity and deal with the pricking pressures that seem to come along with Oxford’s beautiful spires.
The first thing that strikes you when you meet Bonnie isn’t that she’s a world class ski silver and bronze medallist, nor that she’s had to face an incredible odds to be here, both physically and emotionally – it’s her warm, open demeanour, which enables her to matter-of-factly discuss her personal experiences that have shaped her journey through IBM sales; the White House; the slopes of Innsbruck; and the business of inspiration, up to this point. Bonnie herself nonchalantly describes this quality as ‘courageous humility’ at some point during the talk, unaware that she exemplifies it, with grace.
The talk began rather uncharacteristically, with Bonnie instantly drawing us into the conversation, by asking us to share what we thought the afternoon would be about, given that the blurb had been circulated beforehand. She recorded the key phrases that came up in this informal chat on a chart, and attempted to structure her presentation around the same. Concerns such as “last minute pressure” and “moving between different worlds” and “dealing with failure” were at the top of her agenda – and she expertly wove each of these into her presentation.
Bonnie’s talk, and the manner in which her husband and co-author, Allen Haines, was effortlessly made a part of the conversation, without any awkwardness or space-usurpation, was yet another indication of her openness. Together, they discussed the concept of ‘blending’ as opposed to ‘balancing.’ ‘Blending,’ or finding a common ground with a significant other, or someone you love, helps you spend more time with each other, as well as achieve the goals that you set for yourself – with minor tweaks. This is far more harmonious than balancing, Bonnie asserts, and provides examples of this lifestyle in her relationship with Allen, as well as her then-teenage daughter. Allen also clarified that this isn’t multitasking – but is something more fundamental, that integrates peoples’ lives rather than forcing them to carve out spaces of togetherness that they are then under pressure to enjoy. Fresh off of the Second Year Retreat, some scholars identified this with the idea of building the good life, and a sense of stability and intimacy that one aims for in warm, interdependent relationships.
Whilst this may seem like a macro, bigger picture idea, Bonnie’s key focus was on the micro ways in which making smaller, specific changes to one’s life, could help oneself mentally recover faster and avoid burnout, amongst other forms of mental and emotional drainage. Speaking to a room full of self-critical overachievers, this could not have been more poignant! As someone who finds the need to create physical and mental conditions of high pressure, in order to induce a deadline-based sleep-deprived state, I was particularly interested in what she had to say about sustained periods of productivity, so as to kick this nasty habit and maintain a healthy attitude towards myself, and my work. To address this, she discussed the five R’s of micro-resilience: refocus your brain, so as to take breaks regularly and use your brain power more efficiently; refresh your body, and increase fuel efficiency; renew your spirit, by reminding yourself of your purpose every day; reset your primitive alarms, and reframe your attitude. Bonnie emphasised that the last two R’s work together to interrupt an amygdala hijack – and prevent a downward mood and energy spiral based solely on the limbic brain’s emotional responses – and shift one’s focus instead to the prefrontal cortex, which is the centre of decision-making and reasoning functions. Simply put, her thesis is that if one is to understand and articulate (whether internally or externally) the reasons for behaving in a particular way, then one appears to feel more in control of their rational responses to that reason. This is notwithstanding the vast body of literature on the intelligence of emotions, in all their complexity. However, it may offer us a window into understanding how we may practically implement our cognitive understanding of the effect that emotions have upon us, and mitigate the same in that moment, thereby allowing us to function more effectively, and quite literally, take a deep breath. Allen characterised this as simply having a sense of “deliberateness” in our actions.
Allen and Bonnie essentially spend their time trying to get a sense of “what drains us about modern life and how to combat it,” and as acknowledged, their key focus with these workshops has thus far been to target the private sector, and particularly corporates. However, Bonnie noted that some of these skills are transferable and hence might be useful to students, and particularly those interested in service-related careers. Allen’s anecdote about “communicating about communicating” in the entertainment industry provided valuable insights into how setting the terms of the discussion are as important as, if not more than the actual content of the discussion, as these terms - at the very outset - can serve to exclude and alienate. Bonnie’s anecdote about how her favourite story about her journey to the Winter Olympic Competition gradually, but completely morphed from being about her physical and mental strength, to her nurse’s incredible support and emotional bandwidth, is quite a journey in introspection, especially in a society which commonly values an individual’s hard work without recognising and valuing their support systems (and the societal structures) which made it possible.
Finally, the afternoon ended on a high note – with Allen reminding us all that each of us can be as hard working and as brilliant as the next person, however, in order to succeed at the goals we set for ourselves, we would need to put ourselves out there, and absorb and welcome the help that we must ask for. In a place like Oxford, that has the potential to leave even the strongest-willed independent spirits feeling slightly wobbly, this is definitely a lesson that we can use, in both asking for and volunteering to help.
On behalf of Rhodes Women, I would like to thank Bonnie and Allen for hosting a fruitful and engaging session, and I look forward to many such conversations with amazing women in the future.
Sanya Samtani (India and Magdalen 2015) has completed her BCL, and is currently pursuing her MPhil in Law at the University of Oxford. She is a co-convenor of the Rhodes Women group, and is one of the scholars-in-residence who is aiding in the organisation of the 40th Anniversary Rhodes Women Alumni Weekend, scheduled to be held in September 2017.