In October 2003, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs received some alarming news. Neck deep in the now famous turnaround of the company, Jobs underwent a routine abdominal scan that revealed a tumour in his pancreas.
A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer can mean a swift and unavoidable death, but Jobs had a rare, and treatable, form of the disease. If he underwent an operation, chances were high he would survive for at least 10 years.
But Jobs, always suspicious of western medical practice, did not want to have the operation, deciding instead to pursue a course of alternative treatment through diet. Apple's board, informed of the situation, was frantic. It consulted two different sets of lawyers on its disclosure obligations and for nine long months didn't tell the market.
In the end, Jobs had the surgery. The market was informed the next day via a chirpy email that said that although the CEO had had a life-threatening illness, he had had treatment and was now cured. No further questions please.
In the end, the company's share price blipped down by 2.4 per cent because of the news, then the market fast forgot about it.
Those close to Jobs at the time said throughout the ordeal there was nary a hint of something awry in the man's demeanour. Most of us, when faced with a diagnosis of cancer, would find it hard to concentrate on anything else. Steve Jobs, however, dealt with both the internal battle (beating the disease) and the external battle (dealing with the board and the market), as well as the everyday challenges of being, well, Steve Jobs, without a glimmer of uncertainty.
There is a difference between Steve Jobs and ordinary mortals. Clearly he deals with adversity better than many of us. Surely this is an extremely valuable trait and wouldn't it be good if we could all get some of it?
Paul Stoltz, CEO and founder of research and consulting firm Peak Learning, has been studying adversity for 27 years, since he first posed a somewhat flippant question to one of his lecturers at the University of California. Stoltz says the conversation went something like this:
"Who wins?" he asked his business teacher.
"Who wins what?"
"Oh you know, business, life, sports - who wins?"
"That'll be your first research project," said the teacher.
Stoltz found that the literature on the "who wins" question was very unsatisfactory: "There was some fairly flimsy woo-woo pop psychology out there, but nothing that really substantiated the question," he says.
The next step in the research process was an ethnographic excursion to an entrepreneur's conference, at which Stoltz asked a lot of "nosy" questions. What those questions produced, he says, was a strong theme: adversity. He discovered that thriving on adversity runs like a thread through the psyches of people who choose to be entrepreneurs. They enjoyed stepping up to life's challenges rather than feeling exhausted by them.
Not long after, Stoltz founded an organisation designed to look deeper not just at the question of who wins, but at the more defined issue of adversity and how we respond to it.
"By combining information from a bunch of sciences that don't usually talk to each other, we found there was something very epicentral about this notion of how we respond to adversity," he says. "What's more, and based on the science we have so far, there should at least be something we could attempt to measure."
Thus was born the Adversity Quotient, a psychological yardstick that Stolz likens to the Intelligence Quotient, or the Emotional Quotient. The AQ is designed to measure an individual's propensity for resilience - the ability to overcome, even relish, adversity.
Validity and reliability
The test that Stoltz and his colleagues devised - a series of questions requiring the subject to respond to particular scenarios (see box) - has, he says, real scientific credibility, according to the authorities who study such things.
Stoltz gave the first 5000 results to a senior researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the largest testing service in the world and responsible for administering college entrance exams in the US. "We gave her the results and said: 'What do we have here?' because we didn't know," he says. "She came back and plopped down her big pile of data, almost upset with us, and said: "Do you know what you have here? This is in some ways more robust than something we have created."
According to Stoltz, the ETS concluded that the AQ profile had, in scientific parlance, both validity and reliability. In testspeak, validity means that it validly predicts or drives anything of importance, and reliability means that, over time, it stays relatively consistent without any statistical intervention. In other words, Stoltz and his team had stumbled across something fundamental to the human psychological makeup that could be measured, and measured well.
Since then the test has been applied to half a million people across the globe, the latest version in collaboration with Harvard University. The results show that humanity's AQ is a bell curve, with a mean of 150 and a standard deviation of close to 11. Steve Jobs is up around 180, and the rest of us mostly hover around 150.
The resilience Core
What does it mean to have a high AQ, to be resilient? The AQ profile measures four "dimensions" of resilience: Control, Ownership, Reach and Endurance.
People who have a strong sense of Control believe that they can influence events and change them as they arise to suit their purposes. So a stockmarket crash becomes a buying opportunity, or a new market regulation is not an administrative burden but becomes a barrier to entry, protecting your company against competition. If you naturally feel helpless in the face of events, you tend to have low energy levels, give up more quickly, and experience more stress than necessary.
People who take Ownership more readily step up when difficult situations arise, taking the initiative to improve things for themselves. Many people avoid ownership because they already feel overloaded, but when you give up ownership, you give up control as well as the traction required to get past tough situations.
The Reach dimension assesses the extent to which you let a setback in one area of your life reach over and affect you in other areas. How good are you at compartmentalising adversity? Is a setback in your personal life reflected in your performance at work?
Finally, Endurance measures your propensity to hold on to adversity rather than letting it go. While Reach captures how adversity in one part of your life affects other parts, Endurance measures how long you let adversity keep you hostage.
Clearly people who perceive they have a lot of control over the outcome of things, who are prepared to take responsibility for how things play out, who don't let adversity in one part of life infect other parts and who let go of bad things easily, will be pretty resilient. They will bounce back more readily and stride more purposefully towards the future. And as the financial crisis unfolds, as equity markets crumble, as trading conditions become more difficult, these kinds of traits will become much more valuable, both for individuals and for the organisations who depend on them.
Born or made?
If we all have a measurable AQ, is this another element of the genetic lottery that determines whether or not people and organisations are successful? If you are a low-AQ person, should you be satisfied or seek out less demanding, low-stress situations that play to your low level of resilience?
According to Stoltz, the answer is no, because "the research seems to substantiate that this is at most about 10 per cent genetic." Like a person's laugh, AQ becomes hard wired at around about 16, but it can be changed - through cognitive psychology.
Basically, says Stoltz, you can change your AQ simply by knowing about it, knowing what it is, how it affects your responses to things, and how you can more actively respond to life's little annoyances as well as to big adversities.
Stoltz's organisation, Peak Learning, based on a ranch in San Luis Obispo, California, is geared to integrating the AQ methodology into organisational practice. Over the next three months Stoltz will be in five different continents working with the branches of a Fortune 50 company on making AQ the foundation of its culture.
Meanwhile, he is managing a licensing agreement with the Harvard Business School to roll out the AQ profile to all its business and leadership students, as well as jointly pursuing research projects with them.
After all these years, Stoltz thinks he now has an answer to his original question: "Who wins? The person who has the right combination of AQ, virtues and strengths. In other words, if you have right strengths as a human being, do the right things, have AQ to bring those out consistently in the moments of truth, you'll live to be a highly respected and admirable, if not great, human being." B
What's your adversity quotient?
You accidentally delete a very important email. On a scale of one to five, how long will the consequences of this situation last - one is "forever" and five is "quickly pass"?
The meeting you are in is a total waste of time. To what extent do you feel responsible for improving this situation? Not at all, completely responsible, or somewhere in between?
These questions might resemble something from the back pages of a magazine but they and about 100 others like them form the basis of Paul Stoltz's AQ Profile. The questions cover the gamut of adversity - from spilling your coffee to the death of a loved one.
Similar to an IQ quiz, the questions are designed to uncover the four aspects of your adversity quotient: Control, Ownership, Reach and Endurance - or how much you let outside events dictate your actions, how likely you are to step up to adverse circumstance, how much and how long you let adversity affect your life. The results present your AQ as broken into the four segments.
Stoltz says that understanding where you are strong and where weak allows you to work on those aspects of your resilience that need boosting and reinterpret events in light of your own world view.
Each part of your AQ profile comes with a series of questions to ask or mental exercises to do when faced with an adverse situation. For instance, those who find they have a weak sense of Control should ask themselves, "Regardless of how impossible this may seem, what are all of the facets of this situation that I can potentially influence?"
It may also help to imagine someone whose resilience you admire dealing with this same situation.
© Fairfax Business Media