I recently recorded excerpts and exercises from Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, to be uploaded to my website to be freely and easily downloaded by folks who prefer learning by listening.

The project brought me through some very steep learning curves and, sometimes, doing many scary things a day. One of the biggest lessons for me was the importance of back-stopping: having people I could ask for help if I got stuck on something, even if I never actually had to use their services.

One example: the first set of recordings went smoothly enough, so when I couldn’t hear any sound from the second set – 20 separate files – I had no clue about what went wrong or how to even begin to think about what went wrong. I called my back-stop, recording engineer Anthony Wright, who wasn’t sure what went wrong either, but who got me thinking about what could be blocking the sound. A few minutes later, duh! I remembered I had muted my computer so I wouldn’t hear the sound of e-mails coming in while I was recording. I had forgotten to un-mute the computer; that’s all. The sound was there. And the space to think about what went wrong was there because Anthony was available as a back-stop, someone who could help me think about a problem, even if he didn’t know the answer to begin with either.

We rely on back-stops many times a day, whether we’re consciously aware of them or not. Back-stops are simply folks who know that how to think about a problem is more important than having the answer from the beginning.

The handle of my bathroom faucet came off in my hand the other day. Again, I had no clue what to do or even how to think about what to do. But I did have a good plumber in my rolodex who came over within a few hours and fiddled with the faucet enough to find and replace the screw that had come loose; I would not have known how to think about that myself.

One day last week, my computer suddenly lost its internet connection. I had no idea why, because everything was connected just a few minutes before. I tried the usual unplug everything, count to 30, plug everything back in that has refreshed the connection before. Nothing. I called my local computer service shop that I have cultivated a relationship with over the years. Ryan could function as a back-stop, thinking things through until we stumbled upon: there’s a F2 control key that can disconnect the internet in a second. My cat had walked across the keyboard just before I noticed the internet connection was down. She must have inadvertently stepped on that key; I wouldn’t even have known how to think about that, but thinking with someone else who knew how to think discovered the problem and the answer.

Intelligence isn’t necessarily knowing what to do. It’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.
– Jonathon Kozol

Examples abound. In the post about Gratitude for Bad Things That Don’t Happen, I wrote about the horrible screeching sound in my car that sent me creeping-crawling to the gas station a mile away, and how the mechanic listened to the sound and began dismantling the left front tire until he found two little rocks that were causing the car to sound like it was going to drop its front end any minute. The mechanic knew how to think through what needed to be thought through, and taught me about thinking in the process.

Exercise to Identify Back-Stops

  1. Identify people you already have in your life who can either help solve a problem because of their particular expertise, or, just as importantly, can help you solve a problem because they can help you think about how to think about the problem.
  2. Identify areas in your life where you don’t have a good back-stop, someone who can provide a kind of safety net when something goes kerflooey, when you have no idea what to do, and have no idea of how to even think about what to do. Identify areas where you might want to cultivate a back-stop – someone who can take the time to explore, try out different options, persevere when options don’t seem at all obvious at first. It behooves us to cultivate back-stops in areas where we know we lack the expertise or experience to think something through for ourselves.
  3. Identify skills you do have in thinking about how to think, in areas where you could claim that competence, so that you can be a resource to yourself, and even to others, when something goes awry.

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