Extend, recover, renew

A widely accepted way to build muscle strength is to exercise just beyond what you are comfortable with (extend), give yourself time to get back to normal after the exertion (recover) and then start the process again when you are ready, so that it is a constant process of renewal. If you don’t extend, you won’t build muscle strength; if you don’t allow time for recovery you risk muscle strain and potentially serious injury. If you extend and recover just the once, you will not make much headway in terms of muscle development, so renewal needs to be part of the process too.

The same logic can be broadly applied to other aspects of our development in terms of thoughts, feelings and actions. That is, we can follow the same process to feed our development more holistically and not just physically. Consider the following:


Extend: This is about not just sticking with familiar, well-trodden paths of thought – being prepared to explore new ideas and perspectives. A closed mind is no basis for learning.

Recover: Link the new ideas to our existing understanding; make connections. That way, we are not constantly exploring new territory and potentially getting lost and confused – a form of mental strain equivalent of muscle strain.

Renew: But then, when you are ready, you can extend your boundaries of understanding just a little further and thereby begin the process once again. This is all part of the process of developing your thinking skills.


Extend: We can play it safe and attempt to stay within our emotional comfort zones – for example, by not trying new experiences in case we get hurt or disappointed. But then we will get no emotional growth; we will be ‘stuck’ and then potentially ill-equipped to rise to future emotional challenges. We can, however, extend our emotional range a little, without doing it so much that we get emotional strain.

Recover: Again we need to get back to safe, comfortable emotional territory (and that is where social support can be very useful), giving us time to recover from our emotional exertions.

Renew: We now have the basis of emotional intelligence by learning how to gradually extend our emotional ‘repertoire’ and become more confident in dealing with feelings – our own and other people’s. This can also be a springboard for developing emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back from emotionally difficult situations.


Extend: We can try new approaches and explore new perspectives just beyond what we currently feel comfortable with.

Recover: We can connect the new approaches to our existing strengths so that not everything is new (and that way avoiding the equivalent of a muscle strain where we feel overwhelmed by too much change).

Renew: We then begin the process again, so that we are constantly getting the benefits of learning without creating problems for ourselves by taking on too many new things at once. This is the basis of lifelong learning.

So, there is much to be gained from adapting the extend, recover, renew process from physical fitness to other aspects of our personal and professional growth. It Is not an easy answer or a mechanistic process to follow unthinkingly, but it is a framework of understanding that can offer useful insights and opportunities for taking our learning further.

Be realistic

Positive psychology and its promotion of optimism have become firmly established in the popular imagination now. The idea that people who are optimistic will fare better than people who are pessimistic has received a great deal of coverage and has become widely accepted – despite the fact that it grossly oversimplifies the complex dynamics of human experience.

The self-help and self-improvement literature are full of examples of simplistic approaches to personal problems and challenges, and the uncritical acceptance of optimism as the way to go can now be added to that list.

So, what is wrong with being optimistic? ‘Nothing’ is the short answer, provided that optimism is justified in the particular circumstances, provided that it is reasonable to focus on the positives of the situation at that time. But sometimes – often even – optimism is not justified. In fact, there will be times when pessimism is by far the better approach to certain circumstances. Hoping against hope in situations where there are no grounds for hope can serve only to distort the situation and present us with a false picture of what we are dealing with. There are clearly times when it is wise to give up and accept the negatives of the situation, rather than naively disregard them by focusing narrowly on the positive elements.

So, should we adopt a pessimistic outlook, then? Negative psychology rather than positive psychology? ‘No’ is the answer to this, as that would amount to falling into the same trap of adopting a distorted, one-sided view of human experience – except this time from a negative point of view, rather than a positive one.

Where does that leave us? Well, that is where a realistic approach comes in. Realism, in this context, means recognising that there are positive and negative features to life in general and to every specific situation we encounter as we live our lives. Optimists see the glass as half full; pessimists see it as half empty, each focusing on just one aspect of the positivity-negativity continuum and failing to see that the glass is half full and half empty. Optimism and pessimism involve seeing only one side of a complex picture, while realism involves getting a more balanced overview.

As is so often the case where complex issues are oversimplified in the quest for straightforward answers to life’s challenges, it boils down to the fundamental mistake of seeing the situation in ‘either or’ terms, rather than ‘ both and’. The technical term for this is ‘reductionism’ – complex, multilevel phenomena are reduced to simple, single-level answers. This is a potentially very dangerous mistake to make, as it can lead to some very unwise, unbalanced decisions that have not been based on a careful consideration of what is involved.

Realism, then, involves adopting a more flexible approach to the situations we are called upon to deal with and to make balanced decisions about the positives and negatives involved, so that we have a fuller picture of the challenges we face. Unthinkingly adopting either a fully optimistic or a fully pessimistic approach simply serves to produce a one-sided picture. Realism, by contrast, provides a foundation for reflective practice in which we can weigh up the positives and negatives and develop a more balanced understanding.

Realism will not present us with simple, straightforward answers, but then we should be wary of any approach that tries to convince us that there are simple, straightforward solutions to life’s challenges. Assuming that there are such things out there for us to stumble across is, in itself, far from realistic.