How our strength comes from letting go

Every year 20,000 angry earthquakes shake the planet. If you’ve never felt one, it’s a disturbing experience. I was in New Zealand years ago during a mild one. Even that was really unsettling. 

Many severe earthquakes live up to their name. When the earth literally quakes, so do we. It’s fundamental to our confidence to feel firm ground beneath our feet. When the earth shifts, what can we hold onto?

Earthquakes and buildings are a lethal mix. Sixty thousand people die each year during an earthquake and most are caught beneath collapsing structures. Yet there are plenty of solutions that can eliminate this risk. So why don’t we engineer all buildings to be safe?   

I happened upon this article in the New York Times by Thomas Fuller, Anjali Singhvi, Mika Gröndahl and Derek Watkins. They take us back to January 17th 1995 and the Great Hanshin earthquake in Japan, which killed more than 6,000 people in a matter of days. 

They ask why some buildings in Hanshin collapsed into rubble, whereas others were unaffected? It was those with rubber foundations, a shock absorber, that held out. This was an early version of the Base Isolation technique, now used in thousands of buildings across Japan. 

I can see you screwing up your face. Foundations of rubber – I’m pulling your leg, right? Surely foundations are solid? Their sole purpose is to provide support – firm and reliable. Rubber stretches – it’s soft, elastic, flexible. How can a wobbly base support a building? I suggest reading the NY Times article and watching their videos on how this ‘shock absorber’ method works. Both are fascinating. 

Flexible foundations are one technique, but there are other ways to withstand earthquakes. Engineers also use damping, which converts motion into heat and absorbs the shock. Another method is to shield a building from vibrations using plastic rings. These direct the energy waves away from the building and out of harm’s way. 

Another important consideration is building materials. Most structures are made of a mix of concrete slabs, rigid and bolted frames of steel or bricks. They might be also be rendered in stucco, which hardens to a very dense and solid outer coating. However, buildings made of wood, bamboo or memory alloy have much more flex and give.

Despite its lowly reputation, bamboo has greater tensile strength than steel, and it withstands compression better than concrete… Bamboo’s strength is in its ability to bend, and that’s the miracle.” Newsweek  

American high-rises are built with reinforced solid concrete cores, making them brittle if the structures move too much. Japanese buildings, on the other hand, are often created using a grid of beams and columns, which evenly distribute the forces across the structure.

Of course, this type of engineering takes time and costs money. America and Japan deal with earthquake risk very differently. The Japanese uses government mandates and an engineering culture which “builds stronger structures capable of withstanding earthquakes [so they can be] used immediately afterward.” The United States on the other hand “sets a minimum and less protective standard, with the understanding that many buildings will be badly damaged.” 

These approaches reflect the different cultures in Japan and America. The authors compare the American approach to the US debate on health insurance. “The American philosophy has been to make more resilient buildings an individual choice, not a government mandate.” It’s individualism vs. collectivism writ large. 

Ultimately this is about risk. It’s a question of when to take the pain – now or later? In the novel ‘Huckleberry Finn’, one of Mark Twain’s characters says “you pays your money and you takes your choice.” One hundred and thirty-six years later American engineers and property tycoons make their choice by not paying their money. They have robust insurance and top lawyers instead.

It’s fascinating that culture can manifest itself in engineering and architecture.  Buildings are like handwriting. We can recognise a person by the way they form their letters.  We can recognise a culture by the way it forms its buildings. Looking at building techniques and foundations is enlightening. Some cultures focus on solid, strong (but brittle) buildings. Others create ones that are more fluid and flexible. 

We can apply this idea to view a whole society’s foundations – one that has a rigid, immovable core may find it challenging to accommodate new ways of being and thinking. One with a more flexible approach may better manage the forces of change. These foundations are synonymous with history – just think of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ – get the foundations right and cultural tremors can be safely absorbed or dissolved. If a culture’s foundations are brittle, then these shock waves may tear it apart.

It reminds me of the trauma in the US. Spike Lee released his film ‘Da 5 Bloods’ earlier this year and was interviewed by Will Gompertz. Here Lee talks about America’s “shaky foundations” and traces them back to the inequalities in the country’s foundation. “The land was stolen from native people, genocide was committed against the native people, and ancestors were stolen from Africa and brought here to work. So, the foundation of the United States of America is genocide, stealing land and slavery.”

Lee says that any architect will tell you that if you don’t have good foundations, “the building’s going to be shaky, and shaky from day one… This original sin has not been dealt with since the birth of this country.”

All well and good, but how can we re-engineer our foundations to be fit for modern times? How can we make them more robust, but more flexible? I spoke to Debra Sabatini Hennelly, an American civil engineer, lawyer and expert in organisational resilience. She says you find “strength in flexibility.” A type of dynamic stability that comes from being clear about your core but willing to adapt and stretch. Remember bamboo’s strength is its ability to bend “and that’s the miracle.” In holding on rigidly, white knuckling our values and choices, we become brittle as a society, as well as individuals. 

There is an art to letting go. It takes self-assurance. Societies (and individuals) who lack confidence grip the tightest. The more we poke self-doubters the harder they cling on. It’s to those people (and peoples) we must direct our kindness and understanding. Help build them up, support them to become more confident, before they can re-engineer their foundations. Those with the most solid or hard outer coatings will be the most challenging to help. 

But help we must. They need support to be more flexible and adaptive. It’s imperative we change. Then we’ll be ready to withstand the future quakes that will roam across our land. 


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

4 thoughts on “How our strength comes from letting go

    1. Excellent – thanks Claire! You can either subscribe here (just follow me on here). Or I can add you to my mailing list and that sends out a blog every Tuesday. I hope you have a good rest of the week! Charlotte


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