8 things the world's most extraordinary survivors can teach you about resilience
Whether you're dealing with unemployment, a difficult job, or personal tragedies, here are insights that can help
I see a lot of stuff about resilience, persistence, and grit. What I don't see is a lot of legitimate info on how to actually increase those qualities.
How can we be more resilient? How can we shrug off huge challenges in life, persist and — in the end — succeed?
So I looked at the most difficult scenarios for insight. (Who needs resilience in easy situations, right?)
When life and death is on the line, what do the winners do that the losers don't?
Turns out surviving the most dangerous situations has some good lessons we can use to learn how to be resilient in everyday life.
Whether it's dealing with unemployment, a difficult job, or personal tragedies, here are insights that can help.
1) Perceive and believe
"The company already had two rounds of layoffs this year but I never thought they would let me go."
"Yeah, the argument was getting a little heated but I didn't think he was going to hit me."
The first thing to do when facing difficulty is to make sure you recognize it as soon as possible.
Sounds obvious but we've all been in denial at one point or another. What do people who survive life-threatening situations have in common?
They move through those "stages of grief" from denial to acceptance faster:
They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation… They move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance very rapidly. [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why]
What's that thing doctors say when they're able to successfully treat a medical problem? "Good thing we caught it early."
When you stay oblivious or live in denial, things get worse — often in a hurry. When you know you're in trouble you can act.
Nobody is saying paranoia is good but research shows a little worrying is correlated with living a longer life.
(For more on how a little negativity can make you happier, click here.)
Okay, like they say in AA, you admitted you have a problem. What's the next thing the most resilient people do?
2) Manage your emotions
Sometimes when SCUBA divers drown they still have air in their oxygen tanks. Seriously.
How is this possible? Something goes wrong, they panic, and instinctively pull the regulator out of their mouth.
M. Ephimia Morphew, a psychologist and founder of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments, told me of a series of accidents she'd been studying in which scuba divers were found dead with air in their tanks and perfectly functional regulators. "Only they had pulled the regulators out of their mouths and drowned. It took a long time for researchers to figure out what was going on." It appears that certain people suffer an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. That led to an overpowering impulse to uncover the mouth and nose. The victims had followed an emotional response that was in general a good one for the organism, to get air. But it was the wrong response under the special, non-natural, circumstances of scuba diving. [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why]
When you're having trouble breathing what's more natural than to clear an obstruction from your mouth?
Now just a brief second of clear thinking tells you this is a very bad idea while diving — but when you panic, you can't think clearly.
Rash decision making rarely delivers optimal results in everyday life either.
Resilient people acknowledge difficult situations, keep calm, and evaluate things rationally so they can make a plan and act.
Al Siebert, in his book The Survivor Personality, writes that "The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost, or feeling distressed about things going badly…. For this reason they don't usually take themselves too seriously and are therefore hard to threaten." [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why]
(For methods Navy SEALS, astronauts, and the samurai use to keep calm under pressure, click here.)
So you know you're in trouble but you're keeping your cool. Might there be a simple way to sidestep all these problems? Yeah.
3) Be a quitter
Many of you might be a little confused right now: "A secret to resilience is quitting? That doesn't make any sense."
What do we see when we look at people who survive life and death situations? Many of them were smart enough to bail early.
"…It's a matter of looking at yourself and assessing your own abilities and where you are mentally, and then realizing that it's better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all." We are a society of high achievers, but in the wilderness, such motivation can be deadly… [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
The best way to take a punch from a UFC fighter and to survive a hurricane are the same: "Don't be there when it hits."
You quit baseball when you were 10 and quit playing the piano after just two lessons. Nobody sticks with everything. You can't.
When the company starts laying people off, there's always one guy smart enough to immediately jump ship and preemptively get a new job.
And some people are smart enough to realize, "I am never going to be a great Tango dancer and should double my efforts at playing poker."
And you know what results this type of quitting has? It makes you happier, reduces stress, and increases health.
Wrosch found that people who quit their unattainable goals saw physical and psychological benefits. "They have, for example, less depressive symptoms, less negative affect over time," he says. "They also have lower cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation, which is a marker of immune functioning. And they develop fewer physical health problems over time." [Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain]
You can do anything — when you stop trying to do everything.
(For more on how to determine what you should stick with and what you should abandon, click here.)
Okay, so maybe you can't bail and really do need to be resilient. What does the research say you can do to have more grit? It sounds crazy…
4) Be delusional
And then he shouted: "These successful people are all delusional!"
"This is not to be misinterpreted as a bad thing. In fact, being delusional helps us become more effective. By definition, these delusions don't have to be accurate. If they were totally accurate, your goals would be too low." Goldsmith noticed that although illusions of control expose people to risk of failure, they do something else that is very interesting: they motivate people to keep trying even when they've failed… "Successful people fail a lot, but they try a lot, too. When things don't work, they move on until an idea does work. Survivors and great entrepreneurs have this in common." [Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success]
Crazy successful people and people who survive tough situations are all overconfident. Very overconfident.
Some of you may be scratching your head: "Isn't step one all about not being in denial? About facing reality?"
You need to make a distinction between denial about the situation and overconfidence in your abilities.
The first one is very bad, but the second one can be surprisingly good. See the world accurately — but believe you are a rockstar.
Denying or distorting a bad situation may be comforting in the short term, but it's potentially harmful in the long run because it will be almost impossible to solve a problem unless you first admit you have one. In contrast, having an especially strong belief in one's personal capabilities, even if that belief is somewhat illusory, probably helps you to solve problems… A useful, if somewhat simplistic, mathematical formula might be: a realistic view of the situation + a strong view of one's ability to control one's destiny through one's efforts = grounded hope. [
(For more on what the most successful people have in common, click here.)
So this is how superheroes must feel: there's definitely trouble, but you're calm and you feel like you're awesome enough to handle this.
But we need to move past feelings. What actions are going to see you through this mess?
5) Prepare… even if it's too late for preparation
Folks, I firmly believe there is no such thing as a "pretty good" alligator wrestler.
Who survives life threatening situations? People who have done it before. People who have prepared.
Now even if you can't truly prepare for a layoff or a divorce, you can work to have good productive habits and eliminate wasteful ones.
Good habits don't tax your willpower as much as deliberate actions and will help you be more resilient.
How do you survive a WW2 shipwreck and shark attacks? Keep preparing for the future, even when you're in the midst of trouble.
As the days went by, he continued to concentrate on strategies for survival. At one point, a rubber life belt floated by and he grabbed it. He had heard that the Japanese would use aircraft to strafe shipwrecked Americans. The life belt could be blown up through a rubber tube. He cut the tube off and kept it, reasoning that if the Japanese spotted them, he could slip under water and breathe through the tube. He was planning ahead. He had a future in his mind, and good survivors always concentrate on the present but plan for the future. Thus, taking it day by day, hour by hour, and sometimes minute by minute, did Don McCall endure. [Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience]
One caveat: as learning expert Dan Coyle recommends, make sure any prep you do is as close to the real scenario as possible.
Bad training can be worse than no training. When police practice disarming criminals they often conclude by handing the gun to their partner.
One officer trained this so perfectly that in the field he took a gun from a criminal — and instinctively handed it right back.
Johnson recounts how officers are trained to take a gun from an assailant at close quarters, a maneuver they practice by role-playing with a fellow officer. It requires speed and deftness: striking an assailant's wrist with one hand to break his grip while simultaneously wresting the gun free with the other. It's a move that officers had been in the habit of honing through repetition, taking the gun, handing it back, taking it again. Until one of their officers, on a call in the field, took the gun from an assailant and handed it right back again. [Make It Stick]
(For more on how to develop good habits — and get rid of bad ones, click here.)
You're expecting the best but prepared for the worst. Perfect. Is now the time to de-stress? Heck, no.
6) Stay busy, busy, busy
What's the best way to survive and keep your emotions in check when things are hard? "Work, work, work."
Remember the saying "Get organized or die." In the wake of trauma, "Work, work, work," as Richard Mollica wrote. He is a psychiatrist at Harvard who studies trauma. "This is the single most important goal of traumatized people throughout the world." The hands force order on the mind. [Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience]
When things go bad, people get sad or scared, retreat, and distract themselves. That can quell the emotions, but it doesn't get you out of this mess.
Resilient people know that staying busy not only gets you closer to your goals but it's also the best way to stay calm.
And believe it or not, we're all happier when we're busy.
(For more on what the most productive people in the world do every day, clickhere.)
You're hustlin'. That's good. But it's hard to keep that can-do attitude when things aren't going well. What's another secret to hanging in there?
7) Make it a game
In his book Touching the Void, Joe Simpson tells the harrowing story of how he broke his leg 19,000 feet up while climbing a mountain.
Actually he didn't break his leg… he shattered it. Like marbles in a sock. His calf bone driven through his knee joint.
He and his climbing partner assumed he was a dead man. But he survived.
One of his secrets was making his slow, painful descent into a game.
Simpson was learning what it means to be playful in such circumstances: "A pattern of movements developed after my initial wobbly hops and I meticulously repeated the pattern. Each pattern made up one step across the slope and I began to feel detached from everything around me. I thought of nothing but the patterns." His struggle had become a dance, and the dance freed him from the terror of what he had to do. [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why]
How does this work? It's neuroscience. Patterned activities stimulate the same reward center cocaine does.
And tellingly, a structure within the basal ganglia is activated during feelings of safety, reward, and simply feeling great. It's called the striatum and drugs such as cocaine set it off, but so does the learning of a new habit or skill and the performance of organized, patterned activities… [Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience]
Even boring things can be fun if you turn them into a game with stakes, challenges, and little rewards.
And we can use this same system for everyday problems: How many resumes can you send out today? Can you beat yesterday?
Celebrating "small wins" is something survivors have in common.
Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation. [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why]
(For more on how to increase gratitude and happiness, click here.)
You're a machine. Making progress despite huge challenges. What's the final way to take your resilience to the next level? Other people.
8) Get help and give help
Getting help is good. That's obvious. But sometimes we're ashamed or embarrassed and fail to ask for it. Don't let pride get in the way.
What's more fascinating is that even in the worst of times, giving help can help you.
By taking on the role of caretaker we increase the feeling of meaning in our lives. This helps people in the worst situations succeed.
Leon Weliczker survived the Holocaust not only because of his resourcefulness — but also because he felt he had to protect his brother.
When his fifteen-year-old brother Aaron came in, Leon was suddenly filled with love and a feeling of responsibility for the two boys. He was shedding the cloak of the victim in favor of the role of the rescuer. Terrence Des Pres, in his book The Survivor, makes the point that in the journey of survival, helping someone else is as important as getting help. [Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience]
Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you're a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. The cycle reinforces itself: You buoy them up, and their response buoys you up. Many people who survive alone report that they were doing it for someone else (a wife, boyfriend, mother, son) back home. [Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why]
(For more on how helping others can also help you, click here.)
So once the threat is passed, once the dust has settled, can we have a normal life again? Actually, sometimes, life can be even better.
So when life is daunting and we need resilience, keep in mind:
- Perceive and believe
- Manage your emotions
- Be a quitter
- Be delusional
- Prepare… even if it's too late for preparation
- Stay busy, busy, busy
- Make it a game
- Get help and give help
To live full lives some amount of difficulty is essential.
Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist who treats post-traumatic stress, said that "to achieve the greatest psychological health, some kind of suffering is necessary." [Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience]
You can meet life's challenges with resilience, competence and grace.
And when the troubles are over, science agrees: what does not kill you can in fact make you stronger.
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