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September 21, 2009
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Surviving Adversity

No life is free from adversity. No life is completely a life of joy, good health and total success. In fact, arguably, it is adversity rather than comfort that instills in each of us the strength to handle the difficulties that fate, our own actions or the actions of others cause us. 

However, at work and in life in general there is much that each of us can do to keep ourselves in situations where we put off the day when things go wrong, or find ourselves not being able to handle difficulties when they do occur.

Two of the HR Doctor’s mantras and personal philosophies have been the subject of past articles and the HR Doctor’s book Don’tWalk by Something Wrong! The first of these philosophies was just mentioned. When we live a life in which we consciously scan our environment, take note of things which just aren’t right, and take action to make them better, we stand a much better chance to “live long and prosper” as Mr. Spock would teach us. Adopting a “don’t walk by…” philosophy puts us in a position to help others improve their own lives.

The second philosophic hallmark is to “act now to put off the day when something bad happens.” The idea here is to not only recognize a situation which could be trouble but also to adopt a compelling urgency to take action to mitigate the risk. In that sense, all of us should be acting like Risk Managers in our own lives and in the lives of our family members and colleagues. The corollary is also very important. Act now to bring forward into your life all the joy and passion you can muster. Don’t waste the precious few moments of your existence watching TV when you could be more active. Don’t focus on all that is depressing when there is so much joy in the world. Spend less time wishing and more time acting.

However, no matter how many times you reread the HR Doctor’s book, it is impossible to prevent actions by others that might harm us — acts of nature such as hurricanes in our environment, or our own actions or inactions leading to difficulty. It is not a surprise that when people do not wear seatbelts their risk of injury or death in auto accidents is greatly increased. The same is true for the foolishness of smoking in the face of clear, direct evidence that it shortens lives and hurts the quality of life. Succumbing to our penchants for chanting a long list of excuses about why nothing is our fault and everything bad is someone else’s fault only increases the risks of trouble ahead.

If some degree of adversity is inevitable — and perhaps valuable — how do you survive adversity?

There are huge numbers of self-help books, TV commentators, and religious and personal help philosophies designed to provide advice to us all, if not also providing enrichment to the authors and commentators themselves.

This author would like to suggest that readers consider one rather little-known approach in particular.  It is derived from the premier military unit of the British Army — the Special Air Service — the SAS.

The SAS is Britain’s equivalent of an elite force like the U.S. Navy SEALS, the Army’s Green Berets or the U.S. military’s joint special operations Delta Force. These are groups of especially well-trained and seasoned professionals who work in highly dangerous situations, perhaps behind enemy lines or in counter-insurgency operations. Their training is intense, and there is a special focus on survival. 

Here is the SAS formula on how to survive adversity, derived from the Survival Guide by SAS veteran John “Lofty” Wiseman. The survival of adversity is based on having a clear understanding of a four-part hierarchy or pyramid. 

The essential foundation of the survival pyramid: the will to survive. The person who finds herself in unexpected and difficult circumstances will stand a far better chance of working through the dilemma and the challenge if she brings with her a fundamentally optimistic view of her own future.

However, there are cases of illness or extraordinary circumstances where some people may be overcome by a feeling of hopelessness and a feeling that it is just better to give up. Imagine spending years as a prisoner of war under horrendous conditions. Imagine being laid off at work after many years of dedicated service. Imagine hearing your doctor tell you that you have breast cancer. The difference between surviving under conditions like these rests on what is inside a person’s mind rather than on what physical conditions they find themselves facing. People who are optimistic by nature and have a sense of control over how they react to others, and circumstances are likely to fare far better from both a personal security standpoint and from the standpoint of career and personal life success. 

Next in the four-part formula comes knowledge. The knowledge may be the research you can do on the Internet after finding a cancer diagnosis or consulting with specialists or cancer survivors. For the backpacker it might be knowledge of how to navigate with the stars or operate a GPS receiver. The bottom line is that survival is a factor of knowledge — make that, knowledge applied.  It may be valuable to be a master of information, but that information will not help unless it can be applied. 

The third element is training and mastery. Training and mastery are the tools by which knowledge moves out of the theoretical and into the practical. Expand your brain by acquiring knowledge, but then expand it more by practicing how to apply that knowledge in your life and your career. Make yourself a master at making knowledge work for you to overcome difficulties and to be successful and happy.

The final element in the survival pyramid is having the right equipment. 

Interestingly, the equipment need not be high tech. Rather, applying the will, knowledge and training to a situation will help create innovation. It will help identify resources and convert those resources into useful tools and actions to bring about survival. It may be a bit of equipment in an automobile first-aid kit to use to help at the scene of an accident rather than just driving by.

In life in general it may be the musical instrument in your home which helps you be more comfortable in social settings and develops your self-confidence. We all use equipment in our everyday lives, but interestingly enough, we are also the providers of equipment to others, especially to our children. We provide others with guidance, advice and instruction about how to navigate through difficult situations. This is a critical role for managers in any organization.

The SAS survival advice was meant to apply to the harsh conditions of wilderness survival.  However, reading through the survival material authored by the SAS or the U.S. Army or other groups, and reading it with an eye toward how this applies to our everyday situations, provides a new insight. 

Seize every opportunity to gain knowledge and to practice skills. Go out hunting for such opportunities. Encourage everyone in your organization to do likewise.  Make available education and development resources.  This will not only help individuals deal with the adversity they will face, but will also ultimately insure that the organization itself survives.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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