The Survivor Personality: Why Some People are Stronger, Smarter and More Skillful at Handling Life's Difficulties...
and How You Can Be, Too

by Al Siebert, PhD

With foreword by Bernie Siegel, MD
©2010 Berkley/Perigee Publishing
ISBN-13: 978-0-399-53592-5

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Chapter One

Life is Not Fair--
And That Can Be Very Good For You

When you are hit by adversity or have your life disrupted, how do you respond? Some people feel victimized. They blame others for their plight. Some shut down. They feel helpless and overwhelmed. Some get angry. They lash out and try to hurt anyone they can.

A few, however, reach within themselves and find ways to cope with the difficult circumstance. They eventually make things turn out well. These are life's best survivors, those people with an amazing capacity for surviving crises and extreme difficulties. They are resilient and durable in distressing situations. They regain emotional balance quickly, adapt, and cope well. They thrive by gaining strength from adversity and often convert misfortune into a gift.

Are life's best survivors different from other people? No. They survive, cope, and thrive better because they are better at using the inborn capabilities possessed by all humans.

Surviving and Thriving: Using Your Inborn Abilities

If you are like most people, you haven't been well coached on how to cope well with adversity, crises, and constant change. This book shows you how to access your inborn survivor qualities and increase your range of responses for coping with whatever comes your way.

This book shows how to:

  • Regain stability when your life is knocked off track.
  • Cope with unfair developments in an effective way.
  • Develop a talent for serendipity.
  • Break free from childhood prohibitions that prevent you from coping effectively.
  • Increase your self-confidence for handling disruptive changes.
  • Avoid reacting like a victim.
  • Thrive in a world of nonstop change.

In 1927 a twenty-five-year-old illustrator and one of his older brothers started a cartoon animation studio in southern California. Because they were among the first to master the art of moving picture cartoons, their studio received a big, one-year, renewable contract from a New York film distributor, Charles Mintz. They were to produce a cartoon series named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Mintz, who owned the rights to Oswald, sent his brother-inlaw, George Winkler, to California to watch production activities. Winkler spent many weeks at the studio getting to know the animators and learning production procedures.

When the highly successful first year drew to a close, the illustrator expected to renegotiate a longer, more profitable contract with Mintz. He took his wife with him on a train to New York. The meeting did not go as expected, however. Mintz told the illustrator that he and his brother would have to work for a lower fee if they wanted to renew the contract. The illustrator was shocked and argued that he could not produce the cartoons for less money.

As they argued about the new fee, he discovered that Winkler had persuaded Mintz to take over production of the Oswald cartoons. During the visits to the studios in California, Winkler had secretly arranged to hire away several of the best animators. Mintz and Winkler believed they could cut costs and increase their profits by producing the series themselves. Their strategy in the negotiations was to get the illustrator to give up his right to renew the Oswald contract.

Winkler and Mintz succeeded.

Angry and hurt, the illustrator and his wife, Lillian, left New York and headed home. He had trusted Mintz and Winkler. He had trusted his employees. He had honored his part of the contract and expected fair treatment in return. He had worked many long nights and weekends to meet production deadlines. Now, without warning, the highly successful cartoon series was taken away from him. He would no longer be the producer of the series he worked so hard to develop. His studio had lost its only big account.

Turning Disaster into a Gift

But the young illustrator did not react like a victim to the raw deal pulled on him. During the train ride back to Hollywood, he refl ected on his situation and determined that he could create his own cartoon character instead of waiting to be hired to work on other people's ideas.

His first illustration job had been at a commercial art studio housed in an old building in Kansas City. During long hours at the drawing board, he used food crumbs to train a mouse that lived in the building. He called the mouse Mortimer.

What about Mortimer the Mouse as a cartoon character? Lillian said the name Mortimer sounded too stuffy. This mouse needed a friendlier, more playful name. What about Mickey?

Back at the studio Walt (Disney, if you didn't figure that one out yet) and his brother decided to take advantage of a new technology that added sound to motion pictures. He charged into his new project with enthusiasm. The rest, as they say, is history.

The new cartoon was an immediate success. And Oswald the Rabbit soon disappeared from theaters while Mickey Mouse went on to become one of the greatest cartoon personalities of all time. Instead of reacting like a victim, Walt Disney had converted Mintz and Winkler's unethical conduct and treachery into one of the best things that ever happened to him.

Many successful people have similar, albeit not so dramatic, stories, but they share one thing in a common: the survivor personality in action.

Discovering the Survivor Nature

My interest in survivors began in 1953 when I joined the paratroopers. I was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for basic training and assigned to the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment. Part of the 11th Airborne Division, the 503rd had returned from Korea after suffering heavy losses in combat. We were told that only one in ten men had survived. We heard stories about the 503rd. This was the unit that had parachuted onto Corregidor Island during World War II and recaptured it from the Japanese. These were jungle fighters—tough, unstoppable, and deadly. They would be our training cadre, and we were nervous about what it would be like. Talk about mean, screaming drill sergeants spread through the barracks.

When we started basic training, however, the sergeants and officers were not what we had expected. They were tough but showed patience. They pushed us hard but were tolerant. When a trainee made a mistake, they were more likely to laugh and be amused than to be angry. Either that, or to say bluntly, "In combat you'd be dead now," and walk away.

Combat survivors, it turns out, are more like Alan Alda playing Hawkeye, the mischievous, non-conforming surgeon in the M*A*S*H television series than they are like the movie character Rambo. A commanding officer of SEALS training at the Naval Special Warfare Center, for example, said in a magazine interview, "The Rambo types are the first to go."

During our training, I noticed that combat survivors have a type of personal radar always on scan. Anything that happens or any noise draws a quick, brief look. They have a relaxed awareness. I began to realize it wasn't just luck or fate that these were the few who came back alive. Something about them as people had tipped the scales in their favor.

They did not exhibit a self-centered survival of the fittest attitude.

Quite the contrary. They had such strong self-confidence that they didn't have to act mean or tough. They knew what they could do and apparently didn't feel the need to prove anything to anyone. We trainees knew that if we had to go into deadly combat, these were the fighters we'd want to be with.

A Practical Definition

Years later, when I was a graduate student in clinical psychology, I discovered that psychologists and psychiatrists did not seem to know much about the people who hold up well under pressure. After graduation I started a personal research project to understand people with, as I came to call it, survivor personalities. The criteria I developed included those who:

  • Have survived a major crisis or challenge.
  • Surmounted the crisis through personal effort.
  • Emerged from the experience with previously unknown strengths and abilities.
  • Afterward find value in the experience.

Using these four criteria as a frame of reference, I listed questions I wanted to have answered.

  • How do some survivors of horrible experiences manage to be so happy?
  • Is there a basic pattern of personality traits that survivors share? If so, what are the traits?
  • Can a person be similar to others with survivor personalities and yet be a unique individual?
  • Is the survivor personality inborn or is it learned?
  • If it is learned, why do so many people grow up without learning it?
  • What percentage of people have survivor personalities?
  • What are survivors like when they aren't in crisis? Is there a way to identify such people when things are peaceful?

A Map-Developing Odyssey

One benefit of a good education is learning how to learn. I kept a curious and open mind as I read autobiographies and interviewed hundreds of people over many years—survivors of the World War II Bataan Death March; Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust; ex-POWs and war veterans; survivors of cancer, polio, head injury, and other physically challenging conditions; survivors of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural disasters; survivors of rape, abuse, alcoholism, codependency, and addiction; parents of murdered children; and survivors of bankruptcy, job loss, and other major life-disrupting events. I became curious about public employees who remain cheerful and dedicated to their work even while being maligned by the people they serve.

With a quiet mind I absorbed whatever people told me. I allowed the territory to create its own map for me. I gradually began to sense some patterns, some predictable qualities and ways of reacting. I stopped being surprised, for example, to hear survivors laugh at themselves about some stupid thing they did.

I learned that survivors are ordinary people with flaws, worries, and imperfections. When people call them heroes they disagree. Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger of US Airways fl ight 1549, which landed in New York's Hudson River in 2009, downplays his part of the successful landing. He gave large credit to his crew, training, and experience. Media interviews with the crew after the incident showed that they were aware it would take time for them to heal from their ordeal, that they are not superhumans who could resume doing immediately (if ever) exactly what they were doing before. In an interview with Larry King, Captain Sully said, "It's going to take some time to integrate the experience into my persona and get my sleep schedule back to normal." While each individual aboard that plane has had his or her own path to recovery, it was a good sign to see the crew able to make light of their experience when interviewed by David Letterman on The Late Show.

It is important to understand, however, that chance and luck are key factors when a group of people is being randomly shot by gunmen, trapped in a sinking boat, or caught in a large burning building. It is as though a cosmic coin toss determined which people would be killed and which ones would not. In every crisis and emergency, however, some people have a better chance of surviving. If you are still alive after a major catastrophe, there can be a small window of time when what you do can make a difference.

I learned that a few people are born with their survivor traits firmly intact. They are the natural athletes in the game of life and have a natural talent for coping well. The rest of us need to work consciously to develop our abilities. Just as we would have to take lessons and practice to become musicians or artists, we have to work at learning how to handle pressure, difficult people, negative situations, and disruptive change.

I learned that some of life's best survivors grew up in horrible family situations and that many people least skillful at coping with life's difficulties have come from ideal homes. Many of the strongest people in our world have been through experiences that no public school would be allowed to arrange. They have been strengthened in the school of life. They have been abused, lied to, deceived, robbed, raped, mistreated, and hit by the worst that life can throw at them. Their reaction is to pick themselves up, learn important lessons, set positive goals, and rebuild their lives.

I learned that people seldom tap into their deepest strengths and abilities until forced to do so by a major adversity. As Julius Segal, a distinguished survivor researcher, has said, "In a remarkable number of cases, those who have suffered and prevail find that after their ordeal they begin to operate at a higher level than ever before. . . . The terrible experiences of our lives, despite the pain they bring, may become our redemption." 1

For example, former POW Lieutenant Commander Charlie Plumb was kept in an eight-foot by eight-foot stone cell for six years. He had no window to look out and nothing to read. He was frequently hog-tied, beaten, and subjected to grueling interrogations. Now, when he talks about his experience as a POW, he says, "It's probably the most valuable six years of my life. Amazing what a little adversity can teach a person. . . . I really felt there was some meaning to that, to my experience itself."2

Thriving Versus Being a Victim

Again and again you can find stories of people who say their life threatening ordeals were the most valuable experiences of their lives. At the other extreme, some people who are healthy, employed, and living in safe communities with loving families complain about their lives as though they were being tortured.

The contrast in people's reactions emphasize that the way we interact with life events determines how well we survive and thrive. Our attitudes determine our well-being more than our circumstances. Some people thrive in the very same situation that is distressing and overwhelming to others. In recent years, thousands of people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Many become discouraged and financially distressed, while others find their strengths, start successful small businesses, and are thriving.

Fortunately, almost every person is born with the ability to learn how to handle unfair situations and disturbing experiences. The fact is that anyone can learn how to become better at handling life's challenges. It is possible to avoid victim/blaming reactions by developing learning/coping responses.

A Teaching Challenge for Me, a Learning Challenge for You

Years of observing and learning about life's best survivors have convinced me that:

  • Survivor qualities can be learned, but they can't be taught.
  • Survivor qualities and a survivor spirit develop out of everyday habits that increase chances of survival should it become necessary.
  • People trained to act, think, and feel as instructed do not cope with life's unexpected challenges as well as a person with self-developed abilities because life's best survivors have each developed a way of coping that is unique to them.

A frustrating situation for a teacher! How can I teach what can't be taught? How can I offer expert advice about surviving and thriving when people who try to do what an expert says may, in fact, lower their chances of coping well with unexpected difficulties?

My way of handling this challenge is to offer coaching tips on how to manage your own learning. If you've read many self-help books, you may have noticed that the authors often start by saying that none of the existing self-help books worked very well for them. It was only after they compiled their own list of habits or principles that they finally found the way to greatness, effectiveness, excellence, prosperity, wealth, love, power, spirituality, or good digestion. Their book, they say, will save you the time and struggle of reading any other books.

The effectiveness or workability of any plan, however, comes from the learning struggle. In the school of life the responsibility is on the learner, not the teacher. Through trial and error you learn what works and what doesn't work for you. True self- improvement, self-confidence, and spiritual development come out of real life, everyday experiences, not from books or workshops.

Thus my approach is to provide guidelines on how to learn your own surviving, coping, and thriving skills. This is a book of useful questions and practical guidelines. It is not a book of instructions. Think of it as a manual on how to discover inborn abilities that no other human can reveal to you.

What We Will Cover

Curiosity is one of the most important survivor qualities. When you ask questions about how things work, you acquire practical knowledge you can use in new situations.

The world of work has changed drastically. Many employees now work without job descriptions as members of self-directed teams. Chapters 2 through 6 cover what it takes to cope and thrive in a world of constant change—without an authority telling you what to do. These chapters show how the ability to thrive comes from ways of feeling, thinking, and acting that parents and teachers have typically not encouraged in children, including guidelines that show you how to embrace people with negative attitudes.

Many chapters contain explanations of the psychological principles involved. Feel free to skip those parts if you want only the guidelines for handling a specific situation, but realize that your learning should not be limited to one or another unique occasion.


Self-Development Suggestion At various places in the book you will come across a suggestion in a box like this one. If you want to get the most out of the book, take time to do the suggested activity. In addition, "The Survivor Personality Manual," a workbook, is available through www .THRIVEnet.com.

Understanding the underlying principles will always serve you well. If you understand how the psychological principles of cause and effect work, you can apply the ideas to a wide variety of new, unexpected situations.

The best survivors are those who find a way to convert misfortune into good luck. Chapter 7 explains why a talent for serendipity is a primary indicator of a survivor personality and how you can develop yours.

The biggest challenge for most people trying to cope with difficult situations is breaking free from inner prohibitions that act as invisible emotional handicaps. Most children are born with the inner motivation to learn how to survive and thrive but something happens to them during childhood. The natural process of self-motivated learning is disrupted when parents and teachers try to turn boys and girls into "good boys" and "good girls." This phenomenon is examined in Chapter 8.

The escalating pace of life has created numerous challenges facing many people today—too much pressure, too much change, negative people, angry people, and events that have an effect on our lives and livelihoods that are seemingly well beyond our personal control. Chapters 9 and 10 contain specific guidelines for handling difficult situations in ways that make you stronger. In each case, the coping effort shows how to thrive by converting the difficulties into valuable personal growth. (If you are trying to cope with an extremely difficult situation right now, go directly to Chapter 9.)

What about life and death situations? Chapters 11 and 12 offer insight into what others have done when thrown into the worst possible circumstances. While there is no prescription for survival in crises, disasters, and torturous conditions, we can learn from the experience of others, as Julius Segal suggests in his book Winning Life's Toughest Battles. The value in learning about many kinds of survival is that one person's way of surviving cancer, for example, may carry just the right clue for someone struggling with months of unemployment.

There is no way of existing on this planet that does not have its drawbacks. Chapter 13 provides insight into some of the diffi culties survivors encounter because they are survivors, and tips for how to handle them.

And finally, Chapter 14 gives you tools for creating a selfmanaged learning plan for developing your own palette of surviving and thriving skills.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, as quoted in Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, said, "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger."3 The Survivor Personality shows you how to do just that. It shows how to cope with disruptive change, tap into the will to survive, and gain strength from adversity. It shows how to convert a distressing, unfair experience into something good for you.

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Notes and References:

1 Julius Segal, Winning Life's Toughest Battles, Ivy Books, 1986, p. 130.

2 Charlie Plumb quote from transcript of an interview on NBC June 24, 1986. His book, I'm not a Hero, can be obtained by writing to: Charlie Plumb, PO Box 223, Kansas City, MO 64141.

3 Nietszche quote from Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, Washington Square Press, 1963, p. 130.

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The Survivor Personality book cover, 2010