A story on how I survive adversity (you can too)

“You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives.”

― José Saramago

One of the most profound leadership lessons I received didn’t happen in the classroom. It didn’t come from a book either, but from real-life experience — it was born out of a mistake.

20 years ago, I was trekking in Patagonia — it was the beginning of a well-deserved vacation after a long stressful year. Together with a small group, we were enjoying the beginning of the summer. I was feeling anxious though — I started to walk faster and faster until I separated from the group.

I was so distracted, that I didn’t see a turn and missed the trail toward our destination — a hidden waterfall.

At some point, I realized I was lost. It was getting dark way too fast and I had to make a quick decision. “Will I survive this experience?” — this was the only thing I could think about.

Meet Your True Potential

“A brain was only capable of what it could conceive, and it couldn’t conceive what it had never experienced”
― Graham Greene

When I realized I was lost, the first thing that occupied my mind was fear — the realization that I was going to die there alone. I panicked. My mind was worried full of negative emotions and thoughts.

I didn’t want to give up though.

“I won’t die here tonight.” — I repeated to myself over and over.

Those words helped me reconcile the drama in my head. I had to focus on staying calm in spite of the fear. Regretting what I did wrong or blaming myself wouldn’t help — it would just add more fire to the fire.

I needed to lead myself out of the problem — it took more than a couple of deep breaths to calm my mind.

My first decision was to assess the situation and decide what to do: should I stay or should I try to find my way back?

It was getting colder and sleet started to fall — I was only wearing a light jacket. On the other hand, it was getting darker pretty quickly — I could make things worse if I got hurt in the middle of the night.

I thought I could figure out how to get back to the original trail. Luckily, I didn’t succumb to that temptation. The decision to stay put and spend the night in the open was a wise one — the proof is I can be writing this today.

It wasn’t easy though. I had to improvise. By cutting some canes and tree branches, I created a buffer to insulate the moist from the floor, so I could sit and rest for a while. I had to continually pinch myself to stay awake — it was getting so cold that I could die of hypothermia. From time to time, I stood up and moved around and massaged my body to stay warm.

Looking in retrospective, I learned three things from dealing with this extreme situation:

  • The line between life or death is determined by our ability to stay calm and adapt to the unexpected.
  • When under pressure, we are on our own — resilience is the ability to rescue ourselves from adversity.
  • We are capable of doing more than we think we can — we just have to trust ourselves.

But, how can we train our brain to overcome adversity?

7 Ways to Survive Adversity

“Anyone is capable of anything given the right set of circumstances.”

― Zach Fortier

Your brain is like a muscle, it can be trained to achieve more than you think you can.

Neuroplasticity is a term that is used to describe the brain changes that occur in response to experience. For centuries, the human brain was considered a fixed organ with limited ability for growth or recovery. Neuroplasticity includes many different mechanisms ranging from the growth of new connections to the creation of new neurons.

In fact, the brain is capable of much more significant self-repair and healing — for conditions that range from Parkinson’s to stroke, to traumatic injuries.

However, you don’t need to face a life-or-death situation like I did to realize your true potential.

1. Your potential can be developed

It didn’t matter that I didn’t have any survival training, but my mental training in other areas prepared me to deal with the unexpected.

Studies have shown that mental activity is not only the product of the brain but the shaper of it. Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown that long-term meditators — over tens of thousands of hours — had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.

Similar studies have shown that a London taxi driver can change his brain by studying routes through the city for a year or two — a mandatory request to get a taxi driver license.

2. Don’t be afraid of your potential

To survive the dark and cold, I had to befriend my fear, not ignore it.

Parkour, the martial art of movement, involves navigating the urban environment challenging our physical capabilities. However, according to Dan Edwardes, founder of Parkour Generations, rather than physical prowess, fear is at the heart of the discipline. Parkour makes you face that fear.

According to the expert, our natural limits are much further back than we think — our main barrier is the perception of what we think we can or can’t do. As Edwardes says, “You fear things because some part of you knows you can do them, and may, therefore, attempt them.”

3. Balance false hope and false pessimism:

During my experience in Patagonia, I tried to balance both negative and positive thoughts.

Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain That Changes Itself, explains how people tend to have extreme behaviors when it comes to our brain possibilities. Some have a skeptical approach — they see the brain as a machine that can’t be fixed. Others have an idealistic approach — they think neuroplasticity can solve everything.

The Canadian scientist refers to false pessimism and false hope as “twin brothers” — each worthy competitors for doing harm. Doidge tries to be extremely careful to never give guarantees but to say, “In this situation, this or that is worth a try.”

4. Your thoughts define your limits

Thinking that something is possible doesn’t guarantee success. However, thinking that you can’t do something definitely limits your potential. Focusing on possibilities helped me survived the cold and darkness.

Usually, our way of thinking limits our potential. In an eye exam, we usually experience problems at the bottom third of the eye chart. We usually give up where letters start to get small.

Research by Ellen Langer and colleagues challenged that notion by applying a shifted chart — the smaller letters were included in the middle instead of in the bottom. People were able to read much smaller letters because they assumed the top two-thirds was within their capacity.

5. Pain is a signal of growth

When it started to get cold, I thought I wouldn’t tolerate the entire night. But my body adapted and was able to overcome the freezing temperature.

Traditionally, science considered brain signals as a body alarm — the pain was an indicator that we have to stop doing something. Modern research has discovered that our body has still capacity beyond the initial pain. Dr. Emma Ross, head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport, has discovered that training can help desensitize the feedback loop — our body learns to sustain higher stress.

“In an untrained person, the system is quite conservative but shifts as you train your brain,” Ross explains. The scientist has studied how the brain plays a very protective role under extreme conditions limiting our performance. “It’s not traditional fatigue, because your muscles are tired,” she explains, “they are fine — it’s just your brain saying no.”

We can build tolerance by gradually exposing ourselves to extreme environments. Resistance is a signal that we are making progress.

6. A strong purpose will give you strength

Alive, the book by Piers Paul Read, tells the amazing, true story of an Uruguayan rugby team’s plane that crashed in the middle of the Andes mountains in 1972. The survivors were forced to do anything to stay alive in the cold winter with barely any food and under extreme weather conditions.

Fernando Parrado was one of the two survivors to walk out of the Andes Cordillera in search of help. He lost his mother in the crash and his sister succumbed to injuries a few days later — Parrado’s purpose was staying alive so he could tell his father how both women died.

Our connection to a purpose bigger than ourselves makes us more resilient. Thanks to Parrado’s determination, a total of 16 survivors were finally rescued. My experience was much lighter than the guys who survived from the Andes — regardless of the adversity you are facing, having a purpose increases your chances to succeed.

7. Stretch your focus

The most interesting things happen in peripheral vision, according to Norman Doidge. When we literally focus on what’s in front of us, we risk missing the accidental and serendipitous, where new connections are made.

During my experience in Patagonia, I was so focused on the path ahead, that I missed the signals — that’s why I got lost. To return safe, I had to visualize the way back and train my brain to create a reversed image. If I’ve crossed a small river from left to right, now I had to cross it the other way around.

When we concentrate on what we think we know, we stop paying attention. Most things occur in the left field — that’s where our potential lies. We must learn to stretch our perspective and focus.


Gustavo Razzetti is a change instigator that helps organizations lead positive change. Author, Consultant, and Speaker on team development and cultural transformation.

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