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Lessons From My Father: Strategies for Resilience and Survival

08/03/2013 07:54 EDT | Updated 10/03/2013 05:12 EDT

My father had to cope with an unfathomable situation: At the young age of sixteen, he was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He was deported from Hungary in the spring of 1944, was separated from his family and friends, and spent a year in Nazi concentration camps.

Today he is 85. In the decades since the war ended he has enjoyed life to its fullest, having decided the day he was liberated that he would not give any more of himself to his captors by continuing to suffer. My father speaks at schools, churches, synagogues, and libraries about his holocaust experiences. Recently, we have begun speaking to business executives about resilience--the ability to face adverse events with fortitude and to enact successful coping strategies. As a social psychologist, I talk about the psychology of resilience, what the research tells us, and how executives can benefit from the tools that nourish resilience. My father speaks about his camp experiences, and particularly about the coping strategies that helped him stay determined to survive.

One reason why his message is so powerful is that nothing we face at work can ever even come close to what he faced in Nazi concentration camps. If a 16-year-old kid could generate and enact coping strategies that helped him survive in the camps, then the rest of us should certainly be able to develop the skills necessary to function and even thrive in a difficult workplace.

Surviving in the camps took more than determination. A positive attitude was not nearly enough to stay alive in a death camp, and many strong, resilient people perished in the Holocaust. Luck was necessary as well, and a lot of it. On the margin, however, mental attitude mattered. In talking with executives, my father shares his story and the coping strategies that he employed. Three are critical and are consistent with research on resilience:

1. Have a Challenge Mindset

My father spent much of his camp life carrying heavy steel rails up a hill, over and over again, from the first light of day until sunset. During this time, he saw his struggle to survive as a battle he was fighting with the SS. If he gave in, then the Nazis would win, and he refused to give them this victory. If he stayed alive, then he would win. He was also resolute about returning home to his family. He worried about what would happen if his mother and sisters came home and he didn't (by then he had learned that his father had been killed in Auschwitz). This concern got him up off the cold ground every morning determined to make it through another day. Research finds that one's mental attitude in the face of adversity has a significant impact on physical and mental wellbeing. More specifically, the ability to turn a threat into a challenge is at the heart of resilience. When facing adversity, try turning the threat into a challenge. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish in your difficult situation, and refer often to your most essential goals.

2. Break it Down

My father had no way of knowing if or when he would be liberated. Thus, he could not guess whether his suffering would continue for weeks, months or even years. But the end of the day was something he could foresee. When he woke up every morning, he made a commitment to himself that he would be make it back to his barracks in the evening. And when he went to sleep at night he was resolute that he would wake up in the morning. In this way he struggled through--day after day, and night after night--until the morning when he was finally liberated. Psychologists find that a sense of control is essential to reducing stress in difficult times. If you find yourself struggling with adversity of unknown duration and scope, try breaking down what you are facing into manageable pieces, and generate small short-term goals that will keep you going.

3. Find Social Support

My father tried to always have a friend in the camp. He would connect with another young person who, like him, had an optimistic attitude, at least a bit of hope that one day their ordeal would be over. Even when he lost a close friend that he made in the camp (his friend was transferred to an unknown destination), he sought and found new friends. In his final camp, he had two close buddies and they referred to themselves as the "Three Musketeers." My father was a caring friend and he knew had to draw encouragement from others.

My father also found help from an unlikely source. One morning during roll call an SS sergeant walked up to my father's section and yelled, "Which one of you young inmates speaks German?" My father raised his hand into the air and was selected to work for two weeks with a civilian German engineer. The two of them worked in the woods surveying the location for new railways and roads. The engineer took pity on my father and snuck him food each day from the SS kitchen. The calories helped replenish his body, and the caring helped replenish his morale. He brought some of the food back to his barracks to share with his friends.

Resilience does not mean having the strength to go it alone. People who consistently demonstrate resilience have the ability to seek out and accept support from others, and they find opportunities to give to those who are worse off. As you struggle with adversity identify allies and those who could benefit from your support. As a leader, the help you provide to your team will be vital to them, and the compassion you demonstrate will also help in your own coping.

Essential Strategies

These three strategies--embracing a challenge mindset, breaking a difficult situation into manageable parts, and connecting with others--helped my father survive in tremendously difficult circumstances. In our discussions with senior executives, we find that they, too, are able to garner wisdom from my father's experiences and learn to apply these key tools of resilience. Next time an adverse event strikes you, I hope that you can find strength from my father's example.

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