Al built on his fine work in The Survivor Personality with The Resiliency Advantage. This shows how people can develop resiliency of overcome setbacks and achieve peak performance.
You can find out more about Al’s work here.
Al Siebert identifies the characteristics of people who have overcome tremendous setbacks. Many of the findings in The Survivor Personality, including the concept of Personal Radar, can be applied to our personal and professional lives.
You can find out more about Al’s work here.
We are sorry to report that Al died in June 2009, but his work continues to live. Here is a link to the site prepared by his family.
Below is the original article we wrote about his fine work.
Al Siebert did pioneering work on resilience. His superb books – such as The Survivor Personality and The Resiliency Advantage – enabled many people to develop their inner strength. Al provided more than inspiring stories. He offered positive models and practical tools that enabled people to develop their resiliency skills.
They could then apply these to overcome challenges when using their strengths. He helped many people to make breakthroughs in their personal and professional lives. You can learn more about Al’s work at The Resiliency Center. Here is the link:
Al spent over 50 years studying how people develop inner strength. A paratrooper in the 1950s, he remembered meeting the few remaining survivors from the 11th Airborne Division, a unit that had served in World War 2 and Korea.
Something about them made him sit up and take notice. They weren’t the ‘gung-ho’ types: they had unusual qualities. He wrote:
“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 favour.”
Returning to college after completing his military service, Al resolved to study psychology, but he grew frustrated by its emphasis on mental illness.
He decided to study life’s survivors – those who grew when overcoming tough challenges. Scoping out the areas of study, he chose to focus on people that met four criteria:
He then asked a series of questions about the survivors. These included:
"Is there a basic pattern of traits that survivors share? If so, what are the traits? What about their uniqueness? How can a person be similar to others and yet be a unique individual? What are survivors like when they aren't surviving? Is there a way to spot such people when things are peaceful?
"What percentage of people have survivor personalities? Is the survivor personality inborn or can it be learned? If it is learned, why do so many people grow up without learning it? If it can be learned, what are the learning parameters?"
Al read extensively and collected information from such survivors. This led to him designing a questionnaire for identifying people’s ability to overcome tough challenges. He tested it in the field – then did a reality check with experienced survivors.
Did the results add-up? Did they give a true reflection of a person’s ability to survive and then go on to thrive? How could people improve their ability to anticipate and manage challenges successfully? Al shared his knowledge by running workshops, giving keynote speeches and writing articles.
He then came to international prominence with his book The Survivor Personality.
Please note: The Survivor Personality was published in the UK as How to Survive and Thrive in Any Life Crisis: Unlocking Your Inborn Survival Skills.
This ground-breaking book contains many stories about people who have overcome extreme challenges. The situations they faced included, for example, sexual assaults, life-threatening illnesses, being prisoners of war, addictions, physical attacks and crippling accidents.
How do people cope with such adversity? Some don’t, says Al. They feel victimised, blame other people, become helpless or lash out at others. Some people do cope with adversity. Drawing on their inner strength, they stay calm, clarify the situation and chart their strategy. Committing to their course of action, they concentrate fully until they reach their chosen goal. Al wrote:
“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 abilities possessed by all humans.”
The Survivor Personality outlines many strategies for making this happen. Al was faced by a dilemma, however, when writing the book. Many survivors had learned their skills the hard way, he said, by overcoming difficult circumstances. He came to the view that survival skills could be learned, but they could not be taught. He wrote:
“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.”
Building on his research, Al outlined some of the strategies survivors adopt to overcome crises successfully. These include the following.
Survivors have experience of overcoming difficulties in life. As a result, they have developed a particular kind of ‘savvy’ or ‘personal radar’. Al says:
“This quick comprehension of the total circumstance is ‘pattern empathy’.
"They read situations quickly and start considering the consequences. Other people ignore what is happening or bury their heads in the sand. Survivors click into awareness mode and take snapshots of what is actually happening.
Why? They realise it is vital to establish clarity. They must clarify what is happening – then make decisions about the way forward. The only way to do this is to get in the ‘helicopter’ and take an overall view. Succumbing to panic will not help them to make good decisions.
Al gives examples of hijack survivors who stay calm. They gather information about how the hijackers behave, look for patterns and explore potential exits – not only for themselves, but also for other people.
People who are diagnosed with a serious illness, for example, may then move to clarifying their assets. They focus on their relationships, knowledge, talents and the healthy parts of their body. Mobilising these assets, they then tackle the challenge.
Some people reframe the difficulty as a ‘project’. Looking at it from this perspective, they are able to ‘remove themselves’ and plan the path ahead. Al points out that some people actually become more ‘playful’ and laugh in the situation.
Norman Cousins explained this latter approach in his book Anatomy of an Illness – as Perceived by the Patient. Given little chance of survival, he took masses of Vitamin C, together with a positive attitude and watching films featuring the Marx Brothers. He later wrote:
"I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."
Cousins also wrote: “Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.” Anatomy was published in 1979. Combined with the books written by doctors such a Bernie Siegel, it had a profound affect on the way people began conducted themselves as ‘patients’.
They took more charge of their bodies and, whilst respecting medical expertise, became impatient with hospital routines that produced little benefits. Cousins eventually died in 1990, many years after the initial gloomy diagnosis.
Al Siebert found that survivors choose their strategies from a wide ‘repertoire’ of options. One contributing factor is that they have a quality common to many peak performers. Such people embrace what appear to be seeming paradoxes.
They are able to see the big picture and the small details, to be focused and flexible, to be serious and playful. This means they are able to see a wider number of options than, for example, people who have been ‘trained’ to behave in one way. Al wrote:
“Survivors are uniquely complex. They have many paradoxical traits and attributes. This gives them choices for doing one thing or doing the opposite – depending on their reading of the situation. Inner complexity is why survivors are more flexible and adapt more quickly than people with rigid, inflexible ways of doing things.”
Survivors are life-long learners. They love to explore and make sense of experiences. They prefer to take initiatives, rather than become institutionalised. Such people tend to be ‘savvy’, rather than having lived a sheltered life.
This enables them to read situations, call on their experience and make decisions. Moving into action, they observe what is happening – what is working, what isn’t – and are prepared to change direction. This is a great advantage when tackling problems or emergencies.
Survivors make their decision – then throw themselves into pursuing their chosen strategy. They employ every ounce of energy to reach the goal. Such people are also able to balance the apparent paradox of being simultaneously ‘helicoptering’ and ‘hands-on’.
They are completely committed to the task in hand, yet ‘hover’ above it to get perspective on what is happening. People then do everything possible to reach the goal. As Al Siebert wrote:
“The survivor way of orientating to a crisis is to feel fully and totally responsible for making things work out well.”
The Survivor Personality is one of the first and best books on the topic. Al went on to start Thrivenet: a web site packed with stories and tools that people can use to overcome adversity. Here is the link:
Al then expanded on the topic to produce another compelling book.
Expanding on the theme of survival, Al focused on how people can thrive in a fast-changing world. This calls for individuals, teams and organisations to develop their resiliency skills. Why? In the old days many people relied on ‘institutions’ to tell them what to learn and how to behave.
Nowadays people must manage increasing information, complexity and unpredictability. Such events may include, for example, personal setbacks, sickness, redundancy, market changes, reduced budgets, technological changes, economic downturns or whatever.
People will need to deal with such challenges. This calls for them taking responsibility, seeing to the heart of the matter and making good decisions. Even if they choose the right strategy, events may conspire to throw them off-track. They will need to recover quickly, practice ‘course correction’ and do everything possible to reach their goals.
People who develop such resiliency skills are more likely to increase their chances of success. Al illustrated these ideas with real-life inspiring stories. Some are in the book; some on The Resiliency Center web site. You can access these stories at:
One story is written by Jackie Pflug. She was hijacked on EgyptAir Flight 648 in 1985, shot in the back of the head, then thrown on the runway at Malta. Fortunately she survived. But the road ahead involved struggling with brain injury, epilepsy, PTSD, divorce, depression and visual impairment.
Jackie describes how she chose her attitude, overcame terrifying challenges and lived a fulfilling life. You can read her story on The Resiliency Center site or go to her web site, which is:
Al Siebert has written several other books, including The Adult Student's Guide to Survival & Success co-authored with Mary Karr. He is best known for his books on resilience, however, so let’s consider some of the themes that run through his work.
Al encouraged thousands of people to shape their future lives. There are many areas in which he added to our knowledge. In this section I want to explore just one area: the ways he helped people to build on their strengths. These are grouped under five headings: resilience, radar, repertoire, right strategy and results.
Al’s work encouraged people to develop their inner strength. It invited them to identify their own resilience and learn from positive models. So you can, for example, ask yourself questions such as:
“Looking back at my own life, when have I overcome challenges successfully? What did I do right then? Looking at the inspiring stories in Al’s work, which are the ones I can learn from? What did those people do right to overcome challenges?
Looking at my own life and the examples from Al’s work, what are the principles I can follow to overcome challenges in the future? How can I follow these principles in my own way? What are the specific things I can do to develop my resilience?”
You can use a similar approach when building resilient teams. Imagine you are a leader. Looking ahead, you know it will be vital to hire resilient people who follow the right strategy and work hard to deliver results. How to discover whether a person can anticipate and overcome setbacks successfully? You can, for example, invite them to complete The Resiliency Quiz, which can be found here:
You may then want to get more information about the person’s ability to overcome adversity. So, if appropriate, you can ask questions similar to those you have previously asked yourself. Be certain, however, to move from the past to the future. Invite the person to describe their own successful pattern – then explore possible difficulties they may face in their work. You can ask questions such as:
“Looking back on your life, describe 3 times when you have overcome difficult challenges or crises. Looking at each situation in turn, what did you do right to manage these successfully? Looking to the future, can you think of a difficult situation you might encounter in your work?
"How could you follow some of the principles you mentioned to tackle the challenge? What else could you do to improve the chances of success? You would probably do everything possible ahead of time to prevent such difficulties happening. But if such an event took place, how highly – on a scale 0 to 10 – would you relish tacking such a challenge?”
Great teams have people who are resilient, follow the right strategy and deliver results. So the first step is to get people who will add to the team’s collective inner strength. This provides the platform for achieving future success.
Al Siebert highlighted a quality possessed by many gifted people. Peak performers have a sixth sense in the areas in which they perform brilliantly. They seem to know ‘what will happen before it happens’. This is called ‘personal radar’. Reflecting on his time with the paratroopers who survived battles, Al talks about them quickly ‘scanning’ situations. Looking for patterns, they asked questions such as:
“What is happening? What isn’t happening? Are events following their normal course or is something else happening? What are the patterns I can observe? What will happen if these patterns continue? What will be the consequences?
"How can I build on the successful patterns? How can I deal with the unsuccessful patterns? What action do I need to take? Bearing in mind the patterns that are occurring – and the potential consequences – how can I do my best to achieve success?”
Al created a phrase called ‘pattern empathy’. He explains this as the ability to sense, usually starting at a non-verbal level, that: “There is a pattern of related events and actions occurring.” Once alerted, it is to keep paying attention until the pattern comes to your conscious attention.
Personal radar provides valuable clues to finding a person’s strengths. Different people, however, have different kinds of radar. Great footballers, for example, seem to have more time and space than other players. Demonstrating superb positional sense, they seem several moves ahead of the opposition.
Great retailers have an intuitive ‘feeling’ for their business. They can predict what will be happening in the market in the future. Take a look at your own abilities. What are the specific situations in which you have good radar? Where do you quickly see patterns? Where do you quickly see the end goal – the desired picture of perfection?
What happens when people use their personal radar? Entering the situation in which they excel, they feel alive and alert. Employing their antennae, they rapidly gather information about three things.
a) They see patterns and, extrapolating the patterns, they envisage potential scenarios.
b) They see the desired picture of success.
c) They see how to pursue the best strategy for achieving the picture of success.
You will have good radar in some situations, but not in others. For example, you may work well with certain clients, but not with others. (Be aware of where you have bad radar and develop a strategy for dealing with those situations.)
Good radar is a great asset, but people need wide-ranging set of tools to deliver results. This brings us to another theme in Al’s work.
“The people involved in my survivor personality research project say that being flexible and adaptable, more than anything else, is central to being a survivor,” wrote Al. “Having a variety of responses available is what makes possible the handling of chaotic, unpredictable or unexpected conditions.”
Al found that such people had a wide repertoire of experience and savvy. They had wisdom in their bones, as well as their heads. This increased their potential choices when encountering adversity. Clarifying the results to achieve, they then dipped into their repertoire to choose the right strategy. Such people had another key quality, one mentioned earlier in this article.
Peak performers balance seeming paradoxes. They are able to be focused and flexible; to see the big picture and have an eye for detail; to be ‘hands-on’ and ‘helicopter’. Al described this as them having a ‘Biphasic personality’.
“Survivors puzzled me at first,” he wrote. “Survivors are both serious and playful, they are hard-working and lazy, self-confident and self-critical … Biphasic personality traits increase survivability by allowing a person to respond in one way or its opposite in any situation. To have biphasic traits is to be both one way and another rather than either one way or another.
"Thus, complexity and stability are derived from being tough and sensitive, proud and humble, selfish and unselfish, cooperative and rebellious, analytic and metaphoric, shy and bold.”
Radar comes from having natural gifts. While this ability is given, it obviously increases with experience. Your repertoire, however, provides the greatest opportunity for growth. You can continue to add tools, knowledge and wisdom that increase the possible options. Then comes the next step.
Al’s work showed how survivors quickly survey their options – then choose to follow a certain strategy. (Sometimes, of course, they pursue multiple strategies – getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t.) Good decision makers often go through the following steps when implementing their strategy. They focus on calmness; clarity – the real results to achieve; choices and consequences; creative solutions and concrete results.
John Vihtelic went through many of these stages when surviving an horrific accident. One day in September 1976 he lost control of his car and it fell 150 feet down a ravine. Fortunately he regained consciousness, but his left foot was pinned to the dashboard by the root of a fallen tree.
John took more than two weeks to free his body and then climb to the top of the ravine. You can read his remarkable story at:
Let’s move on to another theme in Al’s work that relates to people employing their strengths.
Resilient people do whatever it is required to reach the goal, says Al. The strengths approach is also very results-focused. Some people adopt it because they believe everybody is an artist, everybody is creative. They believe it is vital for people to follow their vocation in life.
Others adopt the approach because it offers people the greatest chance of success. People build on their strengths and set specific goals. Pursuing their chosen strategies, they find solutions and work hard to achieve their picture of success. Building on the lessons learned from survivors, Al offers many practical strategies and skills that people can use – combined with sweat – to achieve success.
Looking at the bigger picture,he believed that resiliency skills can enable people to live enriching lives. Speaking at a Resiliency and Longevity Conference in Oregon in 2000, Al said:
“Resilient individuals get better and better every decade because they have a child-like curiosity, ask questions, explore, want to know how things work, and learn valuable lessons in the school of life. Resilient adults are happy rather than hostile. They forgive instead of holding grudges, and are more playful than serious.”
“Work is very important to resilient adults. They are less likely to ‘retire’ because they appreciate the benefits of doing important work. The life sequence for people who die after five or six decades is: schooling, then work, then leisure.
"People who live longer blend life-long learning with working and leisure … Longevity research is showing that adults with psychological resiliency age more slowly, live longer, and enjoy better health. A strong inner spirit can carry an aging body a long way.”
So what was the effect of Al’s work?
First, he wrote pioneering books about how people can develop resilience.
Second, he translated this knowledge into practical tools that people can use in their personal and professional lives. These tools reached millions through his books and websites, such as Thrivenet and The Resiliency Center.
Third, he was always generous, sharing his wisdom with people so they can help others. One of his most powerful pieces, for example, is called Guidelines for Listening to War Veterans.
Here are some of his headline suggestions for listening to returning soldiers.
He developed each topic on his website, going into great detail about how to hold such a conversation.
Al made many contributions to the strengths philosophy. For example:
This provided a valuable clue that people have explored to find the specific activities in which they perform best. Some people found this proved a real ‘epiphany’ that enabled them to find their natural talents.
Al Siebert was one of the giants of positive psychology. His work encouraged people to develop their resilience, overcome adversity and express their talents. He made a valuable contribution to human development.
You can find out more at The Resiliency Center site: