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Victim → Survivor → Thriver

August 31, 2012

Disclosure: This is a bit of a walk around the barn. Pour yourself a coffee…

It's interesting (to me, anyway) how we receive new experiences and forcibly add them to existing collections. We do so in an incremental, patchwork, bandaged, quilting fashion. It's easier and more functional than the alternative. If we had to clear our minds and consider each new experience from a blank slate, we'd become very tired very quickly. We'd also be operating without the benefit of the 'home base' of past experience. Our capacity to synthesize as we learn, both from our own and from others' experience, protects us from fatigue, repeated error, and an otherwise early death (don't eat those berries!).

At the same time, the protection of incremental learning presents one of our greatest challenges in an increasingly dynamic environment. It's that old saying at work: your greatest strength may also be your greatest weakness.

By repeatedly synthesizing new experience with old, we sometimes miss the point. Think of the disruptive innovation in Henry Ford's declaration, "If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Think of Alexander Fleming's laboratory mistake that led to the discovery of penicillin. Think of Todd Akin… nahh, forget about Todd Akin. Some ideas are downright dismissible before they see the light of day. Then again, it's also true that we cannot know light without knowing darkness, so maybe there's some hidden value in allowing him to say what he does.

My point here… and there is one, I promise… is that when we persist in adding new ideas to an existing framework, we risk missing the opportunity to consider entirely new, and perhaps better, frameworks. The world is not flat. The market for computers is greater than five. Our supply of fresh water is not unlimited. These notions have all had their day. We live in a dynamic world, faced with the disruption of discontinuous change. Our capacity to address discontinuous change will be much drawn down going forward. Many notions that we now hold as self-evident will be debunked and dismissed, relegated to a heap of old wives' tales. The viability of Howe Street, Bay Street, Wall Street, and Washington, DC may ultimately find the same destiny. Here's hoping. Time alone will tell.

But I digress… maybe…

The link at the bottom of this page takes you to a 27 minute audio story of Timea Nagy. Ms. Nagy came to Toronto from Hungary a decade ago, contracted for a summer job as a babysitter. In a very murky underworld, however, she was quickly shuffled into a desperate life of sex slavery. Be forewarned. This tale is particularly unsettling.

As I listened to the story early this week, my twelve year old daughter was seated beside me in the car, en route to the dance studio. When the subject of this story became clear to me, I wasn't sure if I should leave it on, or switch to another station. I chose to listen, and to have her listen. This choice, in itself, is heady material for another important conversation. It's a conversation my wife and I have regularly. My question to her that same evening was: How can we best protect the innocence of our child without sacrificing her innocence at the same time?

That's a really big conversation… leading, of course, to another on the topic of allowing our children to fail safely as they prepare for risky life in the big bad real world.

Yet another conversation, tied to all of this, centres on the value and risk in conformity in education. Output versus innovation, and so on, and so forth, etcetera, etcetera.

But again, I digress… Free association is a curse… sometimes.

Listening to Timea Nagy's story, I struggled at first, unable to frame what I heard in territory familiar to my own experience. I was on the outside, peering in and trying to understand, to feel, to empathize. Locked out by discontinuity. There was nothing in my life to compare or relate to her experience. I had no concrete basis for connecting to her story… and quite frankly, I hope the connection remains in the abstract for me.

What sparked for me in her story, well into the piece, was a remark from the former FBI agent, who described Timea as transitioning from victim to survivor. Residing well out of my element as I listened to Ms. Nagy's story, this notion of a transition between the victim state and one of survival immediately resonated for me. Leaning on the ever-faithful incremental mechanism, I was finally able to drag the story into my pre-existing framework of experience. I began to connect in a small way with her experience, at least in concept. Hers is a theme central to my own life.

It's also a regular theme of conversation we have with our daughter. Initiative and self-reliance. Be a net contributor to the collective, but count first and foremost on yourself. To her credit, Timea Nagy was able to take charge of her situation and escape from captivity. What's more, she grew from her experience and created a non-profit organization dedicated to helping other victims of sex slavery to make the same transition to survivor mode, and if very fortunate, to thriver mode. This last stage is the productive expression of one's survival, in making a contribution to the greater good. Translating adverse experience into value for the collective is one of the greatest gifts. is a hobby site for me. Aside from my own thinking-out-loud, the purpose of this hobby is to push and prod others to get off their duffs and take personal control of their lives. Too many of us live in victim mode, blaming others on a daily basis for our woes. A small number of us… I suspect a very small number… are fortunate enough to find ourselves in a position to quickly flip the internal switch from victim to survivor. Still fewer are able to transform the experience into one of thriving… one of adding derived value to the collective.

I'm nobody's victim… or rather, that's how I feel today. We all have our moments, don't we? The key to survival is captured in our ability to transition to survivor mode before getting stalled out as victims. Take a hit… curse if it helps… learn… move on. Take another hit… repeat as required.

I think often, and write occasionally, about how we respond to adversity in life and how we interact as obliged participants (and I use that word, 'obliged,' deliberately and without hesitation) in something larger than ourselves. Such musings include: Boy… have I got pictures!; All women are beautiful; Of rights and responsibilities; Money is time; Desperadoes and thieves; Choosing the best tool; Bill and Bella; Trust me!; and finally, Winners and Losers.

I'm asked from time to time why I do what I do for free, and why I pour so much energy into grahamanalytics. If you have interest in my answer, read these linked pieces and then see Our Guiding Values.

My life experiences have nothing to compare with the intensity and the horror of Timea Nagy's experience. My own life solution, however, like that of Ms. Nagy, will be found in the service of something larger than myself. I hope the same will be said for that of my children. Engagement in larger purpose enables the discovery of one's place in the world. This larger purpose is the one true purpose of my children's education. Classroom activities dedicated to the acquisition of employable skills are worthless, perhaps even counterproductive, if not properly framed in the context of larger purpose. From C.S. Lewis, "Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."

In my work, I often hear talk of 21st century skills. To be entirely honest (just in case there's another kind of honest), I don't hear much substance. Some catch it. Many pay lip service. For most, however, the notion of how to prepare for the future is a moving and elusive target.

In my view, the 21st century will distinguish itself as a disruptive era of continuous discontinuous change (think about that one for a moment). If we knew what that black swan was going to be and when it was going to strike, it would not be a black swan. How can you prepare for the unknown unknown? Ask Donald Rumsfeld. The answer to that question, I would contend, is not new. While the challenges that come upon us will be laced with discontinuity, and with no seeming connection to past experience, our best preparation will be no different from the best we've seen to date.

Think attitude. Think habit. Think character. Think values. In these, and only in these, I find resonance with Timea Nagy's story.

Unknown to me before this week (thanks, Google), there is an entire field of people dedicated to the transition from victim to survivor, and from survivor to thriver. The ideas presented are notions I easily take for granted. Perhaps I should not. As I look around me, I see all manner of people who view themselves as victims. Rather than dismiss this victim state out of hand as I frequently and flippantly do, I should first strive to better understand it, so as to aid in the remedy. I am nobody's victim, but that is my choice. It's axiomatic for me to say that victims make predators. I cannot imagine giving control of my life over to someone else. To do so would be a declaration of total surrender. In this, I shine a bright light on the example of Timea Nagy. Take away the victim state, and predators will dissipate into the shadows.

For me, the truth of this choice is self-evident. For Timea Nagy, this choice was a matter of survival in very real terms. Clearly, it is a choice not made so readily, or so easily, by many.

Here is the link to Timea Nagy's story.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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