May 2015

Thrive or Survive

The Choice is Yours

Staying positive in conversations, as we discussed last month, is only possible if we are able to keep our mind functioning in what we call a 'thrive state.' In such a state, all the feel good hormones and neurotransmitters are flooding our bodies and brains.

The moment we shift to what we call a 'survive state,' it is much more difficult to converse in a positive manner. Even if the words are forward thinking, if the tone of the voice is coming from the 'survive' state, it will have an edge which the other will pick up, consciously or unconsciously, and will react to. Similarly, our bodies give us away. In a survive state, muscles are tense, nostrils flare, and breathing changes. So regardless of the words, the other person senses or perceives that all is not easy and good. In this survival state, our bodies and brains are flooded with stress hormones and neurotransmitters, not nearly as enjoyable as the thrive state.

This month, we'll focus on the importance of staying in or coming back to a thrive state during conversations. Because the survive state is so reflexive and so much a part of our hardwiring, it is incumbent on us humanimals (the name Daniel coined for humans) to learn how to calm ourselves down so that we can shift into a thrive state. All conversations will be better from that state, for sure.

Using the thrive-survive paradigm as a lens, let's look in on Sally and Donna and see how each of them functions when in a potentially stressful environment.


Sally tosses and turns throughout the night. She awakens early feeling unrested and anxious. She has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to push out thoughts of her morning meeting with Tom, her boss. She wishes it were over. Actually, she wishes that it were not happening. She just wants to disappear from this company and get on with her life.

She quickly gets out of bed, showers, and dresses. She has difficulty deciding what to wear on such an important day. She wants to look her best so that Tom sees her as successful and a winner and feels bad about her leaving the company. She settles on a stunning black suit with a royal blue blouse—her power color. She always feels great in this outfit and gets lots of compliments. She gathers her heels, purse, and accessories and slips out of the room quietly. Larry continues to sleep soundly.

Sally scribbles a note to Larry to let him know she went to a cafe. She finishes dressing and leaves the house.

Sally's mind is racing. What in the world is she going to say? What will Tom say? How will she respond? She imagines that he'll ask her what's going on that is causing her problems. He sees that she's not happy. He is actually quite astute. She feels sad momentarily while thinking about leaving him. He's actually a really good boss. Then thoughts about the meeting crowd her brain again. She knows that she's sunk if she starts telling the truth. She has to stay with her story that her daughter needs her. What if he asks about her daughter? Her heart is pounding. She's going to have to keep the meeting short so she can get out quickly, clean her desk, and leave the building.

Not attending to her driving at all, she finds herself at the counter of her local cafe without any recall as to how she got there. Sally sighs. She knows that she is preoccupied with the meeting that will take place in 2 hours with her boss. She gets her coffee, goes to a table that faces the window, opens her computer, and stares into space.

“What in the world am I going to do? What should I say?” she mumbles aloud. She starts creating a list of her complaints.

“No, this isn't going to help me,” she says to herself while shaking her head. Again, she stares into space. And also again, she shakes her head back and forth. She starts typing again. This time, she makes a list of what she will say to Tom. She types:

  1. My daughter needs me.
  2. I need to take a few months to get her on her feet.
  3. Since I'm so new, I wouldn't dream of asking for a sabbatical. So, let's figure out what the best exit strategy will be.
  4. I'm sorry for any inconvenience my sudden departure is causing, but since I haven't been here long, I doubt it will cause many ripples as I haven't gotten involved in many activities.
  5. I think you're great and I'm sorry to have to leave you.
  6. If there's any way that I can help with the transition, please let me know. I'll make myself as available as possible.

Sally reads over her list a few times. “Good. That will do it,” she says. She feels satisfied with her bullet points. She gets another coffee and leaves. It's still quite early, but Sally decides to head to the office with the intention of packing up her belongings. She is a nervous wreck. She asks herself, “What in the world is going on?” Then she answers herself. Her response: “I'm falling apart. I just have to get out of this crazy bin as fast as I can. Then I'll be alright again.”

Suddenly, Sally is jarred out of her thoughts by a loud horn and the squeal of tires stopping suddenly. She swerves to avoid a collision. The other car stops short of crashing into the side of her car.

The driver comes out of his car and starts yelling at her, “What the &@%$! Do you always run red lights? You could have killed us both lady! What is wrong with you?”

Stunned, afraid, and relieved all at the same time, Sally stammers while shaking her head back and forth, “I didn't see the red light. I'm not myself. I'm really glad you stopped in time. I can't believe this. Oh my! What a horror.”

A few cars enter the intersection, honk or shout to them to move their cars, and drive around them. Exasperated, the irate driver who avoided the accident shakes his head, muttering expletives under his breath, then spits out, “And you're not even saying you're sorry!” With that, he pivots on his heel, returns hastily to his car, gets in, and drives away.

Sally, still sitting in her car stunned, starts the engine and drives out of the intersection. She pulls over to the curb and turns off her car. Shaking her head, she exclaims out loud, “Boy, am I a mess. Thank heavens there wasn't an accident. I have to get my head together. I'm in no shape to talk to my boss.” She slumps forward, closes her eyes, and starts crying, then sobbing.

“I'm falling apart. What am I going to do?” she asks herself. Then she starts slapping her cheeks. “C'mon Sally. Get it together. You can do this. You can.” Sally fishes for a handkerchief in her purse, wipes her nose and her eyes and braces herself. “I have to be strong. I have to look good. I can do it. I know I can.” She starts her car again and begins to drive to the office. Her phone rings, and Sally sees that it is Larry. She answers, almost yelling, “I can't believe it took you so long to call me. I almost got killed. And I'm having that meeting with Tom in less than an hour. Don't you care?”

Larry does his best to calm her down. He apologizes and tells her that he overslept. “Is there anything I can do to help you prepare for your meeting? All you have to do is tell him that you want to quit. That shouldn't be so hard. Are you going to tell him that cockamamy story about Carolyn?”

“You are about as supportive as a toad!” Sally spits back. “And you didn't even ask what happened that I was almost killed! I'll talk to you after the meeting is over. Goodbye.”

Now let's turn our attention to Donna and find out what she's been up to...

After completing a difficult meeting with Emily, one of her direct reports who was too lax with risk requirements regarding a project called WING, Donna decides to be more focused on tracking all the projects in her division. She's on her way to another project meeting and is thinking about how she's going to address the team. She doesn't want to seem like Simon Legree but she really wants to make sure that this project is doing well with their deliverables.

Donna walks into the meeting room where a few folks from the team that will present are checking on the set up. They greet her warmly and continue with their final touches. Lakir, the project manager, walks over to Donna and says, “I heard what happened with WING. Emily feels horrible and I know she'll do everything possible to get it back on track. You'll be happy to know that we're in the green on all but one aspect of the project. I'll explain what's going on that we're yellow and how we're addressing it. And, I want you to know, that I welcome all your questions, no matter how difficult.”

“Great,” Donna responds. “I'm looking forward to your presentation, Lakir. I do hope that my questions will strengthen the team and the project.”

Lakir thanks her, goes to the front of the room, and starts the project meeting. He gives general status on various elements of the project. Then he turns the floor over to the leads, who go more in depth into each area. There are a few probing questions which the team answers well. They then show a slide that depicts one part of the project lagging behind the others and thus pulling the schedule into the yellow. The project engineer, Paresh, begins to describe the anomaly that has occurred and how they are addressing it. He goes into sufficient detail that the stakeholders at the meeting are nodding in understanding.

Donna finally asks a few questions. She wants to know how they noticed the anomaly, what was the context in which it occurred, and what they did about it. She also asks if they had any inclination that this might happen. Paresh begins to answer but stops. He then looks at Donna and says, “Lakir was concerned that something might happen, but the rest of us disregarded it and convinced him otherwise. What did you hear that led you to ask this question?”

Donna takes a moment to consider the question. Then she answers in a way that surprises everyone. “You know that I haven't been here very long. However, I've come to respect the brain power in this division. I've also heard enough from this team that leads me to believe you all are looking around the bend quite well. So, from inference, I would imagine that you did this with all the elements in the project, including this issue. Am I accurate?”

Lakir is nodding and shaking his head in the style of his mother country. He is smiling and says, “Thank you for your belief in us and for your high estimation. You are correct. We were looking around the bend, and some of us anticipated this issue arising. We will do better in the future addessing these issues as they arise, before they arise, if possible. Thank you for your questions.”

Others in the group also ask some questions and make a few comments. The team details the plan they have that will get this part of the project back in the green. The meeting adjourns on a positive note.


It does not take much to realize that Sally is highly stressed and is functioning from a survive state. The amygdala, the brain's survival center, is making her decisions, and her pre-frontal cortex, which is in charge of executive functioning, is on vacation, so to speak. The amygdala, which is only interested in making sure Sally stays alive, is not concerned with Sally feeling good. In order for her to shift into a thrive state, she would have to begin to breath more deeply, more than just enough to stay alive, and she would have to learn to quiet her mind. Now, her mind is racing and is out of control. Running a red light and nearly causing an accident is evidence of her thinking brain being elsewhere.

Tied up in deceits and postures, Sally is more interested in looking good than in feeling good. She has not learned yet how to quiet her nervous system and reflect on herself. Her focus remains external and she readily reacts with blame or other defenses. In a very short time, Sally has gained a reputation of being critical, impulsive, self-focused, uncaring, arrogant, and nasty. People don't feel good around her.

Donna, on the other hand, is functioning from a thrive state which is evidenced by her calm manner, her healthy relationships, and her ability to respond rather than react. She is able to contain her reactions and express herself in a manner that is well received and appreciated. She has gained a reputation of being perceptive, even-handed, smart, concise, and thoughtful in a very short time. People enjoy working with her and for her. Her ability to respond positively, connect with others, and add value is appreciated by all.

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