Survival Skills of the Serengeti

If you have ever been on safari in Africa, then you have had an opportunity to see the incredible diversity of life that inhabits our planet.  In a lush ecosystem like the Serengeti, there are many different species of animals, all incredibly different from one another, and yet all have adapted specific mechanisms or strengths that help them to survive and thrive.

I recently received a copy of “Surviving Your Serengeti: 7 Skills to Master Business and Life,” in which author Stefan Swanepoel tells a parable about the unique strengths of the animals of the Serengeti and how we could use the extreme conditions of the African savannah to better understand our own strengths.  Although the book does not specifically cite positive psychology, I could see the findings of a lot of strengths research being reflected in the stories about these creatures.

Swanepoel shows the cheetah, for example, as the model of efficiency.  She is known for her speed, but she can only maintain her speed for short bursts.  She chooses her moments carefully, bringing her resources into use when she needs them most and then resting them when she does not.  This efficiency allows her to be effective, optimizing the use of energy for when it is needed most (see my article on “Intensity and Rest.”)

The wildebeest, on the other hand, has endurance.  The wildebeest survives by plodding forward in migrating herds.  Along the way, they confront hunger, thirst, fatal attacks by predators, and exhaustion, but they never give up.  Their persistence allows them to overcome many obstacles and helps them to survive the harsh circumstances of the Serengeti plains (see Angela Duckworth’s research and video on persistence or “grit.”)

The mongoose are the risk takers of the Serengeti, in their search for food, they bravely explore unknown areas, and in a calculated way, will confront dangerous situations to achieve their goals.  They are not foolhardy, as that would interfere with their survival rather than encourage it.  But they don’t let fear prevent them from getting what they need to survive (see latest research on bravery in The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue; psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener is doing some interesting research on bravery for a book coming out this fall.)

Through the course of the book (an easy-to-read parable,) Swanepoel knocks out 7 survival skills from among different creatures of the Serengeti (I would imagine there are many more, so I’m not sure how he settled on these seven.)  In general, the story reverberated with research from positive psychology, showing the strengths and virtues that we all have. 

While there is value in developing all of your strengths and virtues, it is also important to identify and use those “signature strengths” that epitomize your potential.  Using the Serengeti analogy, Swanepoel offers a simple test to determine “What Animal Am I?”  For a more detailed psychological profile of your signature strengths you could take the VIA Survey or the Realise2 strengths assessments. 

Whether you use an assessment tool to determine your strengths, or identify an animal of the Serengeti that most relates to your strength profile, the message is the same:  each of us has a unique set of talents, virtues and abilities.  Using these strengths is a pathway to flourishing that is often neglected in favor of working on our weaknesses.  The lesson from the Serengeti is that using strengths might not only be a new way to flourish . . . it could be the secret to our survival.

References and recommended reading:

Swanepoel, S. (2011).  Surviving Your Serengeti: 7 Skills to Master Business and Life. Wiley.

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8 Responses to Survival Skills of the Serengeti

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar March 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Interesting argument, Jeremy!

    At the same time, those of us who don’t get to use their strengths most of the time are in survival mode while those who do can thrive and flourish.

    So a little strength helps us survive, and a lot gets us out of survival mode? Food for thought!


  2. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) March 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    I’ve been to Kruger National Park in South Africa and watched the giraffes in awe – they were my favorite animal to observe. So I was compelled to do some “animal significance” research and learned the following: “Giraffes help us explain the expression ‘to stick one’s neck out.’ When we take risks by going further than we ever imagined possible, we see fine worlds of possibility. The giraffe’s vulnerability when lowering its head to drink, is a reminder to us that if we lose sight of our greater vision and consciousness and sink into a mundane way of life, we risk losing our spiritual connection.

    “Their long necks offer protection by enabling it to see very far. The powerful body helps protect it and its young. Tough they cannot hold them off, with a well-aimed kick they can kill a lion. The giraffe’s strong body represents being grounded in physical existence and its ability to see symbolizes spiritual vision. Consequently we are taught to view our lives in a way that is both grounded and expansive.”

    Who knows about the realities of this, but in any case your post reminded me of my time in South Africa last year. Thanks for sharing. (Source:

  3. Jeremy McCarthy March 19, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

    Thanks Stacy, Swanepoel lists the Giraffe as being “graceful” and this is the strength that helps it survive. The giraffe attracts other animals because they are calm in peaceful but can also see danger approaching from far away and so their friends and neighbors can get an advance warning from them. The giraffe is certainly one of the most unique creatures on the planet so it defnitely made me think about their special strengths. I can see why they were your favorites in Kruger, I enjoyed them as well!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy March 19, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Thanks Marie-Josee, I think what is interesting about the Serengeti analogy is that most of us in the modern world are not really in survival mode (maybe figuratively as you suggest, but literally we have figured out ways in our society to create safety from the elements and from other creatures.) It is easy to forget about your strengths in the cushy world we now live in. In the Serengeti, where survival is still a prominent part of day-to-day existence, the strengths become more relevant and more apparent.

  5. Stefan Swanepoel March 31, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    Jeremy, Thanks for taking the time to read Surviving Your Serengeti and to write the review. I really appreciate it a lot!


  6. Jeremy McCarthy April 2, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    My pleasure Stefan! Thanks for popping in to check it out. Keep up the good work.

  7. Used Cars in Colorado April 10, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Hello Jeremy, interesting article. Have you bee to other places in Africa to experience the wild life? I was recently in Brazil and the Northern part of Nigeria in West Africa. Nigeria was a cool experience and the wild life was phenomenal. I did use a guide though because Nigeria is a crazy country. I was in a place named Sokoto. In Brazil the Amazon was amazing as well.

  8. Joseph Kyut August 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Wildebeests have endurance, cheetahs have the speed but you teach us how to learn from them and change our businesses and lifestyles. I loved you post.

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