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.