Imagine that you have arrived at work to find gun wielding customs officers and sniffer dogs in the office car park. One of the officers beckons you over to him. He is standing beside a white transit van and he throws open the doors to expose 8,000 kilos of drugs stacked neatly from floor to ceiling in brown plastic packaging. You stand and stare at the haul. A policeman puts his hand on your shoulder and guides you towards his police car. 

Days later, you are transferred from a police cell to a full security prison with no explanation. You don’t have access to a lawyer and your family are not able to visit because you are thousands of miles from home. After waiting for weeks without any news of what is to happen to you, the prison Commander tells you that you have been sentenced to ten years on drug smuggling charges. 

You lie stretched out on the cell floor alongside twenty other prisoners, your head swimming with the stark reality of your ordeal. You and your cellmates are positioned head to toe, like sardines in a can, trying to get some sleep in the small concrete space. Cockroaches scuttle along the perimeter and a sour smell of urine fills the air. 

This is the story of Joseph Oubelkas who was sentenced to 10 years in a Moroccan jail for a crime he did not commit. He is one of fifty extraordinary people whom I interviewed on my trip of over 35,000 miles around the world to understand the key resilience strategies that can enable us all to thrive, regardless of what life throws at us. 

I used to believe that I could thrive only in good times and that surviving was the best I could hope for in bad until I met these ’50 Thrivers’. I now know that we are all capable of thriving and building resilience if we follow 9 key resilience strategies credited by the Thrivers as enabling them to grow and flourish in the face of adversity. They continue to use these ‘9 secrets to thriving’ in their daily lives to overcome the kind of hurdles you and I also face.

I interviewed parents who had lost their children to drugs and suicide. I interviewed victims of gang rape, victims of sexual abuse as children and survivors of terrorist attacks. The atrocities go on and on. I interviewed Joseph Oubelkas to understand how he could thrive without his freedom, an innocent man incarcerated in squalid conditions thousands of miles from home.

I learned that the ability to build mental resilience is one of the nine secrets to thriving. Just as press-ups strengthen your deltoid muscles, there are practices that will enable you to hold on to your power in the face of adversity, great and small. 

When Joseph Oubelkas was told that his appeal against conviction had been unsuccessful, he knew he had to make a conscious choice to thrive, otherwise he would be consumed by rage at the injustice of his predicament and would barely survive. One of the choices he made was to stop complaining about his experiences in prison. His logic is simple. Think about your own tendency to complain. Do you moan about what you cannot control? Does your resistance change anything? Is it simply causing you to focus on negativity and powerlessness? Joseph urges us to let those things go because they cause frustration and demotivation. What’s worse, he said, is to complain about what is within your control. Instead, take action to solve the issue without the negative theme tune. If you follow his advice, you can give up complaining for good. Imagine that!

Joseph also chose to focus his thinking only on things that were within his control. As a prisoner, so much of his day was predetermined and beyond his influence. He couldn’t choose what to eat, when to sleep, when to exercise or any of the small privileges you and I take for granted. His sphere of influence was tiny, yet he was determined to focus his mind only on what he could control. Every time he caught himself thinking of what was beyond his control, he noticed how disempowered and angry he felt. That made his time in prison pass more slowly. It triggered feelings of anger at the injustice of his situation. It made him acutely aware of how powerless he was. So, he developed a ritual of noticing his thinking. Every time his mind was absorbed in thoughts about what he could not control, he either used his breath to bring him back to the present moment or deliberately chose to plan for outcomes that were within his control. He told me that made him feel more powerful. It enabled him to be creative, to feel courageous and to ask for things normally beyond the remit of a prisoner. His determination to seek out what he could control resulted in his creating an exercise area for fellow inmates in the yard, to plant a prison garden and eventually to enjoy the company of a cat called Pipi. If you focus on what you can’t control, your mind contracts. When you focus only on what you can control, counterintuitively perhaps, your mind expands by searching for what might just be possible. If it worked for Joseph, perhaps you and I should try it, even in these testing times.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more about thriving, please read my other blog posts here.

My book, The True You, helps you to uncover your true self, build great relationships and work on your resilience. You can buy it here.