Author Archive for carole – Page 3

If you can’t find a supporter find an imaginery one



Doreen Pemberton receiving her nursing certificate

Doreen Pemberton receiving her nursing certificate

Today is a special day.  Through the post arrived copies of my new book Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches (McGraw Hill).  The title makes  clear what it is about and who it is written for.  I obviously hope it will help coaches do good work with their clients, but my excitement is about more than seeing the front cover and hoping it will do well  in Amazon’s rankings.  It is the excitement of realising that I have written  something that I could not have imagined doing 5 years ago.

The genesis of this book came from working with a particular client who I felt I failed.  I did not recognise that his resilience had left him, because I was used to seeing a man who was confident, successful and achieving.  When he seemed changed, I assumed I was meeting him on a ‘bad day’ and worked with him on the symptoms of that day, rather than realising what was really going on.  When he eventually became ill, I was shocked at what I had not seen, and it jolted me into action.  I began reading on resilience, I went on workshops and eventually I signed up to do doctoral research on resilience from the perspective of coaching.  I completed the doctorate and the outcome of that process is the book which McGraw Hill/OU Press have now published.


The book is a symbol of my  learning, but it is also a  marker of my own resilience.  I started a doctorate many years ago and abandoned it, although the conditions to complete it could not have been easier.  I was working in a business school.  I had easy access to organisations.  My fees were paid.  I could legitimately claim time to study.  Yet, I abandoned the work because it failed to make my heart sing.  I could see no purpose in doing the work, other than getting a qualification.  This time around, I achieved a doctorate despite working full time, paying my own way, having to negotiate access and giving up weekends and holidays.  What got me up at 5am in the morning to write before going to work, was not the lure of a qualification, but the desire to learn and for that learning to strengthen my own work .

And, there was another reason: I drew on the role modelling of my mother.  She had died shortly before I began the doctorate.  She was a feisty woman who had left school at 13, and who began studying in her 40’s, so that she could win a place to train to be a nurse.  The memory of her getting up  on a dark winters’ morning to ride her moped to a hospital many miles away; working nights,  and somehow managing to care for 3 children as a single parent, without ever complaining, stayed with me.  Her example sustained me as I wrote. At times I could even hear her voice telling me to just keep going.

Resilience research repeatedly reports 2 key themes in those who get through tough times:

  • The power of having a purpose
  • The importance of having support

My own experience supports those themes, but what I have also learnt is that  support can be virtual.  As much as it is enormously valuable to have friends and family who are physically there for us, it is also true that we can create our own virtual support system.  Calling on people who are no longer present in our lives, but who model qualities which can help us achieve our goals, can  be as powerful as having them physically present.  It is a tactic reported by people who have been taken captive.  As they live day to day in the harshest of conditions, they imagine those who love them talking to them with encouragement, and they use their voices to  keep them going.  Asking ourselves  “What would . . .   say to me if they were here right now?” can be a powerful motivator in tough times.


So, as I look at the book, I am celebrating not just the journey that took me from a feeling inadequate in my understanding of resilience, to being able to write a book about it, I am also celebrating the parental voice that kept me going.

If you are facing a challenge which is testing your resilience right now, then ask yourself:

  • Do I have a purpose in getting me through this?
  • Who can I draw on for support, even if  they are not physically here for me?

You can find out about the book by watching the video at www.





Resilience Training: The Evidence on What Works

resilience flower

Recently  I sat in a presentation by a major supermarket. The audience of business leaders listened with sceptical curiosity as the speaker claimed resilience as  a core organisational skill, and explained how they had introduced resilience training to thousands of  employees, many of whom work at checkouts .

The question of ROI hung in the air.  For some it was business ROI – how could they justify the cost of a large scale programme at a time  of financial difficulty?  As a coach and trainer the ROI I was interested in was whether a 2 hour session on mindfulness could make any difference to an employee’s ability to work with uncertainty and pressure. Can resilience training make a difference?

This question is addressed in a timely new study by Ivan Robertson and colleagues, reported in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology.   The Robertson Cooper i- resilience questionnaire is widely used as a diagnostic of resilience capacity.  The follow on from diagnosis is how best to address identified needs.  Do some approaches work better than others? Does the length of intervention make a difference?   What is most likely to be impacted by a formal training programme?

The study is important because it is the first to systematically look at the 155 English language studies on resilience training published in peer reviewed academic journals since 2003.  After applying rigorous criteria to filter the studies, it concluded that only 14 were robust enough to allow for examining the validity of their outcomes.

The 14 studies included programmes varying in length from single 90 minute sessions to workshops run over 12 weeks;  From on line programmes to 2.5 day retreats and group workshops supported with 1:1 coaching.   While positive psychology and CBT have been the most commonly used approaches written about in the professional resilience literature, their study also included programmes built around mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the stress reduction brain training model Attention and Interpretation Therapy.  One programme even used technology in the form of emWave biofeedback machines to help participants self manage their own stress. So with such diversity of approaches, what conclusions did they reach as to the value of resilience training?


The Evidence

The research  concluded that resilience training may have benefits for subjective well being outcomes such as stress, anxiety, depression and negative thoughts and emotional responses, but the evidence is not yet robust enough to make claims with certainty, because sample sizes are so small that claims of significant shift are difficult to defend.

Several studies did, however, show a significant positive effect on self efficacy i.e. the participants confidence in their ability to take action was increased as a result of the input.  Another study showed a significant reduction in participants’ fatigue after resilience training.

A study which measured biological outcomes reported a significant increase in  participant antithrombin levels after training.  Antithrombin is an anti-coagulant which helps prevent thrombosis.  It also reported a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol amongst those who completed the programme.  So resilience training can work at a physiological level.


Most programmes included a cognitive behavioural approach to developing resilience but they concluded that there is no strong evidence on what makes for the most effective training content or format, or that there is an optimal programme length.


Inevitably, since this was an academic review it highlighted the weaknesses in the methodologies of existing research and therefore the danger of drawing firm conclusions.  However, it offers some hints as to what works when designing resilience programmes.

  1. The organisation needs to be clear as to what they mean by resilience, and to design interventions that build from that definition.  There are many academic definitions, so it is important to understand what the particular context means by resilience and why it is important to them.
  2. If the organisation wants to assess ROI, it makes sense to uses a resilience questionnaire designed for work rather than clinical settings at the outset, and to do a retest after the completion of the training.
  3. While there appears to be no one best way of developing resilience through training, there is evidence that some element of 1:1 coaching and/or on going support is advisable.

What this work  highlights is that while resilience is a word frequently claimed by organisations as a requirement for success, and by individuals as a capacity they wish to develop, finding an effective way do so in organisational settings is still in its infancy. It also encourages coaches and programme designers to focus on the need of participants within their particular setting and to build the programme with the end in mind.  It also highlights that just as resilience is aided by the availability of support, resilience training is aided when there is room for 1:1 support alongside any group activity.

Full details of the article ’Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: a systematic review’  by Ivan Robertson, Cary Cooper, Mustafa Sarkar and Thomas Curran can be found at:


Getting the Right Sort of Mentor


In the ‘old days’ it was obvious what you wanted a mentor for – to help you up the corporate ladder.  Being associated with a more powerful person who could open doors, drop your name into conversations and position you for opportunities was a key element in many stories of those who rose to the top.  Then, notions of equality entered the discussion with the recognition that those powerful people were more likely to be male and were more likely to offer that sponsorship to younger men who they saw mirroring them in style, background and ambition.  Mentoring moved from sponsorship to development or rather development with the hope of sponsorship.  Informal mentoring where a senior figure spotted younger talent and offered a helping hand has largely been  replaced by formal mentoring schemes, with selection and matching, time frames  and agreed goals. Or finding a mentor is regarded as the responsibility of the individual, and a test of their career pro-activity.  Alongside this the aims of mentoring have become more diverse.  The original Mentor was a wise old counsellor offering his wisdom to help young Telemachus deal with the challenges of life, because his father Odysseus was away during his formative years.  Today a mentor can be anything from an advice giver to a teacher to a coach.  The question that now has to be asked is what sort of mentor do you need?

Needs come in two forms:  the sort of help that is needed and the sort of mentor who you will work best with.

Michael Heath an expert on mentoring suggests there are 4 varieties of mentoring that are of value.

  • The Buddy mentor who can teach the things that are essential to the transition into a new organisation or role.  That person need not be senior or older, but they are good at understanding how the place works.  They are often of most value in the first few months, when they   provide nuggets of information on how to do things, who not to upset, how to work best with your boss.  They transmit information.
  • The Expert mentor who can help you deliver on your work more quickly because of their expertise.  This may be someone who is more senior in your team, or at least is further down the line in terms of their experience.  You can take your concerns to them and they will give you an answer as to how something should be done.  They save you the work of figuring it out yourself, by teaching you.
  • The Attached mentor is someone who can help you do the thinking for yourself within your area of work.  They have more expertise than you but they use that expertise to help you figure out how to approach a project or a piece of work.  They do not assume you will do it their way, so they use their skill to ask you questions that will enable you to think it through for yourself.  They are attached to the area of subject knowledge, but they are not attached to there being only one answer.  They will offer advice but only when it is clear you can’t find your own solution.
  • The Detached mentor does not offer expertise, and may know little of the content of your work, but they are open to your bringing concerns regarding yourself, your  work or career to the table.  They are able to  help you  think the issue through from multiple perspectives, without having any attachment to the answer you come up with, other than that it works.  They use their experience to challenge and to help the other person widen their perspective and explore options. They are facilitators of your thinking.

Getting the right mentor is about acknowledging what you need at that moment.  Someone struggling to understand how to get things done in a very different culture from their previous employer, will gain more at the start from a Buddy mentor than a Detached mentor.  Someone who is losing motivation in their work will value the safety of being able to say and think things they would not share with their boss that a Detached mentor can offer.  Someone who is starting to become more independent in their work role will welcome an Attached mentor rather than the Expert.

Getting it right is more than looking at the content of the work, it is also about looking at the style of the mentor, and how it fits with your own.  It is about being honest about your own preferences and your desire for support or challenge.  A mentor who is like you is will make you feel comfortable.  If you are a highly analytical, concrete thinker than a mirror version of yourself offers a  sense of ease.  Similarly, if you are a highly relational, intuitive thinker then finding a colleague who offers that match will feel safe.  However, it may not be what will best help you develop, particularly if you are seeking space to explore issues about the limitations of your existing approach, your relationship with your boss, your management of your team or how to develop for the next role.  Seeking a mentor who will mismatch is often a powerful way of developing.  They will notice things you don’t notice about yourself.  They will ask questions you don’t ask yourself.  They will create some discomfort, and it is from discomfort that change is stimulated.

Whether your employer offers you a mentor, or you decide to find one yourself, the keys to success are the same: be clear on what you want the mentor for, and be willing to challenge yourself in the service of your development.

Go On Take A Risk

old man on a bike

A 60 year old man came up at the end of a  presentation.  I had been talking about one of the markers of resilient leaders being their  ability to go beyond comfort.  Expecting a conversation about his  leadership, I was surprised when he began by confessing, “I have never learnt to ride a bike”. His colleague over hearing then added, “How do I learn a new sport as a middle aged man, when I know I won’t be any good”.  The answer to both their comments was the same: find a purpose and you will find the courage.  There is an apochryphal story that Albert Einstein learned to ride a bike when he was 80.  The truth of the story is less important than its message.  Learning to ride a bike at 80 cannot have been easy, but if he did so, he did it because he found a reason why riding a bike was now important to him.  It may have been linked to reduced mobility, or it may have been directed by the desire to master a new skill.  Whatever the reason, he had a purpose, and that purpose sustained him through the embarrassment of the failed attempts that were necessary before his body had the physical memory of how to balance on 2 wheels.


What was holding back the rookie tennis player was the belief  that he looked a fool on the tennis court, even though he was a successful businessman.  He was trapped by a sense that he should be good, and therefore he was judging himself harshly for his constant double faults and inability to hit the ball where he wanted to.  His fear of being bad was the very thing that was ensuring he could not be good.  He needed to  replace fear with  purpose.  What else could tennis give him beyond winning?  Once he finds  that purpose: whether it is doing something with his children, enjoying being outdoors, or making new friends, it will be easier to quieten the internal critic and pay curious attention to what he is doing with his racquet.  It is probable that the less he worries about his technique, the better his technique will become.


It is undoubtably harder to expose oneself to failure as one grows older.  No toddler ever judges their attempts to walk as so abysmal that they will give up walking.  They are so directed by the desire to have their first experience of independence that they simply pick themselves up and start again. They are not afraid of failure because they accept it as secondary to achieving a desired end.  As adults we need to accept the value in continuing to expose ourselves to new learning and risk, and define the reason for doing so, more broadly than being the best.

The Executive Myth of the First 100 Days

Entering any new role there is an acknowledged transition period: a time when it is OK to say ‘I don’t know’.  For a hotel receptionist that period may be days, for senior executives it has become commonplace to talk of the first 100 days.  A report by McKinseys based on a survey study of leaders entering the top level of their organisation has discovered that the idea that executives are performing and comfortable in their role in 100 days is untrue. Up to a third of those who made a successful transition reported that it took up to 6 months before they felt they understood the business, the demands of the role, the culture of the organisation and the capability of their team.  This was true even if their move was a lateral move rather than a promotion, and it made no difference if the appointment was internal or external.


So powerful has the idea of the first 100 days become that it adds to the pressure that newly appointed senior executives feel to perform quickly, and in doing so they fail to do the very things which ultimately will help their success.  According to McKinsey, the most important factor in success was the ability to create a shared vision and to build alignment around that strategic direction. But in order to be able to do that the executive needs to understand the culture they are operating in, and to give sufficient time to getting under the skin of how the organisation really operates and its values in action.  The reason that executives reported that they gave less time to understanding culture than understanding the business is that measuring culture is more difficult than understanding business figures.  Having a handle on the numbers provides a sense of certainty, trying to assess culture is less certain, and relies on intuition and sensing as much as it does data.


Executives acknowledged that they had underestimated the personal demands the new role would make of them.  Those that successfully made the transition were more likely to have given time to preparing them self for the role, rather than simply immersing themselves in it.  They defined what was their unique contribution to the executive team, and gave time to those issues that they alone could influence, rather than doing things which others in their team could do.


Finally, the successful transitioners acknowledged that they did not know it all, and drew on their direct reports to determine the solutions to the strategic problems they faced.  Mobilising their team to be high performing was second only to creating a shared vision, and for nearly 3/4 that did not mean wholesale changes to the existing team.


The conclusion that McKinsey draw is that the short term pressure new appointments feel to deliver results quickly needs to be balanced with the need to think holistically about their role.  A successful transition is based on business, culture, team and self understanding.  Each of those areas is equally important and requires different tools.  The leader who is able to develop a clear vision of strategic priorities, build their team, rigorously assess the organisation’s culture and prepare themselves for the demands of the role will ultimately be more successful than the leader who can only focus on the quick wins.

Why You Should Exercise When You are Too Busy To Find the Time

We all know we should exercise, eat healthily, get enough sleep and take regular breaks from the pc. And yet . . . the things we know we should do are the very things we don’t do when we are feeling pressured. The thing that goes first for many of us is exercise. The pull of meeting a deadline, clearing emails, or preparing for the next day is often stronger than the lure of an exercise class, a bike ride or a session in the gym. I am no different, even though I know that my head is clearer after I have worked up a sweat.

Now I know why that is – it’s all down to galanin. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I came across research by Professor Philip Holmes of the University of Georgia. Galanin is a neuropeptide. It may sound like a new wonder ingredient in anti-aging face creams, but it is more important than that. Galanin protects neurons. It helps them to fire up so that they can send signals to the pre-frontal cortex: the part of the brain responsible for complex cognitive functions like planning, decision-making, emotion regulation and stress resilience. His research has shown that when stressed galanin starts to degenerate. so that neurons are not able to work so effectively. In contrast when we exercise galanin is increased. In experimental work with rats the study found that those with higher levels of galanin were curious in finding ways around obstacles. They were resilient under pressure. Whilst sedentary rats with lower levels of galanin became anxious when faced by an obstacle and stayed put. Extrapolate that finding to humans and it suggests that sedentary working unbalanced by exercise reduces our mental capacities and increases our stress levels.

You may exercise because you want muscle, tone or flexibility, but all of those desires can be put on hold when under pressure. What you can’t put on hold is your need for galanin. It is when you feel you have the least time to exercise that you need it most. So no excuses. When the choice is between staying on to cope with your workload, knowing you will go home tired as a result or leaving to do some form of exercise, remember that with a galanin enhanced brain, you will cope a whole lot better the next day.

Measure Your Resilience

Neuroscience and gene mapping have confirmed what many of us have suspected – some people are hardwired to be resilient, and some people are hardwired to experience the same situation as more stressful than others.  However, it is also confirming that genetics only explains 30% of our variability , the rest is down to what we learn from our early years, and from dealing with the challenges which life throws our way.


From looking at the wealth of research on resilience, there are a number of key qualities which appear in research findings, regardless of whether they are drawn from looking at children, adults with life limiting illnesses, Olympians or high achievers at work.  These qualities together provide protection when we face difficulty.  We all have them to some degree, but there will be some that you draw on more easily, and some that are less developed.


So, to discover which of the Big 8 Resilience Qualities you have learnt most effectively, ask yourself the following questions.


Score yourself according to the number in the column which best describes how you see yourself.

To what degree am I:

Resilience Quality Very 






Not at All  Don’t’ Know 
  4 3 2 1 0
PurposefulI know what is important to me and what guides my choices in work and life
FlexibleReadily able to adapt to changing circumstances
ConfidentI have a sense of trust in my actions, which is not confined to those things where I have established expertise/qualifications
CreativeAble to work with what’s there, and come up with solutions even when resources are limited
ProactiveAble to take action to move things forward, rather than waiting for others to put things right
Support SeekingAble to ask for help when I need it in order to deal with a situation
Emotionally ControlledAble to manage my emotions when under pressure.
Realistically OptimisticAble to make the best of things as they are, rather than relying on blind optimism.





What does this quick assessment tell you about what you call on to keep you resilient, and what you make use of.

Are you someone who offers support to others, but is reluctant to recognise that at times you need support also?

Do you lose emotional control when the pressure is on, or are only able to access negative emotions?

Do you lose flexibility at times of difficulty and become fixed on things being a certain way?

Have you lost a sense of meaning in aspects of your life, and does that make you less able to persist through difficulties?

Is your confidence linked to your ability in certain areas, which makes you reluctant to take on challenges outside of those areas?

Do you give up when the ideal solution is not available to you, or get creative?

Do you become passive when things aren’t going your way?


Recognise that the qualities you can easily claim have largely been learnt, so the ones that are more difficult for you to access can also be learnt.  You can wait to learn them through the next big challenge that life throws at you, or you can start learning them through experimentation:

  • Rather than keeping a concern to yourself ask someone you trust if they could help you?
  • Notice when you are operating from a negative emotional palette, and ask yourself how those emotions are helping you.  Is there another emotion that would be more useful?
  • Do one thing differently.  If you notice that you are becoming fixed in how you live your life, take the risk of doing something outside of that routine – whether it is the route you take to work, the paper you read, the sort of films you watch, the exercise regime you follow.
  • Rather than relying on your confidence in an established area.  Grow your confidence by moving outside of that area.  Find something you would like to do, but assume you can’t and take a risk.  Then notice how it changes your view of yourself.
  • Think of something you want to do at work or in life, but the resources are not there, and ask yourself “How can I do it without . . .?”  Get creative.
  • When you feel the passive you kicking in, challenge yourself to take an action.  Whether it is phoning a friend rather than waiting to be phoned, instigating a meeting rather than waiting or others, or writing the letter of complaint rather than assuming it is pointless.

You may be one of the lucky 30% blessed with innate resilience, but if you are not you can acquire it by repeated practice.





Are You Burnt Out or Just Needing a Holiday?


You feel tired, you can’t wait for the pressure to reduce but are you really burnt out, or just in need of a break.

The distinction is important because burn-out is recognised by psychologists as a very particular condition, which is the result of the toxic combination of individuals who are driven in their work finding organisations which reward them for that over-commitment. Author of “Learning from Burnout” Tim Casserley ( who owns that he was burnt-out) draws a dramatic analogy between burn out and addiction.  The employee is addicted to work.  They get a high from pushing themselves hard, and from seeing that they are doing more, achieving more, competing harder than those around them.  And, then like all fixes, there is a come down.  Work becomes joyless and only doing more, competing harder will meet the need.

For a time it seems to work, the individual will report being able to work punishing hours, but while they are unaware of the impact on them, their brain is not.  The brain recognises the stress on the system, and kicks in the adrenal glands: the glands sitting on top of the kidneys which secrete the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.  To the adrenal glands, the message is that the individual needs to be prepared for fight or flight, so it releases hormones in order to raise the pulse, increase focus, send blood to the muscles, raise the blood sugar levels and prepare you for escaping or facing off immediate danger.  However, when the brain is sending the same message again and again, the adrenal glands become tired and less effective at secreting hormones.  As the supply of the emergency hormones reduces the individual starts to notice they are getting more and more tired, They may notice they are less resistant to colds and other bugs, they may notice that their blood pressure is low because they get dizzy at times, or that they need to boost their sugar levels regularly, but they do not connect this with how they are working.  The brain and body have lost sight of each other.

What they often do not notice, but others around them will, is that they are becoming less effective at what they are doing.  What they may register but suppress are feelings of low connection with their work .  What they experience but may not admit is that they feel disconnected from people.


Torben Friis

Anyone watching the last series of Borgen will have watched the gradual burn out of Torben Friis, the driven TV news producer, who sees his life fall apart, when the total commitment he has given to his work over his home life, is shown to be faulty when  a new young Head of Programmes challenges his capability.  Suddenly, his total commitment to the news department offers no reward, and he is left visibly shaken and stressed.   While he seeks an immediate fix in a clumsy affair with a member of his team, that affair in itself is an indicator of his disconnection to others. He has no sense of her emotional needs.  For him it is simply respite before going back into the fray again.


Many of us complain of being burnt out at times, but as Ayala  Pines, a researcher on burnout writes,

“In order to burn out, one has first to be on fire”. The Torbin Friis’s of the world continue fuelling the fire until it burns them out.  At that point they are faced by existential choices about how they want to live their lives going forward.  They are asked to confront issues they have avoided about purpose, about what success really means, about whether the price of success is worth it, and about the value which they put on themselves and relationships.

So if you think that you are in danger of burnout ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my identity is tied to the work that I do?
  • How rewarded am I by what I do relative to the time I am giving to my work?
  • How often do I find it difficult to get out of bed because I feel exhausted even after a good night’s sleep?
  • What ways am I using to boost my energy levels, legal or illegal in order to keep going?
  • How connected do I feel to people who are key parts of my life?

Your answers may reveal that you are simply in need of a holiday, but if you find that there is a correlation between how much you are giving to your work, and how much it is depleting you, then it is time to take time out to create a space for personal rehab and renewal.





What’s Holding You Back?

maya-angelou-16x9Hearing of Maya Angelou’s death reminded me of a trip to Chicago 20 years ago. As I wandered along a main street, I saw a queue of people outside a bookshop. There was a sense of excitement about the crowd that drew me in. I squeezed through the mass, curious as to what was the attraction and found myself in front of Maya Angelou. I knew of her through “I Know How the Caged Birds Sing”, but what I did not appreciate until I came close to her was the love she generated, by dint of her personality. She was warm and welcoming to those who brought their books up to her. Her voice was loud, and where some book signings often have a sense of hushed reverence, this one had a sense of people united in a relationship with the author. Maya’s laughter rippled through the store, and it was contagious.
What had drawn people in was the knowledge that this woman had faced difficulties that would have crushed many of us, and yet in the words of her poem “And still I rise”. Born into poverty in Missouri, raised by a grandmother after her parents separated, raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend, and turned mute for several years by the murder of her rapist by a relative, she emerged as one of the most influential women in American. The woman who spoke at Bill’s Clinton inauguration, who became a Professor of American Studies, who wrote books and appeared in films, who won Grammy awards for her reading of her poems was a woman who used her intellect, humanity and courage to rise beyond the conditions of her beginnings.

Maya Angelou was unique, but she modelled qualities which we can all aspire to. She achieved so much because as she said in her poem On Aging: “My life has been long, and believing that life loves the living of it, I have dared to try many things sometimes trembling, but daring still”.

What holds so many of us back is the fear of that trembling, which prevents the daring. Angelou challenges us to accept the trembling as the price of living a fulfilling life.

What We Can Learn From Stephen Sutton



The response to the death of Stephen Sutton has been profound.  The inspirational 19 year old, who with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, decided to use every day he had left to him to live to his mantra of “it’s not how long you live, it’s the experiences you have”  has been extraordinary.  We do not expect 19 year olds to die of cancer.  We do not expect 19 year olds to use their experience as a focus for raising millions of pounds.  We do not expect 19 year olds to face death head on.  We do not expect those things, not because he was 19, but because it is not how most people deal with impending death.


What Stephen did was to decide, if he could not have the life expectancy he expected, how could he create a purpose for his life?  He did it with such energy, positivity and humour that he became an irresistible  force: as signalled in the celebrities and politicians lining up to be associated with him.  More crucially, in the creation of the purpose, he made the process of his dying easier.


We know from all the research on resilience that it is the creation of purpose that gets people through the tough times. It is being able to decide that as difficult as a situation is, I can choose to create meaning from it.  It is seen in accounts of prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors.  It is seen in the stories of families who create campaigns  and charities, following the death of a family member.  It is seen in the accounts of children who decide that they will fight the odds and escape from challenging family backgrounds.  There is nothing more valuable than purpose.  It gives us a compass point for our actions.  It makes us persist when it would be easier to give up.  It makes people commit to doing work that is not financially rewarding but feeds their sense of purpose.


We react to Stephen Sutton’s story, because in his creation of purpose, he reminds us that if we have the luxury of more time for our living, we owe it to ourselves to live with purpose.