From Survival to Significance: How to Transform Your Toughest Challenges into Enduring Strengths

When disaster strikes, how will you respond? (Photo by USFWS)

This guest post is by Sandra Miller.

It always starts with a catastrophe.

Maybe something big, so big it makes the news. An act of war or terrorism, a natural disaster.

Or maybe something more personal, yet every bit as devastating. A terrible accident, a financial setback, a serious injury or diagnosis, a death in the family.

The list goes on and on. Life throws a million challenges at us.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could transform our toughest challenges into enduring strengths? If we could use them as fuel to move us from survival to significance?

Well, we can. Here’s how I know.

A bobcat saved my life.

In 2003, my husband, Bob, and I decided it was time for a change. Our two daughters had left the nest, and we’d grown a little bored with surburban life.

So we found a beautiful house in the country near San Diego, California. It sat on the side of a mountain, in a stunning canyon with views all the way to Mexico.

We loved living so close to nature, seeing hawks and coyotes, rabbits and roadrunners. We even saw a bobcat once.

But just seven months later, Bob and I woke up in the middle of the night to the sight of fire outside our bedroom window.

We had no time. We grabbed our pets—two giant Newfoundland dogs and a cockatiel bird—threw a few photographs into a laundry basket and jumped into the closest car, my little white Acura coupe.

And then we drove away from our beautiful new home into firelight, swirling embers, and pea-soup smoke.

There was only one way out, down a steep, narrow road carved into the side of the mountain. But I couldn’t see more than a foot or two in front of my car.

I started screaming: “I can’t see the road.”

And Bob yelled back, “Just don’t wreck the car!”

What he meant was: Don’t drive off the side of the mountain.

At that moment, a bobcat jumped out of the surrounding brush and landed right in front of my headlights, then dashed off into the smoke. Somehow I knew that wild creature was on the road, and I followed it.

By the time I got to the spot where the cat had disappeared into the smoke, I could see red flames through the murk ahead and a ribbon of darkness running through them. Everything below us was on fire.

But there was no going back. So I steered toward the darkness that had to be the road, and threaded our way between those two lines of flames until finally we punched through a last curtain of fire into clear night.

Like waking up from a nightmare, I thought. But it was all too real. Our home and more than 2,200 others were gone, lost in the Cedar Fire, still the biggest wildfire in California history. Even worse, 15 people—12 of them our canyon neighbors—never made it out.

It can happen just that fast.

One day I was living my wonderful new life in the country. The next day I was homeless, and the world had labeled me a “fire victim.”

I didn’t get it. Bob and I, our two big, shaggy dogs and tiny bird had driven through fire and escaped unscathed. How could we be victims?

As one of our other neighbors put it: “We buried the victims. The rest of us are survivors.”  

But not everyone affected by the fire felt the same way. Some people embraced the “victim” label. They seemed so bitter, so desperate to blame someone for their loss.

And it didn’t seem to matter how much or how little they’d lost in the fire.

I spent the next 10 years researching and writing a book about the Cedar Fire, and in the process I interviewed a couple hundred people, including the families of victims.

But they were not the bitter ones. Their lost loved ones wouldn’t want that, they told me.

The bitterest people I met had lost a garage in the fire. Their family, their animals, their homes were all safe.

That’s when I realized: it’s a choice.

You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can choose your response: You can be a victim. Or you can be a survivor.

Those who choose to be survivors have taken the first step on a sacred journey—the journey from survival to significance.

It’s good to be a survivor when the odds are flat out against you. It sure beats the alternative. And, in fact, much of the world exists in permanent survival mode.

But there’s more to life, and we know it. We can feel it deep inside. We don’t want to simply survive. We don’t want to camp out on the ash heap that used to be our home.

We want to reboot and rebuild. We want to thrive. We want to come back from adversity even stronger than before.

Something in us tells us it’s possible, because it is. Resilience is the way of the world; it’s in our DNA. That’s why many survivors take a further step in the journey.

We evolve from SURVIVORS to THRIVERS.

This is where we begin to transform our challenges into strengths. We discover life can be good again, maybe even richer than before, in spite of, perhaps even because of the adversity we’ve overcome.

But some of us don’t stop there either. We feel fortunate to have come so far; we’ve learned so much from our struggle. We can’t keep it all to ourselves. So we begin sharing it with others in all sorts of ways. Caring, teaching, helping, volunteering.

Now we’ve taken another step. We’ve become GIVERS.

It’s a wonderful thing to be a giver, a lovely way to live. There’s really no need to travel any farther. Unless you feel the call to keep going.

Some people do hear that call. And they pour themselves into answering it—starting businesses, nonprofits, global movements. They go big and leave a legacy.

Think of people like Nelson Mandela, Malala, the Dalai Lama. Think about Candi Lightner, who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Think about people you know who took action to protect others from setbacks they themselves once experienced.

These are people who’ve gone the distance from survival to significance.

I call them the CHANGERS. 

Changers change things that need to be changed. They change lives. They change the world. They change the course of history.

At this point you may well be wondering: But how? How do you transform your toughest challenges into enduring strengths? How do you make the transition from survival to significance?

Tell your story.

Your meaning, your message, your mission—they’re all wrapped up in the power of your own story. So start there.

Brilliant author Simon Sinek very famously urges us to “Start with Why.” I like to tweak that just a bit and say, “Start with Story.” Because your “why” comes from your story. 

When you know your story—and I mean really know it, perhaps in ways you cannot see for yourself—you know your “why.”

Changers would not impress us if it weren’t for their amazing stories. Their struggles have made them who they are and led to their success.

It’s the power of their stories—what they’ve overcome and how they’ve responded—that inspires us.

After our escape from the Cedar Fire, I knew I had to tell the story of that historic event. How could I not? I was a journalist, a storyteller, who’d come out of the worst part of the worst fire anyone could remember.

So in the years that followed, as we rebuilt our home and rebooted our lives, I gathered dozens of stories from fire fighters, survivors, and victims’ families. Piece by piece, I wove them all together, along with my own experience.

It took longer than I ever imagined, but finally, on the 10th anniversary of the Cedar Fire, my book came out. For the first time, people began to discover the whole, true story of California’s biggest wildfire.

And I began to hear from them. Here is what most of those readers said:

“Thank you.” 

Thank you because we finally understand what happened. Because we’ve finally been able to let go of the trauma, fear and sadness we’ve carried for a decade. Because we’ve learned how to better protect ourselves from future fires. Because now we know it’s possible to come back from adversity even stronger than before.

Telling my story enabled me to make a difference in the world—to become a changer. That’s why now, as a story strategist, I’m passionate about helping others on the journey from survival to significance find the meaning, the message and the mission rooted in their stories.

If all this makes sense to you, you’re probably somewhere on the journey yourself. You’re on your way to becoming a changer, too.

Keep going. The world is waiting. 

And if you find you need a guide along the way, someone who can help you make the most of your story, well, that’s why I’m here. 

Sandra Millers Younger grew up in the American South where people still swap stories over fried chicken, apple pie and sweet tea. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Syracuse University, where she earned degrees in English and journalism, Sandra studied stories—what makes the great ones great, how to find them, and how to share them in powerful ways that make a difference in the world. 

She’s since told thousands of stories as a journalist, culminating in her 2013 book, The Fire Outside My Window: A Survivor Tells the True Story of California’s Epic Cedar Fire. Sandra and her husband, Bob, were featured in the March 2015 NBC Dateline special, “Escape: The Great California Fire.” 

Now, as founder and chief story strategist at Strategic Story Solutions, Sandra helps world-changers share the meaning, message and mission rooted in their own stories. You can reach her at [email protected]

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