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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The antidote to the toxic survival drive

I visited a drone factory last week. The UK’s top Unmanned Air Vehicle manufacturer gave us a highly informative tour. The day before, I heard a Formula 1 executive talk about the automotive performance culture: it’s designed with aerospace aviation levels of safety. I was a little sad to see that safety standards in this industry were higher than in the healthcare system…

Sure, the healthcare industry has made efforts to learn and has taken a leaf out of the aviation industry’s checklist approach to safety championed by the likes of Atul Gawande under Barack Obama. But the pressures are unrealistic. And it’s not just a matter of efficiency improvements.

Business and entrepreneurialism at their best, especially in tech, have levels of efficiency, precision and passion that bureaucracies and public services come up short on.

But is that a bad thing?

It depends…on the context.


In a conversation with a leader in finance who’d spent his life running and growing banks, we got to the C word: capitalism – we were both surprised it came up. But it did.

The truth is it’s hard for businesses including large corporations to prioritise long-term societal value and environmental sustainability (which really is a euphemism for “human species sustainability” because the planet will get on fine without us).


Because private equity firm and therefore investor timelines are as short as 5-7 years. So businesses (especially medium and large ones) need to show a return in that short timespan.

The parallel with political timelines is chilling.

Is it a coincidence that our leaders whether in politics or business think with the timespan of an early human?: grab everything you can in the time it takes to raise a child to basic independence because you might die?


"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Blaise Pascal.

Capitalism is production centred and consumption driven. That’s nothing new.

But the discrepancy between the reality of our modern material comfort created through capitalism (we live like kings) and the survival imperative that still drives modern behaviours (and makes capitalism poisonous) has reached nonsensical proportions.

Organisations and leaders are driven to squeeze as much as they can out of the means of production and capital (including human capital) in a mad bid for continuous growth and expansion divorced from the reality of human suffering and planetary destruction…

The most inspiring leaders in our globalised capitalist economy seem to be those who are willing to step back, break a few rules and be very aware of their own impulses and drives as they surf the edge of human evolution. Perhaps one of them will lead us out of toxic survival drive and show us a different way…

I don’t know that we’ve seen a truly enlightened leader in recent times (I imagine that they’re unsung heroines and heroes living quietly, waiting for a critical mass). But a few conspicuous outliers show us some of the possibilities: whether it’s the Steve Jobs’ and Elon Musks with their manic innovation and magical presentation capturing the public imagination; or the Martin Luther Kings and Mother Teresas who kill with kindness and transform through compassion, through them we can see highly developed expressions of certain human traits sharpened over time through facing challenge.

Embracing challenge and discomfort…

[Read on or watch the video]

I work with highly successful deep thinkers navigating the complexity of the 21st century. When my clients feel stuck and we explore what’s going on for them, it often comes down to this: they’re avoiding something.

- On the inside, they’re often avoiding a feeling.

- On the outside, they’re often avoiding a conversation.

Legends in the making: Dr E and Dr T, both leaders in highly competitive field, managed to start freeing themselves from toxic work cultures after we worked on facing what was really holding them back on a deep level. They needed to have uncomfortable conversations announcing their departure but it involved letting go of a long term relationship with their way of working and being in their global organisations...Break ups are tricky! But the longer you stay in a relationship that’s run its course, the more energy, vitality and time you lose. And then you have to spend a while recovering and rebuilding your energy reserves before you can step into the next thing. A timely and honest conversation will save you lifetimes of pain and frustration. As they shifted, Dr E managed to connect more deeply with her partner and enjoy her wedding. Dr T went on a solo travel and retreat adventure she’d been wanting to do for years.


The counterintuitive thing is the more you avoid the challenge that is calling you and seek comfort when it’s time to step outside your comfort zone, the more your survival drive is activated.

Your mind gets the message that it’s not safe to be fully in contact with reality and you get cut off from your vitality and true potential…

Look at any area of your life where you feel your flow might be blocked. If you really relax into it and breathe, allowing yourself to come into contact with the full experience of the reality of the situation: what is needing your attention?

- What do you need to give some time and attention to in your inner-world? Is it a feeling of anger, disappointment, frustration that you could breathe some oxygen into? Or an excitement mixed with fear at the new possibilities available to you that you haven’t given yourself permission to acknowledge?

- What is the wise action that follows in your outer-world? Do you need to plan your exit or discuss it with someone? Are you past the time of negotiation and need to cut your losses and get out? Time to draft an important email to initiating a process and get feedback from someone you trust before sending it?

In the end, life inherently carries discomfort. And any process of change will carry a few growth pains.

You might spend so much time holding on to an arbitrary level of material comfort that you forego opportunities for growth and greatness. But then you might end up tolerating chronic existential discomfort in an environment that is toxic for you…

So why not grab the bull by the horns and choose your discomfort?

Could you embrace the growth pains that the fulfilment of your true potential requires of you?

You might find it’s not as painful as you feared and that what you really wanted was within reach the whole time.

And where you expected pain and frustration, you might discover a deep peace.

Have a great week,


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Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi works with high achieving “warrior-healers” across professions who want to balance their need for independence and challenge with their desire to connect and be. She helps them discover and live what’s true for them within and beyond conventional careers. Book an exploratory conversation:

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