The Motivational Miner: Lessons from Chilean Miner Edison Pena On Overcoming Discomfort

Written by Dr. U   

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Edison Pena is one of the 33 Chilean miners who was trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days. Since being rescued, Pena has gained international admiration. You can see why in this five minute video excerpt from his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. In his discussion with Letterman, Pena points toward motivation techniques others can use: (1) during an uncomfortable situation; and (2) after an uncomfortable situation.

(1) How can you be more effective during an uncomfortable situation?

I’m focusing here on Pena’s performance on Letterman’s show—later we’ll address more directly his experience being trapped in the mine.

We all face situations that make us nervous or upset, and leave us more rattled and shaken than motivated to perform well.

As you watch the video, notice how Pena comes across as fully himself, despite the network television circumstances and surroundings being so foreign to him. He is unfailingly authentic and upbeat. He is comfortable in his skin throughout the interview.

More than that, he takes over the show despite having no formal training for being in an entirely unfamiliar situation, on national television, on a major media production stage with lights, cameras and a live audience.

As you’ll see in the dialogue, Pena said that the first time he went into a mine, he was scared and wanted to run out. Letterman says that’s how many people feel about coming on his show. Most of us would be very nervous to appear on national television without prior experience and training.

Pena doesn’t appear to be nervous at all, despite not even knowing the language that’s being spoken.

He shares a stage with one of the most admired comedians and television hosts of this era, and Pena effortlessly steals the show. You’ll see that he has a translator, but Pena transcends the translation—he propels his meaning with gestures, body language, laughing and smiling, and—not kidding here—singing!

Action Tool #1: To be more effective in uncomfortable situations, don’t just try to “be yourself.” Instead, be your “best self.”

You can see in the video that Pena seems to be acting naturally and authentically. And you’ve probably heard that it’s important to “be yourself” when in challenging situations, because being uncomfortable makes others uncomfortable, and detracts from your credibility, authority and influence.

Watch again from the 3:50 minute point onward, after Letterman asks Pena about his singing. While trapped in the Chilean mine, Pena often led the others in Elvis Presley sing-alongs to lift their spirits.

When Letterman poses the question, band leader Paul Schaeffer drops in some Elvis background music for effect. Pena takes up the offer and raises the stakes, singing a little, then more, then moving around a bit. Then he jumps up takes over, owns the stage, drives the band and audience to a big finish, and earns an appreciative “Oh my goodness!” from Letterman.

Think how you would respond in that situation—would you jump up, take over the show and belt out a song? I’m sure I wouldn’t, but I’m glad Pena did, and anyone who watches will enjoy it. Why? Because Pena was responding naturally and authentically, with neither self-consciousness nor pretense. He conquered discomfort by being himself.

But “be yourself” is vague advice, and difficult to translate into action. What is “being yourself,” when any person has a wide range of potential behaviors they tend to engage in?

Instead of trying to decipher the vague “be yourself” advice, focus instead on being your “best self.” Here’s how to do it:

Make a list of “best self” behaviors. In work situations, who are you at your best? To find out, start with your behaviors. When you are feeling strong, confident and effective, what behaviors do you tend to exhibit? What do you do? How do you carry yourself? What is your body language? How does your voice sound? What actions do you take? Ask others for input too, and make a list.

I expect that if Pena asked his friends—or fellow miners for that matter—to give him feedback on his behaviors and actions when he is at his best, they would answer with the behaviors we see in this video: smiling, laughing, using humor, gesturing and performing with his body language.

Yours will be different, because everyone’s “best self” behaviors are distinctive. Whatever yours are, after you identify the actions you tend to exhibit in your best-case scenarios, look for ways to practice them. Look for ways to put them into action.

Steer toward your “best self” behaviors. Pena’s “best self” behaviors are evident in just a few minutes of video—what are yours? Find out, make a list, and know them! Then you can steer yourself toward your “best self” behaviors intentionally and purposefully. When situations get challenging, don’t stiffen and stifle yourself. Don’t go awkward. Instead, go toward what you know how to do well, but have temporarily been sidetracked from doing because of circumstances. Those are your behaviors. You own them. You can access them.

Practice helps, and you don’t have to wait for difficult circumstances. Rehears snapping into your “best self” behaviors during non-challenging situations, and it will become easier to do at other times.

There is second aspect of Pena’s interview with Letterman I’d like to highlight, which points toward motivation lessons for how to handle difficult experiences you’ve endured in the past.

(2) How can you be more effective after an uncomfortable situation?

Pena and his fellow miners experienced harrowing conditions over a prolonged period of time. Whether it was even possible to rescue them was in doubt, and disaster loomed every day for months until the last man finally was brought safely to the surface.

During those months, the stress, pressure and fear must have been extraordinary, but you would not know it watching Pena’s interview.

Think of how such an interview could go—with Pena dwelling on the pressure, the struggles, the worry, the desperation, the grime and the fear. There would be nothing wrong with him or anyone responding that way to their experience of such a difficult ordeal.

But the interview is nothing like that. Pena transforms it into an upbeat, entertaining, energizing experience for himself and anyone who watches.

See for yourself—watch Pena’s reaction about 2:20 into the clip when Dave asks him if there is anyone who got on everyone’s nerves during the ordeal. Think of all the ways one might respond to that question, and then see what Pena does. He turns something negative or even ugly into great fun, with just a facial expression.

Later he turns Dave’s question about sanitation into a self-deprecating joke. Again, an uncomfortable topic is thrust upon Pena, who deftly makes it okay and even upbeat through his bright disposition and lack of pretense.

He’s using the “best self” technique we discussed above, but he’s also doing something else, which leads us to the second motivation technique.

The second technique involves treating the experience as one of those things you’ll look back on some day and realize that at least some good consequences came from it.

Think of Pena’s experience in this light. Imagine if prior to the mining accident, Pena were told that soon he’d be on the Letterman show, run the New York City marathon to cheers of onlookers, and receive wild applause at the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. There’s no way he would believe it, but of course that’s what happened.

To some degree we can usually find some positive consequences that came from our difficult past experiences. As Pena demonstrates in his Letterman interview, because a difficult experience is in the past, you can choose which parts of the experience to emphasize in your current life. You also can choose how to emphasize those parts of the experience. Pena smiles about the conflicts he had in the mine, and laughs at his own sanitation difficulties. We can too, for the “mines” of difficult experience in which we’ve been trapped.

To put this into technique into action, think of a difficult experience from your past that you would like to reframe and use more effectively for yourself going forward.

Answer the following question, filling in the blank with as many responses as you can:

Looking back on it now, I’ve gained ________ .

Here are some possibilities for filling in the blank in multiple ways:

  • Insights gained
  • Lessons learned
  • Opportunities opened
  • Other risks or problems avoided
  • How it helped you grow as a person
  • How you gained a different perspective
  • Finding out what you’re capable of doing, accomplishing, or enduring

Talk out loud with others about those gains, and de-emphasize the downside of those experiences, and you’ll find yourself feeling better and inspiring others.

Best wishes putting both of these motivation techniques into action!

My thanks to Alex Wan for bringing this terrific video to my attention.

What do you do to handle uncomfortable situations? Do you have techniques that work for you? Any other thoughts or questions? Add a comment below!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex November 26 at 11:54 am

Great article John! I think Pena is very inspiring and that you made a lot of great points about him and dealing with difficult situations in general. I think this is the first time I’ve heard about “being your best self”. Usually I hear just “be yourself” (as your article mentions). Thanks for the tips! I also really agree with your tip of reframing a difficult time as something to learn from. It reminds me of your Michael Jordan post as well as Larry Bird. Bird had foot problems, if I remember correctly, yet he was able to overcome them. He became one of the best players to play in the NBA. Jordan, as you pointed out, was cut from his team, but he learned and never gave up. It looks like Pena also was able to view the positive despite all of the hardship he and the other 32 miners went through. Thanks for sharing John!

Jodie February 10 at 9:06 am

I agree that Pena was inspiring and fun to watch. I admire his sense of humor, his optimism. He comes across as being so free-spirited, light hearted. I wonder what the factors are and how they work together that influence the ease with which a person can embrace their true self or best self; nature – brain chemistry, neural pathways, etc… vs. nurture – self imposed expectations, family, cultural, societal expectations?

Dr. U February 10 at 9:54 am

Thanks for pointing it out to me Alex. You have an eye for terrific, interesting, inspiring video content on the web. Your comment on Pena makes me think of how people sometimes have their “5 minutes of fame” and use it more or less well. Pena seems so genuinely positive, appreciative and open to experience, that his “5 minutes” were very well spent, and that we gained more from it than him.

Dr. U February 10 at 10:02 am

It’s such a great question Jodie. I expect the neuroscientists, biologists, and social scientists will be exploring and arguing those points for a long time to come. Whatever the mix and balance of those factors might be, from my own experience I realize how easy it is for me fall short of showing up fully in situations and presenting myself in a more effective, useful, engaging way. From the inside, it feels like something I have a great degree of choice and control over, and that when I do pay attention to it, there’s something I can do about it. Now if only I had more control over getting my hopes up that the Cubs can win the World Series every year, that would be useful!!

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