Working with What You've Got

Inherent Capacity and Resilience

A few mantras float around my head in my day-to-day life, and “work with what you’ve got” is one of them.  It seems obvious but somehow, without noticing it, I’ve been shaping my life and my work to reflect this little mantra.  I figured it was time to write a blog about it. 

“Working with what you’ve got” can be depressing or inspiring or anywhere in between, depending on your beliefs about what’s there to begin with.  It’s a much more powerful approach if you believe that what you’re working with is inherently capable of more.  Not surprisingly, that’s what I think!   

In naturopathic medicine we have a founding principle, “the healing power of nature”.  It’s a bit esoteric, but the basic idea is that the natural world operates with wisdom, and is oriented towards health and healing.  That's something we can all use to our benefit.    


Humans are no exception.  Our bodies have evolved with self-healing mechanisms, and it’s the work of a naturopathic doctor to help clear the way for those mechanisms to do what they were made to do – heal.  Take, for example, a fever.  A fever can be downright miserable, uncomfortable at best, and our knee-jerk reaction is usually to bring it down until we’re comfortable again.  But when a fever rises, it’s because our body has identified a threat (bacteria, virus, etc.) and is responding in a very specific way to eliminate that problem.  The high temperatures and chemical messengers that make us feel awful exist to create an environment that can fight disease and protect our health.  That’s inherent capacity.  If your physician supports and nurtures your inherent capacity, then it’s you that’s doing the healing, not the doctor.  That’s a very important distinction, because when a patient’s self-healing mechanisms are supported, they not only feel better but their body will be stronger in the long term.  In the future it will recognize threats, and know how to fight them and win.  That’s resilience.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve heard us talk about participatory development.  It’s the same principle of nurturing inherent capacity, but applied to community development.  In the same way that doctors can support the body’s natural wisdom, development practitioners can support the wisdom and experience that already exists in a community prior to our intervention.  The tools and methods of participatory development are designed to bring out a community’s inherent capacity.  Let’s take for example the income-generation project that ParticipAid is currently facilitating in Nepal.  Before ParticipAid was founded, I always thought an herb farm would be a great idea, and tried to make that happen for our local community there for several years.  Needless to say, that never came to fruition.  When we took a participatory approach this past year, we created the space for local people to decide what they wanted to do, as opposed to what the outside world thought might be best for them. 

It wasn’t easy for them, they struggled, but they got into the swing of it and developed neighborhood-based plans for income generation that they felt they could successfully manage themselves.  An herb farm didn’t even come up.  That’s inherent capacity.  With my logic, it follows that continuing to support their inherent capacity in this way will lead to resilience.  It’s years too early to know that with certainty, but you can be sure I’ll keep you posted. 

A caveat – not all problems can be solved in this way.  Sometimes we as humans and communities need serious intervention to keep us in health.  But that’s another story. 

In my personal life, “working with what I’ve got” boils down to acceptance - patience, baby steps, and pragmatism in moving towards the big pie in the sky dreams.  I can’t do it all, so I try to surround myself with supportive people.  I don’t know it all, so I try to set myself up to gain skills and experience that will deepen my understanding of the next big thing.  Best of all, because working with what you’ve got makes for reasonable expectations and achievable goals, it’s one of the simplest ways to live a low pressure lifestyle.  Who needs more pressure, right?  Here’s to meeting yourself, and others, exactly where they’re at!