H is for Using What You Have

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“Use what you have.”

I first heard this phrase when an educator used it in a teaching context. Later I learned how people apply this approach to many areas of life.

The educator who used the phrase was helping us to learn how to run workshops. He urged us to use what we had in terms of the events and people in the room. He explained:

“If you have a poor room, use it to show how it could be made beautiful.

“If you have an interruption, such as a fire alarm, use it to teach a point.

“If you have people with certain talents in the room, use these people to share their experience.

“Whatever happens, you can use it to pass on knowledge.”

During the early 1970s I became fascinated by how people used what they had by building on their strengths. This led to teaching five-day courses about how they could use these assets to do satisfying work.

These were held in Scandinavia, where I was living at the time, and were attended by people from all walks of life. Some had what society called disabilities.

Many of these individuals, however, described how they had built on their abilities and assets. They saw themselves as applying common sense, rather than being courageous.

Bengt Elmèn is a Swedish entrepreneur I have worked with for many years. He had a difficult birth that resulted in cerebral palsy, but then went on to build several successful companies.

Bengt believes in building on what you have in life. This includes sharing what people can learn from overcoming difficulties.

Here is how he describes his approach. You can read more via the following link.


My own experiences with difficulty began early on – as early as birth, in fact.

I had a rough delivery, during which I suffered lack of oxygen that resulted in a type of brain damage known as CP, or Cerebral Palsy. As far as I’m concerned, though, CP actually stands for “Cool and Powerful”.

The brain damage diminished my ability to walk, talk and use my hands.

Early on I had to learn to think of creative solutions to daily situations. I could sit for days, for example, using my mouth and nose to piece together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle.

This taught me that it’s always worth the effort to face your difficulties rather than trying to run away from them. Such lessons have been invaluable to me as an adult.


I also learned early on how to be intimate with people. However good I was at putting together puzzles, there were many other things I couldn’t do without help.

This means that over the years, I have employed several hundred people, and from this I have gained a precious understanding of people from all walks of life.

After I earned a B.Sc. degree in Public Law at Stockholm’s University, I worked five years as director of the Stockholm Cooperative for Independent Living (STIL).

STIL took over part of the communal home help service and developed its personal assistance program. During my time with the organization, its annual turnover rose from zero to four million U.S. dollars.

This project led to new legislation in 1994. Today the service is financed by the government and has an annual turnover of 700 million U.S. dollars.

About 25,000 personal assistants are employed throughout Sweden to assist approximately 9,000 disabled people.

After my time with STIL, I started my own company. I wanted to teach others the importance of daring to tackle their difficulties. I wrote a book called Your Responsibility and Mine which, unfortunately, is available only in Swedish.

Despite my physical disability and speech impediment, I began to travel around giving seminars and workshops. And that is what I’ve been doing even since.

Looking back on your own life, when have you adopted the approach of using what you have?

You may have done this by choosing to have a positive attitude, build on your strengths, make the best use of the available physical resources or whatever.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you adopted the approach of using what you had.

Describe the specific things you did to use what you had.

Describe the specific outcomes of adopting this approach.

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During the 1970s and 80s I did a lot of work in Scandinavian schools. The aim was to encourage the teachers and students to build on their strengths.

Many students demonstrated pragmatic skills they could use to solve real life challenges, but they were not interested in abstract ideas.

Mikael was somebody I met when I ran a course for youngsters who did not fit into the school system. Aged 16, he was already a skilled mountaineer and showed entrepreneurial skills. Mikael went on to create and sell a company that manufactured equipment for steeplejacks and fire fighters.

Looking at your own life, how can you build on what you have? There are many ways to apply this approach. One is to focus on the following areas.


What are your assets? What are your material and financial assets? What are your physical and psychological assets? What are the assets you get from your relationships and friendships?


What are your abilities? What are the activities in which you deliver As, rather than Bs or Cs? When are you in your element – at ease and yet able to excel? When do you make complicated things appear simple? What are your personal and professional abilities?


What have been your achievements? What is your positive history? When have you delivered things successfully? When have you overcome challenges?

What is your successful pattern for doing superb work? How can you follow these principles – plus maybe add other skills – to do superb work in the future?

Thorkil Sonne has enabled thousands of people to build on what they have. His pioneering approach to autism resulted in him being elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2009. Here is the citation that was published at the time.


Thorkil changes the way society perceives autism by transforming it from a handicap to a competitive advantage.

His Specialist People Foundation employs autistic people, who have a ten times lower fault rate in software testing and other tasks.

Thorkil now plans to go beyond Denmark, empowering people with ASD globally.

You can discover more about The Specialist People Foundation via the following link.


There are many ways to look at life. One approach is to use what you have. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to use what you have.

Describe the specific things you can do then to use what you have.

Describe the specific benefits – for you and for other people – of using what you have.

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