Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz grew up in a tough housing project. Oprah Winfrey faced horrifying abuse as a girl. Eleanor Roosevelt’s father drank himself to death.
These aren’t isolated incidents. According to a fascinating recent Wall Street Journal article by clinical psychologist Meg Jay, childhood trauma and exceptional achievement go together a lot more often than you might suspect.
In fact, Jay details one classic study of 400 super high achievers, those who had at least two biographies written about them due to their positive contributions. When the researchers examined the lives of these success stories, they found that a remarkable 75 percent of them had faced severe difficulties, such as the loss of a parent, dire poverty, or abuse in childhood.
The science of childhood adversity
This isn’t to say, of course, that a terrible childhood isn’t a horror. Most kids who experience this suffering don’t grow up to be CEOs or TV stars, but instead live lives stunted by their early experiences. Trauma is not something you’d ever wish on anyone. But Jay’s point is that in a minority of cases, these early struggles teach extreme resilience that leads to incredible achievement.
In the long article, she backs this up with a ton of science, including one four-decade-long study that tracked nearly 700 babies and another of East German political prisoners. Jay also delves deeply into why harsh beginnings can create such exceptional individuals, noting physiological changes like a beefed-up resistance to stress and psychological adaptations, including a defiant attitude to negative feedback.
If you’re interested in this science, the whole piece is well worth a read in full, but many will simply ask, what’s the takeaway? No one would ever encourage traumatizing children to teach them grit. And even if you thought you were willing to pay such a steep price for greater resilience, you can’t go back and change your childhood.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing practical to learn from the science of childhood adversity. Jay suggests five takeaways for those looking to build their own resilience.
1. Challenge yourself.
“It helps to take on long-form projects that feel like challenges rather than threats. Whether taking up crew or judo, studying for an advanced degree or mastering an instrument, hard things that aren’t emotional or unexpected help us practice for those that are,” she writes.
2. Own the fighter within.
“Resist defeat in your own mind,” Kay instructs. “Fighting back on the inside is where battling back on the outside begins.”
3. Build social support.
The most important ingredient for resilience is social connections, so “reach out to family, friends or professionals who care,” advises Kay. “It is a myth that resilient people don’t need help. Seeking support is what resilient people do.”
4. Engage in active coping.
“Most serious adversities are neither quickly nor easily solved, but taking control where we can is empowering. Make a realistic plan to improve your situation, and work toward it day by day. Progress shores us up and calms us down.” Better advice is rare in this world.
5. Remember your own courage.
“Remember the ways you have been courageous and strong. Too often we remember what has gone wrong in life rather than what we did to survive and thrive. Think back on a time when you were challenged and give yourself credit for how you made it through. You may already be more resilient than you think,” insists Kay.