75% Of High-Achievers Come From Troubled Backgrounds. Why Is That?

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Childhood adversity leads some individuals to resiliency in adulthood.

We generally think of childhood adversity in terms of negative outcomes, and this might ring true much of the time; but research shows that it can also produce a resilience that leads to great successes in adulthood.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, clinical psychologist Meg Jay took on this very topic and explained why hardship and trauma early in life might beget resiliency in adulthood.

Many draw strength from hardship and see their struggle against it as one of the keys to their later success. A wide range of studies over the past few decades has shed light on how such people overcome life’s adversities—and how we might all cultivate resilience as well.

In a study of 400 high achievers from the 20th century, the likes of Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, researchers found a whopping 75 percent had a childhood rife with adversity.

[S]ome 300 individuals—had grown up in a family burdened by a severe problem: poverty, abuse, absent parents, alcoholism, serious illness or some other misfortune.

Another study followed nearly 700 individuals from birth to age 40, with 129 people identified as being high risk for problems later in life due to major adversity in childhood. Two thirds of them grew up to experience difficulties.

One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with. They became, as Drs. Werner and Smith described, “competent, confident, caring adults.”

Those who are most resilient have often built up their ability to handle stress, rather than becoming overwhelmed by their fight-or-flight response system.

This makes a difference because when a stressor seems manageable, we perceive it as a challenge, and adrenaline—which boosts energy, focus and coping—is released. When a stressor seems unmanageable, however, we perceive it as a threat and our cortisol levels rise too, suppressing our immune system and making us more vulnerable to disease.

When the researchers asked these resilient adults how they understood their own success in retrospect, the majority reported that their most important asset was determination.

A third study evidenced that moderate hardship is actually more beneficial than experiencing none at all:

[The study] found that those who had known some adversity were both higher-functioning and more satisfied with their lives than those who had experienced extremely high levels of hardship—and compared with those who had experienced no adversity at all.

Jay wraps up with several suggestions for how we can apply characteristics and strategies of resilient people to our own lives, regardless of how we got to be where we are as adults.

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.