Serial entrepreneur and writer/teacher Steve Blank has said he believes many of the great entrepreneurs came from families where there was a lot of adversity.
“These are people who grew up in an environment where nothing was the same from day to day, where the only predictable thing was unpredictability. And somehow, each day, the resilient ones make order out of total chaos, just as most start-up CEOs do each day,” he wrote a few years ago.
Increasingly, researchers are looking at the question of why some people who face adversity develop resilience, while others don’t. What makes some of them overachievers, “supernormals,” as they’re called in a new book by that name by clinical psychologist Meg Jay? I wrote about one example, Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, recently.
Jay draws from her own experience and a book called “Cradles of Eminence: A Provocative Study of the Childhoods of Over 400 Famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women,” by husband and wife Victor and Mildred Goertzel (he was a psychologist).
Jay’s new book outlines some of the strategies resilient overachievers use to propel themselves. Chances are that if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re already resilient. But there’s a lot to be gained from recognizing that you’re not alone in your struggles with adversity, and from knowing how other people cope.
One of the points of her book, which came out two months ago, is that overachievement can mask a great deal of pain.
“The road to resilience involves emotional distress,” writes Jay.
I pulled out a handful of strategies that she writes about, which seemed particularly useful for entrepreneurs. Overall, one key is to separate pathology from pain, she says. It can be debilitating to see yourself as less than normal because you came from background that you don’t consider “normal,” when the reality is that hardly anyone is normal.
See yourself as a fighter. “Whatever the situation, each day feels like a fight for survival. (Supernormals) come out swinging metaphorically,” Jay writes. A small study of people held prisoner in East Germany found the biggest predictor of how well they did years later was whether they believed themselves defeated. Even if they pretended to submit to their jailors, those who believed that sooner or later they would triumph did better. You don’t have to fight every battle outwardly. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs I’ve written about have alluded to this: They’ve had to suck it up when they didn’t want to. “There were many mornings when I woke up thinking, I don’t want to wake up today, but I have to. I have to answer all the phones. I have to answer all the clients. I have to be nice to everyone,” Fadi Ghandour, founder of Aramex told me in an interview a few years ago.
Go with your gifts. Elizabeth Warren, a quintessential overachiever, has written that she wasn’t pretty, didn’t have the highest grades in school, and didn’t play a sport, Jay reports. “But I could fight, not with my fists, but with my words. I was an anchor on the debate team.”
If you’re going with your gifts, really go with them, even in the face of opposition or at risk at standing out in ways that will make you a target. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, has written about growing up as a kid with verbal talent: “I caught my first beatin’ from the other kids whenI was caught readin,’”
“He had won a Pulitzer Prize, two Grammies and three Tonys by the time he was 36,” Jay writes.
Get angry and act on it. Most entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs know fear holds them back. “There is a sense of being in anger, A reality and presence. A sense of truth,” Toni Morrison writes.
This is especially important for women, who are often culturally discouraged from getting angry.
Trust your gut. Researchers have concluded that success comes from being in the right place at the right time – but also from recognizing you’re in the right place at the right time. Supernormals are often more intuitive than other people, because they grew up having to be tuned in to their parents’ or siblings’ emotions – if you are an overachiever, you might be apt to doubt your gut, when in fact you should trust it more.
Reboot. Most successful companies at some point or other decide on their founding narrative, and it’s not always the one they started with. Different events are emphasized or de-emphasized depending on the values the company wants to project. People can be like that, too. If you’ve founded a company that’s not where your passion is – you can always change course. That’s one of the advantages of resiliency; adaptability could be your middle name.
In an age of confession, stay quiet. People need to talk about trauma, and being an entrepreneur can be very traumatic. I’ve interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years; some of them have very painful stories. But one of the traits very resilient people showed was that they didn’t tell everyone everything. Jim Lewis, the co-founder of Essence, said, the idea is to “define ourselves by the best that it is in us, not the worst that has been done to us.”
Talk to most people about the good that’s happened to you, but select a few people with whom to share the bad.
Be gracious about your losses, even the earth-shattering ones. I have seen many entrepreneurs, even the richest and most powerful ones, play a strange victim role. But there is a way to draw strength from a loss while still being genuine about the pain.
Many very successful people lost parents when they were children, including Sonia Sotomayor, Barbara Streisand, Paul Ryan and Bono, and Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10. Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote Why Bad Things Happen To Good People after his son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease at the age of three, writes about this.
“I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron’s life and death than I ever would have been without it. And I would give up all those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose, I would forego all the spiritual depth and growth that has come my way because of our experiences, and be what I was fifteen years ago, an average rabbi, an indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help other, and the father of a bright happy boy. But I cannot choose.”
Transform pain into good works. When the chairman of Starbucks, was seven, his father broke his ankle and lost his job as a truck driver. Without his paycheck or access to insurance, the family fielded calls from debt collectors and borrowed money to pay hospital bills. Schultz lived out his childhood in the projects in Brooklyn, watching his father move from one low-paying job to another. So maybe it’s not a surprise Starbucks is known for its inclusive and generous benefits, even for part-time workers.
“Although I didn’t consciously plan it that way, Starbucks has become a living legacy to my dad,” Shultz has said, as quoted in Jay’s book. Jack Bogle did something of the same, created a company, Vanguard, that is dedicated to the mission of helping individual investors.
Jay suggests that many supernormals ask themselves: “Why am I worthy to do this work? Tell yourself, instead, “Who better than I to take on this work?”
Follow me on twitter at @editoremacb.
By Elizabeth MacBride|FORBES