Does life need to be hard for us to be successful? Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote that a big chunk of high-achievers in business went through childhood pain or trauma. It is usually related to the loss or absence of a parent. These people tend to “conform” less, as they have already been through a traumatic experience, and end up developing a stronger resistance to pain and rejection.
For example, Steve Jobs was an adopted child and was made aware of it from a very young age. His biography brings several passages suggesting that being abandoned was always a driving force for him. It propelled him to the constant (although sometimes exaggerated) pursuit of excellence. When you go through the feeling of rejection by parents at such a young age, being ousted from the company you founded by your board pales in comparison.
Another exciting example brought by Gladwell is Dr. Emil Freireich. The doctor worked in the leukemia ward at the National Cancer Institute in the sixties. To many of us, an average day of work consists of a few meetings and sending a few spreadsheets. Freireich watched young children bleed to death. He hypothesized that administering a combination of chemotherapy drugs might be the solution. His peers considered it absurd, but he had the “thick” skin to keep ongoing. Freireich had no animal models or dosing studies to back up his hypothesis. Still, when criticized and demonized by his peers, he scoffed and carried on. He ended up becoming a pioneer in the treatment of cancer and the use of chemotherapy.
Those examples lead us to the conclusion: suffering generates excellence. Trauma and pain are the fuel that leads so many to lead their industries. All this while ignoring the naysayers and the emotional pain that this stress brings. But what about the ones with healthy functional lives? The ones with a nurturing background and family? Do they fall behind? Are optimism and balance a sure sign of mediocrity?
There are two caveats to this. The first one is that trauma and stress might lead to resilience, discipline, and, sometimes, excellence. Still, it is not a guaranteed deal. Many people who had terrible experiences end up not having the same side-effects, generating pretty standard behaviors. Usually, this happens due to developed emotional intelligence to deal with the trauma. It can be either through professional counseling or developed self-awareness. More commonly, people tend to deal with the trauma with destructive behaviors.
The second caveat is that pain and trauma usually lead to mental health issues and despair. Some outliers use the problem as fuel to success, but it is way more common to see negative patterns like addiction and isolation. Self-medication to cope with stress through drinking or drug abuse is one of modern life’s most destructive behaviors. Unfortunately, we as a society are lenient, encouraging, and building a lifestyle out of it. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 86.3 percent of Americans aged 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. 70.0 percent reported that they drank in the past year. 55.3 percent said that they drank in the past month. 26.45 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month. It is massive. It is more than an occasional behavior — it is part of who we are.
The reality is that life is hard, and we suffer along the way. Experiencing this pain is part of growing up and becoming sturdier in the process. More importantly, using success or addiction to cope with our issues, face it straight-on, and grow emotionally. Yes, it will hurt. That pain is what might make us better humans in the end. Steve Jobs, even with his extraordinary business persona, did famous mishaps in his personal life. Mistakes he talked in regret until his death, like not dealing correctly with his first daughter. Until his end, he dealt with the lack of emotional nurturing and recognition of his child. Had he not put his sole obsession on building Apple, he might have become a more balanced human being. Chasing success, like drinking or shooting heroin, is addictive. It has all the traditional characteristics of self-medication as well.
Being successful and changing the whole industry in the process can’t be considered wrong. Steve Jobs revolutionized several sectors, and there is immense value on it for society. These chips on our shoulders are the things that give us a competitive edge, be it personally or professionally. The critical piece here is to focus on constructive behaviors. Addiction and the quest for success as an end are self-centered and destructive to many, especially the ones around us, be it family or employees.
An important piece is never to forget the balance on those searches. We cannot resume our life to one immense pillar. Otherwise, failing at it will mean the partial or total demise of our ego’s and sanity. It is important to balance with athletic quests, personal fulfillment, hobbies, and others — even more than having a well-developed professional life. Having too many chips spread out might mean we don’t have a laser focus on anything and, therefore, will never excel on it, but that is not necessarily true. People might use deliberate laser focus in different areas of their lives.
It is not about one area of excellence. It is about being excellent in everything you do. You don’t need to be a lousy father to build a company, the same way you don’t need to lead a sedentary life to build a family. Balancing all these aspects, giving your everything, and being present are the driving forces to happiness. If you are thinking about running while working and thinking about work while running, you will be terrible at both. Make sure the slots you dedicate to activities have your undivided attention. That balance might significantly reduce the stress levels in your everyday life.
Lastly, you don’t need real pain to create excellence. The same way we prepare time-bound goals to create false urgency, crafting an artificial “pain” can bring the edge we need. That pain can be less self-centered and more focused on solving an issue. For example, if you experience and focus on some countries’ social gap, the emotional pain might drive you to fix it. Michael Jordan famously created false rifts between other players in other to motivate him to excellence. While it will never be the same as the real thing, it is dumb to believe that we need to go through trauma to excel. The ones raised in functional nurtured families can create an artificial edge and maintain their mental balance.
With emotional intelligence, people who didn’t go through emotional pain can act instead of reacting. It leads to even more solid pillars to build an everlasting legacy. Even more, they can create a gift that will not only be recognized by their peers on the human side as well. Leaders that focus on people’s development are becoming the ones to hold the torch in a more divisive society. These are the ones building corporate cultures that leave an everlasting human and social legacy.
Optimism and a balanced life are not signs of mediocrity, precisely the contrary. Our society needs more intelligent and emotionally stable people. It can be either through their luck on the nurturing lottery. Or through growing up by dealing headfirst with their issues, pain, and trauma. Using these as fuel to a lifelong obsession with business or product might end up building great things. But most times, it does not, with individuals paying the price.
We need to deal with our pain and trauma for what they are: steps for a more fulfilled life and healthier adults. We all have animals inside us, some bigger and some smaller, ones more cruel than the others. Some of us tame it. Others let it loose partially or fully. We need to live and learn with it. Looking at the animals inside of us in the eyes and understand that they will never go away. Being aware and dealing with it is the fuel to our emotional growth — the society as a whole gain with stable and human individuals.
We already have our share of immature clowns running companies and countries. What we need now are grown-ups to lead us into the future.
This article was first published on Medium here. Bruno GM participates in modern corporate life and rediscovered himself in sport. Suffers daily in both, taking the occasional pleasure in writing while travelling.
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