Do you know someone who has faced unusual difficulties in life – the loss of a parent as a child, a dysfunctional family, economic hardship, an interrupted education, a physical disability – who has gone on to achieve spectacular success in life? Have you ever thought, why is it that he or she was able to “cheat” destiny and beat the odds despite facing such adversity? Why is it that two people growing up in the same neighborhood, facing the same financial challenges and peer pressure, can react so differently to their circumstances? One, not surprisingly, falls victim to his or her environment, unable to rise above those circumstances, while the other manages to overcome those same hardships to succeed against the odds. Why are some people able to achieve such unlikely success, where most people don’t?
Surprisingly, psychologists know relatively little about the characteristics of those people who are able to tunnel through adversity – individuals I call tunnelers – and emerge unscathed and even triumphant on the other side. How do we succeed when life unexpectedly throws us a curve ball? In my book, Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail: The 6 Enduring Principles of High Achievement, I tell the story of a captured Israeli fighter pilot placed in prisoner of war camp. Rather than giving in to lethargy or despair, he runs four miles every day in his cramped cell, doing countless figure eights. He grows a miniature garden in the grouting between the bricks that line the cell walls. He and the other prisoners form a university, to teach each other subjects that they are expert in. They even undertake the first Hebrew translation of The Lord of the Rings. Upon his release, the pilot is dismayed – he still has two more weeks of classes ahead of him! What is it that motivated these men to act with such energy and engagement, rather than simply waiting dully for their release? It turns out that tunnelers share some interesting – and unexpected – characteristics. Their actions and attitudes are not superhuman; in fact, they share characteristics that all of us can stimulate and nurture in ourselves. It’s just that most of us have never been taught them.
Take what I call the “limelight effect.” The limelight effect refers to how we see the world around us. If you get a bad grade on a test, or negative feedback on a report that you have prepared, do you tend to blame outside factors – the teacher, your boss, the short amount of time you were given, the ten other things you had to handle? Or do you look at what you could have done differently, or reflect on the other people you could go to for help the next time to do a better job? Those who succumb to their circumstances tend to blame what happens in their life on bad luck, or on the external factors that have contributed to their poor performance. In other words, they focus on the outside factors that have shaped or influenced their less than stellar results. Because they don’t have any control over those outside factors, they feel out of control in shaping their lives. Tunnelers, on the other hand, are much more likely to look at what they did or did not do, and if they fall short in some way, look to what they can do differently the next time. They hold themselves accountable. They tend to ignore or brush aside outside factors, and focus on those things that they do control. They view life from the perspective of what they can do about it as opposed to what was done to them. Studies have shown that people who have an internal locus of control (who focus their attention on their own actions and behaviors, rather than external factors outside their control) are less anxious and depressed, and better able to overcome the inevitable adversity they face. They are also less likely to be obese, and they have a higher overall life expectancy.
Tunnelers share other common characteristics, as well. They tend to look for meaning in life even when dealing with difficult situations; they usually have a good sense of humor; and they tend to have an easy-going attitude. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the events in our life do not define us. It’s our reaction to them that shape who we become.
Learn more about Rom Brafman’s previous books, Sway and Click, here.