For decades, psychology focused on pathology—what’s wrong with us—rather than successful outcomes. What led you to focus on the qualities that lead to success? There’s this wide-held belief—which stems from within the field of psychology—that difficult life events impact us for the worse. That is, take someone who’s endured a tough childhood, faced unexpected crises, or had serious difficulties at school or work, and you’ll see that these events have taken their toll on that person. And sure enough, that’s the case most of the time. Experiencing hardships makes us more likely to develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. But when psychologists looked more closely at individuals who have faced adversity, they found that roughly a third of them came out unscathed. Not only that, they went on to lead successful lives despite their ordeals. If anything, the challenges they faced seemed to make them that much stronger. At first this unexpected phenomenon caught the field of psychology by surprise. But repeated studies have shown that certain individuals seem to be psychologically immune to hardships. That caught my attention. Take two individuals who grew up in the same neighborhood and experienced the same type of hardships. One of them succumbs to their difficulties, while the other one goes on to thrive. What accounts for these differences? If we take a closer look at people who overcame adversity, what common psychological qualities do they share? Is there a way we can capture these attributes and infuse them into our own lives? That’s what I wanted to get at.
Were you able to find these core commonalities? Yes. I combed through studies from across different fields—psychology, sociology, education, neurobiology, economics—and arrived at six key qualities that differentiate these adversity-proof individuals (I call them “tunnelers”)from the rest of us. The first is what I’ve termed the “limelight effect.” Tunnelers place their psychological limelight on themselves. That is, they hold themselves accountable for their actions, their choices, and their path in life. Instead of focusing on how the world has wronged them or the ways in which they have been unlucky, they focus on what they can do to enact change. I also found that tunnelers gravitate toward personal meaning in life. They take meaningfulness very seriously and choose to spend time in activities that tap into their personal passion. Even when they’re placed under the harshest of circumstances, they find ways of generating meaning. Tunnelers are also committed to their goals and do not give up easily even when faced with repeated failure. And when it comes to tunnelers’ temperament, they have an easygoing attitude and use humor as a way to put things in perspective. They also forge alliances with people who believe in them. They have at least one person in their lives who acts as a “satellite,” someone who is consistently there, unconditionally accepting, but who challenges them to be their best.
You describe these people who succeed despite adversity as “tunnelers.” Why? The term originates from the field of quantum mechanics. Physicists have found that subatomic particles sometimes defy classical “Newtonian” laws to tunnel through barriers that they are not “supposed” to be able to overcome. There are many theories out there but nobody knows exactly why this happens. I thought this was a great way to conceptualize what happens psychologically. You have individuals who are “supposed” to be in a certain psychological state given their life events, but somehow they are able to tunnel through the barriers they have experienced. They find a way to overcome the classical psychological laws (i.e., adversity always impacts people negatively) and overcome their apparent fate. What’s important to note is that tunnelers are not these superhuman, Type A personality characters who bulldoze over anything they encounter. The opposite is true. They are usually mild-mannered, easygoing individuals who do not even realize that they are doing something extraordinary. Whenever I come across them in my work as a psychologist, I am always fascinated by them. As a rule, they virtually never recognize themselves as being anything out of the ordinary. When I delineate to them their unlikely achievements—How were you able to overcome having alcoholic parents or living in a chaotic family?—they look at me, puzzled. “Uh, I never thought about it this way. I was just living my life the best way I knew how.” I found that being a tunneler is not about being indifferent to what life has thrown your way, though. It’s about being agile enough to not allow life’s challenges to overwhelm you and bring you down.
What can we learn from tunnelers? There’s a lot we can learn from them. For one thing, we all have the capacity to succeed no matter what life throws at us. It’s just that most of us don’t know what to do when a crisis hits us. It’s not that tunnelers possess some magical, unique abilities that are foreign to the rest of us. Their secret is that they’re able to rely on certain abilities that most of us take for granted. Instead of focusing on the wrongs done to them, they ask themselves what they can do to affect change in their lives. Instead of allowing their environment to dictate the way they feel, they adopt a calm and collected attitude that stems from within. At the same time, they stay focused and on target to achieve their goals. We all know how to behave like tunnelers, it’s just that most of us do not do so in times of hardship. We get sucked into the tornado of emotions, get mad at the world around us, lose sight of what’s meaningful to us, and isolate ourselves from our “satellite” figures. We allow adversity to overrun us instead of learning to tunnel through it.
Are there strategies or insights we can use as parents, teachers, employers, and in our own lives and careers to become more successful as well? There’s so much we can do. As a parent, for example, if your son or daughter complains about a boring teacher at school or a friend who hurt their feelings, ask them what options they think they have. What steps can they take to change their situation instead of feeling like they’re trapped? As an employer, ask your workers which projects or tasks they find most meaningful. You might be surprised; what you find burdensome might be energizing to others. During tough times, rely on a sense of humor to help you see things from a different perspective and forge new bonds with others. These are just a handful of strategies. The major point is that once you’re aware of the six basic qualities that characterize tunnelers, you’ll see them come up again and again in all different facets of life. The more you implement them into your personal drive, worldview orientation, and contact with others, the more you will start to act like and become a tunneler.
Given the difficult job market we are in, do you have any advice, based on the principles that you talk about in the book, that can help in searching for a job? It’s very easy to become overwhelmed and give up. We can blame the economy, politicians, the financial sector. And technically speaking, that’s accurate. But from a tunneling perspective, placing the limelight on what others have done can be draining. If we can shift the limelight back to ourselves, we can increase our own power. Yes, the state of the economy is dreadful and many people in power dropped the ball, but given all that, what can I do to boost my chances of landing a job? What concrete things can I do—take creative steps, utilize the help of friends, think outside my normal scope—to go for the job that I really want? Meaningfulness is another area that gets overlooked. Sometimes a bleak job market can be a blessing in disguise. Instead of settling for a cushy but blasé career, what about going for something a little outside of the box that’s more in line with your passion? And once you send off résumés, don’t give up simply because of rejections. Expect to be rejected. Maybe you’ll find your dream job after sending out the thirty-eighth résumé. You can’t give up just because the first thirty-seven didn’t land you any results.
You talk in the book about the psychological equivalent of the food pyramid. Can you say more about that? There’s an interesting double standard in our society. We place more value on the physical than the psychological. Starting in elementary school, we learn that certain types of foods are better for us than others. Even if our eating habits don’t always conform to what’s healthiest, at least we’re informed. But when it comes to psychological habits, most of us are in the dark. That’s because these psychological insights are relatively new but also because we tend to underestimate the power of psychology. The limelight effect (attributing ultimate responsibility to one’s self) alone has been linked to a longer life span and inversely associated with obesity. A 2010 study has shown that individuals who lead meaningful lives are less at risk for developing Alzheimer’s and other cognitive deficiencies. We know that broccoli and whole-wheat grains are good for us, but how many of us know about the psychological and physical benefits that come from certain mind-sets?