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The 6 Enduring Principles of High Achievement

Written by Rom BrafmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rom Brafman


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On Sale: December 27, 2011
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-88770-2
Published by : Harmony Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony

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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


For decades they assumed that people who face adversity—a difficult childhood, career turbulence, sudden bouts of bad luck—will succumb to their circumstances. Yet over and over again they found a significant percentage are able to overcome their life circumstances and achieve spectacular success.
How is it that individuals who are not “supposed” to succeed manage to overcome the odds? Are there certain traits that such people have in common? Can the rest of us learn from their success and apply it to our own lives?
In Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail, Rom Brafman, psychologist and coauthor of the bestselling book Sway, set out to answer these questions. In a riveting narrative that interweaves compelling stories from education, the military, and business and a wide range of groundbreaking new research, Brafman identifies the six hidden drivers behind unlikely success. Among them:
•The critical importance of the Limelight Effect—our ability to redirect the focus of our lives to the result of our own efforts, as opposed to external forces
•The value of a satellite in our lives—the remarkable way in which a consistent ally who accepts us unconditionally while still challenging us to be our best can make a huge difference
•The power of temperament—people who are able to tunnel through life’s obstacles have a surprisingly mild disposition; they don’t allow the bumps in the road to unsettle them
By understanding and incorporating these strat-egies in our own lives, Brafman argues, we can all be better prepared to overcome the inevitable obstacles we face, from setbacks at work to chall-enges in our personal lives.



Located along the banks of the Piscataquis River, just ninety miles south of the Canadian border, the sleepy town of Howland, Maine, has managed to keep much of its rural charm intact over the years. The most exciting news around town nowadays in Howland is a tourist spotting an occasional moose or bald eagle. But back in 1894 the town was ground zero of an intriguing mystery, one that defies our deepest assumptions about the resilience of the human spirit.
    During the summer of that year, on a warm July day, Percy Spencer was born. There was nothing unusual or extraordinary about Percy’s birth or about his family. His father, Jasper Spencer, worked in Howland’s sawmills. His mother, Myrtle, following the tradition of the times, stayed at home taking care of the household. Percy’s childhood was set to be quite normal, and so it was at first. But when he was just a toddler, tragedy struck at the sawmill. A rotating saw unexpectedly splintered, and the centripetal force sent shards flying in all directions. One of the pieces struck Percy’s father, who died almost instantly. 

   The news sent Percy’s mother into shock. The disaster proved too much for her to handle, and soon after the incident she fled the family home, never to return. Now orphaned, with no one to take care of him, young Percy was sent to live with his aunt and uncle.
   Losing one’s parents, especially at such a formative age, obviously has a lasting emotional impact. But fortunately for Percy, he had a roof over his head and family who loved him. He developed a special bond with his uncle, who became like a father to him. They both enjoyed tinkering with machinery. When Percy was just five, his uncle brought home a steam log hauler—essentially a locomotive that did not require train tracks—that was in need of repair. The large machine had recently broken down in the heavy winter snow, and Percy’s uncle had been entrusted with its care. The mechanical wonder was like nothing Percy had ever seen before, and his excitement was palpable. 

   Percy also developed a love of nature and animals and spent much of his free time in the woods. On one occasion he spotted a cougar—one of the last remaining in Maine—up in a tree. But just as young Percy was acclimating to his new life, tragedy struck once more. When he was seven, his uncle died. The loss was a crushing blow to the family emotionally, but it also took a huge financial toll. Times were hard, and although Percy showed a penchant for learning, he was forced to drop out of school before completing the fifth grade to help support the family. The remainder of his childhood consisted of an adult regimen: wake up before dawn, put in a full day at the spool mill, and return home after sundown. 

   Put yourself, for a moment, in young Percy’s shoes. You have no memories of your biological
parents. Your mother left you when you were an infant. Your uncle, who was like a father to you, died when you were in second grade. And armed with only a fifth-grade education, you now spend every workday performing manual labor. It wouldn’t be surprising if your sense of trust in the world around you began to erode. “Everyone who loves me either ends up dying or leaving,” you might start to reason. You might even go as far as to blame yourself for the disasters that occurred: “Why is this happening to me? Why did my mother abandon me? Is my life always going to be filled with hardships?” Eventually, even a hardy soul can lose strength. 

   Difficult life events can take a psychological toll on an individual. Indeed, the notion that traumatic life events cause psychological harm seems so obvious that for many years psychologists assumed that it was virtually always the case. Experience a significant hardship, the belief went, and your life will be impacted for the worse.
   This harm-leads-to-distress model of human psychology became a truism in the field—that is, until psychologist Emmy Werner came along. A newly minted Ph.D. with a specialty in developmental psychology, Werner had no idea she was about to throw her entire discipline into disarray. As a young professor, Werner spent most of her time performing statistical analyses on a project that tracked mothers and their babies living in Kauai, the westernmost island of the Hawaiian archipelago. When the project’s chief researcher retired, Werner inherited the project’s data. For a developmental psychologist, it was a gold mine. The first thing she did was to broaden the study’s scope and follow a cohort of children from birth onward, tracking their performance over the course of their lives. Instead of observing participants in an artificial laboratory setting, she monitored real people living their lives.              

   To collect the new data, Werner assembled a team of professionals— social workers, nurses, physicians, a clinical psychologist— who helped her track the children. The researchers even collected prenatal data. Essentially, the study subjects, all 698 of them, were recruited as participants before they were even born.

    “At the time, the focus of our study and others like it,” Werner explained to me, “was very much on risk.” Remember that psychologists were under the impression that children who grew up in difficult environments would inevitably develop psychological distress. Werner wanted to measure how these kids fared in the face of adversity.

   Although some of the children that Werner followed were at risk, a large group that essentially served as a control came from healthy, normal backgrounds. For the most part, those children led completely ordinary, regular lives. In other words, they were not exposed to any major life stressors and enjoyed supportive home environments. And, as you might expect, for the most part they performed well in school, stayed out of serious trouble, and did not manifest any major psychological issues.

   The other children from the cohort, though, were born into difficult circumstances. Like Percy Spencer, who struggled with financial and emotional loss in rural Maine, those children faced any number of obstacles. Most lived in poverty. Many of their parents suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, or were not around at all. Among this group of children, most, unfortunately, did not fare well. Their grades were poor. They acted out in school or got into trouble with the police. Many of these children eventually dropped out of school and became teenage parents. Unfortunately, that is what Werner expected to find.

Table of Contents

1. Tunneling 
2. The Limelight Effect
3. Meaning Making
4. Unwavering Commitment
5. Temperament and Success
6. Humor Counteracting Adversity
7. The Importance of a Satellite
8. Putting It All Into Practice
Rom Brafman|Author Q&A

About Rom Brafman

Rom Brafman - Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail

Photo © Josyn Herce

Rom Brafman holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has taught university courses in personality and personal growth. His current research interests focus on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. He has a private practice in Palo Alto, California.

Author Q&A

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? 

From the Hardcover edition.



“From the business world to the battlefield, this book will take you inside the moments that differentiate success from failure. One of the most engaging books I have read in the last decade.” TOM RATH, AUTHOR OF STRENGTHSFINDER 2.0
“Some ‘high risk’ kids who are supposed to fail instead turn out to shine with success. The secret of this amazing resilience has been scientifically investigated by psychologists. Now Rom Brafman brings you the three secrets of resilience in the stories of these amazing people who ‘tunnel through adversity’ and into success. Now these secrets can be yours. This book will change lives.” —JOHN M. GOTTMAN, PH.D., COAUTHOR OF THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES FOR MAKING MARRIAGE WORK
“A provocative new book about the psychological forces that lead us to disregard facts or logic and behave in surprisingly irrational ways.” —NEW YORK TIMES
“A unique and compulsively readable look at unseen behavioral trends.” —FORTUNE
“[An] engaging journey through the workings—and failings—of the mind . . . Their stories of senselessness . . . are as fascinating as the lessons we learn from them.” —FAST COMPANY
“A page-turner of an investigation into how our minds work . . . and trick us. Think you behave rationally? Read this book first.” —TIM FERRISS, AUTHOR OF THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER THE 4-HOUR WORKWEEK

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