What Makes a Rebounder
Millions of people have quoted Friedrich Nietzsche, the starchy German philosopher, without knowing what kind of philosophy he espoused or even who he was. In 1895, Nietzsche provided a motto for generations of strugglers when he published his famous aphorism number 8, from the book Twilight of the Idols: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche was paraphrasing poets and philosophers who had observed a connection between adversity and triumph since the days of Job and Odysseus. Yet the bumper sticker pithiness of his aphorism gave this ancient meme a modern interpretation that ordinary folks have used ever since to ascribe meaning to their travails. That’s not exactly what the German provocateur intended. Nietzsche suffered from a variety of severe illnesses, including blinding migraines and debilitating gastro-intestinal problems, yet he came to view his suffering as a gift. He felt that his medical maladies had given him an intense appreciation for life and helped him achieve the kinds of extraordinary insights he needed for his philosophical work, in which he frequently questioned and sometimes skewered accepted values. “Being sick can even become an energetic stimulus for life, for living more,” he wrote in his autobiography, Ecco Homo. To him, the resilience that came from enduring difficult challenges was a kind of exceptional strength, available only to a few. It was a privileged status, not a common condition.
In 2010, researchers Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo and Alison Holman and Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California, Irvine, published a study that tested Nietzsche’s aphorism. Could painful struggle really make people stronger and healthier? By that time, decades of research had shown that resilience—the capacity to cope with adversity, overcome it, learn from it, and even be transformed by it—was a vital human quality. It was clear that hardships decimate some people, as expected, while others seemed to recover with little or no damage. But most of that research focused on a single event, like death or divorce, without measuring the effects of cumulative adversity—the whole range of things that can happen to people over time. And there was no real evidence that disruptive events could make people more resilient. In a way, that was consistent with Nietzsche’s thinking, because he felt the kind of extraordinary strength that emerged from his own suffering was rare.
Seery and his colleagues wondered if the phenomenon might be more common. So they surveyed nearly 2,400 adults ranging in age from 18 to 101, asking whether they had ever experienced any of thirty-seven negative events, ranging from the loss of a loved one to financial stress to natural disaster. They asked the same questions several times over three years, to account for new problems as they developed. Along the way, they also asked whether the participants suffered from depression, anxiety, or other factors that impaired their ability to function normally, to gauge their mental health.
What they discovered is that there’s good adversity and bad adversity. The typical person in the study had a median age of forty-nine and had experienced seven adverse events, with the death of a loved one being most common, followed by a family member’s illness, relationship stress, and violent episodes. One unfortunate soul had endured seventy-one discrete adversities. About 8 percent of the participants, on the other hand, had experienced no adverse events. But they weren’t as lucky as you might think. As the researchers expected, people with a high history of adversity experienced a relatively high level of mental health problems. But so did people with no adversity. People who had experienced moderate amounts of adversity turned out to be the healthiest, with the lowest levels of emotional distress and the highest levels of satisfaction. Nietzsche, it turned out, was more right than he knew: Enduring a few slings and arrows can make people happier than living a charmed life and experiencing none at all. This phenomenon was actually common. The researchers even noticed a particular number of adversities that seemed to correlate with the most resilient people: three.
Resilience is the core strength of a Rebounder. And while Rebounders have been around forever, the science that helps us understand their special qualities is relatively new, and still evolving. In Nietzsche’s day, resilience, as it was understood, was largely considered innate: Either you came preloaded with it, or you were out of luck. Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology, felt that an individual’s personality was largely fixed by the age of five. Years of intensive therapy might help to uproot psychosis or other disorders, but if you weren’t born a winner, there probably wasn’t much you could do about it. That view began to change as psychologists explored the characteristics that allowed people to survive, and even thrive, after adversities and setbacks. In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck developed something called cognitive therapy, which allowed people to overcome depression or anxiety simply by thinking more objectively about what troubled them, with less self-pitying emotion. Beck’s innovations made it clear that people could improve their response to challenges and learn to live better, without the need for years of Freudian therapy. In the 1990s, psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman developed a new discipline known as positive psychology, meant to categorize and explain not what goes wrong but what goes right with people—and use that knowledge to help them become healthier and more durable. Legions of other researchers have probed the myriad attributes and phenomena that generate the protective factors once called invulnerability, and now known as resilience. The U.S. military has even funded some of the research, hoping it might help inoculate soldiers against the psychological brutality of combat and reduce the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The insights and tools provided by all this research create a road map for how to become a Rebounder. Researchers have, in fact, proven that some resilience is innate. A variety of studies have shown that about one-third of people are born with a natural reservoir of resilience that allows them to cope effectively with challenges or setbacks, overcome them, and end up better off. That seems to be true whether you’re born wealthy or poor, in affluent places like America or Europe, or less-developed areas where life is harder. And it plays out in many ordinary events. Back in 1975, a team of researchers led by psychologist Salvatore Maddi began a twelve-year study of 450 executives at Illinois Bell Telephone, which was part of Ma Bell—AT&T—when it had monopoly status and was the nation’s dominant phone service provider. The court-ordered deregulation of AT&T in 1981 led to severe cutbacks at IBT, which is a familiar corporate scenario these days but was unusual at the time. By the end of 1982, IBT had downsized from 26,000 employees to 14,000. Nearly half of the workers in the study group got laid off, while many of the others had to adapt to new responsibilities or other stressful changes.
Within a few years of the disruption, Maddi and his team found that the one-third rule applied. The resilient people who stayed at IBT rose quickly and became company leaders, while those who left landed good jobs or started their own companies. The other two-thirds became corporate America’s walking wounded, struggling in their new jobs or wallowing in unemployment. They sought relief in drugs or alcohol, battled with spouses, and even turned violent on occasion. It would be nice to report that corporate tactics have become gentler since then, but unfortunately those downsized IBTers were more pioneering than they knew.
Maddi and his team found that the one-third of workers who fell into the resilient group had three qualities in common: They remained committed to their work even when conditions got tough, avoiding the kind of gossip, recrimination, and political infighting that’s tempting to engage in but usually accomplishes little. They believed they could do something to control what happened to them, which helped prevent them from feeling powerless. And they viewed unexpected change as a chance to grow or find opportunity, which made them optimistic even as they knew they faced stressful challenges. The vulnerable two-thirds, by contrast, did things familiar to anybody who has ever been involved with a team of any kind, or encountered a mere sliver of humanity: They complained, blamed others for their problems, exaggerated their distress, and busied themselves with trivial tasks, while pretending bad things weren’t happening. When the layoffs came, these Wallowers got axed in outsized proportion.
So hooray for the lucky one-third of us who are born with natural antibodies against stress. But what about the other two-thirds? And what if you’re not sure which fraction you belong to? Or you want to supplement your natural resilience, just in case? One of the most important insights about resilience is that it’s as learnable as any other skill, and it doesn’t take years of psychoanalysis or other rigorous effort to accomplish. In fact, the natural vicissitudes of life often help us build durability. All we have to do is let them happen, and learn from them.
The opportunities to learn resilience and add to our natural supply of it begin when we’re kids. Most parents instinctively recoil at the thought of their children enduring stress, discomfort, or failure, since it’s a parent’s job to protect their kids against danger, not expose them to it. Yet decades of research now makes it clear that “controlled” exposure to adversity helps kids become confident and adaptable. That doesn’t mean setting them loose in some kind of Lord of the Flies experiment. But it does mean letting kids experience failure that’s appropriate for their age, and letting them figure out how to overcome it on their own. Several of the Rebounders I interviewed and studied endured some kind of unusual stress as children, such as an alcoholic or abusive parent, divorce, financial strain, or neighborhood violence. Others who grew up more comfortably had an inclination, and the freedom, to seek adventure and fend for themselves in ways that would make many parents uncomfortable today. I’ve been careful not to draw oversimplified conclusions from my own concentrated sample of research, but it seems safe to say that some people feel comfortable taking measured risks as adults because they learned as kids that they can survive scary challenges.
Parents don’t need to hire adversity consultants or send their kids to failure camp if they want them to benefit from a taste of hardship, because the right kinds of challenges happen naturally enough. Young kids who play hide-and-seek experience a kind of controlled tension, since they’re temporarily cut off from the group that supports them. Early sleepovers and other events where kids feel sep-aration anxiety are a kind of adversity, forcing kids to make them-selves comfortable without the reassuring presence of their parents. Being treated unfairly by a coach or teacher or other kids can be a rough experience that makes kids feel unprotected. And losing at something—a game, a tryout, an academic challenge—generates disappointment. But when it’s all over and kids realize that the world hasn’t ended, they become a bit more durable.
There’s plenty of convincing research showing that when kids cope with manageable challenges like these, they end up feeling more competent and stronger. They develop “stress protection” and learn that they can handle setbacks, which makes the next challenge seem less intimidating. Most important, they learn that they have some power to control what happens after a setback, instead of being captive to the vicissitudes of fate. About one-third of kids show strong resilience on their own—there’s the one-third rule again. Between the ages of five and nine, most kids begin to learn resilience through everyday experiences—a phenomenon that child psychologist Ann Masten dubbed “ordinary magic” because it happens naturally, without the effort or even awareness of parents. Starting around nine, kids can be taught how to develop deeper Rebounding skills, much as they’re taught math or manners. Over time, a well-taught Rebounder will develop layers of emotional durability that will help him or her master everyday challenges, grow through setbacks, and survive trauma without becoming damaged.
Parents can aid this development—but they can interfere with it, too. “Helicopter parents” who hover over their toddlers to prevent anything unpleasant from happening to them foster dependence, not resilience. Praising a child’s innate talent or intelligence—instead of encouraging hard work or practice—doesn’t build confidence, as many parents believe. Instead, it makes kids think that success should come easily, without effort. Then, when something goes wrong or turns out to be hard, they’re left without the resources to rise to the occasion, which generates self-doubt, not confidence. Self-esteem slogans like “You’re special!” or “You can do anything you set your mind to!” create unrealistic expectations of a seamless path through life. So do sports games with no score—meant to prevent one team from “losing” and therefore feeling ruinous disappointment—and “participation awards” given simply for showing up. Parents who routinely intervene with coaches or teachers, to plead for better grades or a more favorable spot in the lineup, are teaching their kids that success comes from somebody else’s actions, rather than their own. Some researchers even think that super-safe playgrounds with soft surfaces, short slides, and injury-proof play areas—in lieu of banging seesaws, dizzying tire swings, and monkey bars you have to work up to with age—may stunt children’s emotional development. Instead of allowing kids to progressively confront fears and anxieties, as happens when a child climbs higher and higher on a jungle gym, for example, they provide an antiseptic environment where there are barely any challenges to master.
The same principles apply to adults, whether they learned resilience earlier in life or not. The stakes are obviously higher, though. Nobody’s going to shower the typical thirty- or forty-year-old with vapid praise, or intervene to prevent discomfort. Adults need to solve problems on their own, and they’ll either learn to do it, like a Rebounder, or suffer repeat setbacks, like a Wallower. The good news is that resilience is learnable at any age, and it pays dividends no matter when it starts to work in your favor. We tend to think that success comes from natural gifts like intelligence or talent, but the connection isn’t nearly as strong as it might seem. Renowned psychologist Howard Gardner has shown that the most widely understood form of intelligence—the kind measured on an IQ test—accounts for only about 20 percent of what makes people successful. Raw talent can provide a head start, but as basketball wizard Michael Jordan learned when he was cut from his high-school basketball team, it better be amplified by effort and determination. All around us, in fact, are underachieving prodigies who fall short of their promise: Golfer John Daly, actress Lindsay Lohan, off-the-charts genius Chris Langan, who has a sky-high IQ but could never attain his dream job as a professor because he couldn’t finish college. There are many other naturally talented people whom none of us will ever hear of, because they lack the fortitude to rise above mediocrity. “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent,” President Calvin Coolidge said long ago. “The world is full of educated derelicts.”
Excerpted from Rebounders by Rick Newman. Copyright © 2012 by Rick Newman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.