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The Perfect Amount of Trauma

I heard a podcast last year where the host and his guest were talking about Michael Phelps, the all-time record holder for most Olympic medals. Phelps won a whopping 28 medals, 23 of which were gold! Without warning, the host―an accomplished athlete himself―made a comment that hit like a wrecking ball. He said that Phelps had “the perfect amount of psychological trauma” to fuel his competitive nature. Psychological trauma? Aren’t discipline and a strong work ethic the keys to high performance? I had to digest this.

The more I contemplated it, the more I thought the host was right, if not all the time, at least often. Can our brokenness be our superpower? There seem to be examples where this is the case. In Softwar, Matthew Symonds biography of Larry Ellison, Ellison recounts repeatedly how his stepfather berated that he would never amount to anything. One could argue that Ellison has spent his life trying to disprove this.

Can our brokenness be our superpower?

High performers may parade around, self-righteously boasting about their superior habits, when the reality is that they are trying inexorably to fix something in themselves that can't be fixed. The problem is not the parent’s critical comments, or the school children’s insensitive teasing. The problem is that the person took it on and made it a personal belief.

The number one trait of hyper-successful people is a crippling sense of insufficiency. — Chris Williamson, Podcaster

I used the word ‘problem’ above. But is it a problem if it drives someone to success? Does this give us license to be critical, judgmental, or to tease mercilessly? Maybe that could be justified if the cause and effect always worked in a positive direction. But consider the story of the alcoholic with two sons. One son went on to be clean, sober, and hyper-successful. The other followed his father’s footsteps to drunkenness and dereliction. When asked what led to their outcomes, the first son said, “I saw the path my father took, and I certainly wasn’t about to go in that direction.” The second son said, “I saw the path my father took, and had no other example.” On the whole, berating and belittling are probably not for the betterment of their target.

The best revenge is massive success. — Frank Sinatra

Then there is dyslexia. The prevalence of dyslexia in the general population is placed at 5-15%. Compare that with one study suggesting that more than a third of American entrepreneurs might be dyslexic, and another suggesting that 20% of entrepreneurs in the UK are dyslexic. Richard Branson, Stephen Spielberg, and Albert Einstein are all among the ranks of hyper-successful dyslexics.

I embraced the fact that I'm dyslexic because I became one of the best delegators I know. —Richard Branson

While brokenness does not seem to be prerequisite to high performance, psychodynamic theorists have proposed that dysfunctional backgrounds can propel people to overcompensate through high levels of ambition and achievement. It leaves us asking: Is high performance really a choice?

Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist. I took psychology classes in high school and college, and I have read many books and listened to many podcasts on psychology, but there are those who know much more about this than I do. Please take what I have to say accordingly, as food for thought, but not a professional opinion.

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