At the age of 23, Alan Lock, a junior officer in the British Royal Navy, began to experience impaired vision. An eye test revealed he had macular degeneration and would be legally blind within a month.
The Royal Navy had no choice but to discharge Lock from his post–one that he had dreamed of since he was a child. Forced to give up on his career, Lock refused to give up on life and set his mind on a new goal and became the first legally blind person to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. He later became the first blind person to trek across Antarctica and the first blind person to run the Marathon de Sables in the Sahara. In addition to setting world records, he’s raised thousands of dollars for worthy charities and become a worldwide inspiration.
We all love an amazing comeback story; especially those about someone who recovered from a horrible event that caused them to re-think their entire worldview and purpose and emerged astonishingly successful. Psychologists David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz call these individuals “supersurvivors.” In their book Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success they argue there are common characteristics of those who are able to turn a traumatic event into a personal success story.
Although the authors are careful to point out they aren’t advocating trauma, they say these individuals are extreme examples of tapping into the resilient nature that lies within all of us. Whether overcoming a traumatic event such as a sudden loss of eyesight or a minor setback such as losing a key client at work, Feldman and Kravetz say there are four key traits that make supersurvivors so resilient that we can all learn from:
“Denial or distortion may feel good temporarily but it makes bouncing forward harder in the long run,” says Feldman. Although the most common advice dispelled by friends and loved ones during a trying time is to tap into the power of positive thinking, all of the supersurvivors Feldman and Kravetz interviewed in their book argued grounding themselves in reality rather than trying to paste a smiley face over a difficult situation was the key to their success. “By grounding yourself in the things you cannot change, it enables you to see more clearly what you can change,” says Feldman.
Setting goals is key to bouncing forward from a traumatic event, but these goals must be within the scope of what is do-able in one’s current situation. “It’s the idea that I can’t change the things life throws at me but I can change what I do with them,” says Feldman.
Feldman and Kravetz say a traumatic event often forces a change in priorities, causing a re-examination their personal priorities and new goals to be set. They offer the example of Amanda Wigal, a college graduate who was, by her own definition, a party girl. She spent a month in a coma after suffering a boating accident while waterskiing. The accident left her brain-damaged, causing her to have to re-learn how to walk, talk and how to do basic skills. Wigal was the owner of a company called Brandables, which prints logos on T-shirts and promotional products. At the time of her accident, she had been too focused on her personal life to put much effort into the company, but as she was re-learning how to speak and how to do basic math, she shifted her focus and set her sights on turning around her company. Having this new goal not only helped to speed up her physical recovery but allowed the business to thrive in ways she had never imagined it would prior to her brain injury.
“In our culture, we don’t celebrate giving up very much and yet the research is really clear that sometimes giving up can be a good thing,” says Feldman. Devastated by the news of his macular degeneration, Lock struggled to let his dreams of a career in the Royal Navy go, but soon realized the only way he would be able to move forward was by giving up on that lifelong dream.
“Doggedly pursuing an impossible goal wastes our energy and our time and under these conditions it can be better to actually give up that goal because this then allows us to embrace new goals; new things that we didn’t see before but that actually then become possible,” says Feldman. It was only after giving up on his goal of re-entering the Royal Navy that Lock was able to set new, amazing goals he’d never considered before.
“Trauma is a very alienating experience,” says Feldman. While some people tend to withdraw from others when faced with a difficult situation, the supersurvivors interviewed by Feldman and Kravetz demonstrate that individuals who accept the support of loved ones have a greater ability to bounce forward than those who retreat into isolation.