Traumatic experiences often shake people to their very core. A horrible event can affect survivors in such a powerful way that it compels them to rethink their worldview and purpose.
While many of us experience trauma at some point in our lives, few are able to bounce back from disaster to achieve incredible success. Psychologists David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz call these exceptional people “supersurvivors” in their new book, “Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success.”
With time, these resilient people accept that they cannot change the past and begin to set new priorities for their lives. They can serve as role models for anyone dealing with even minor setbacks.
The authors clarify from the outset that they’re not “extolling the bright side of tragedy” but rather looking at extreme examples of how to overcome adversity and focus ambitions.
“We’re in no way saying that trauma is a good thing,” Feldman tells Business Insider. “But it offers an opportunity to reassess life.”
One of the supersurvivors the authors examine in their book is Alan Lock, the first legally blind person to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
Lock was born with full vision, and as he grew up in England, he dreamed of having a career in the military. He spent his early 20s as a junior officer in the Royal Navy. When he was 23, he began to notice his vision was dimming at a rapid rate. An eye test revealed that he had a genetic abnormality that led to macular degeneration, which would eventually leave him with only limited peripheral vision. The Royal Navy had to discharge him.
Lock struggled as his vision grew increasingly worse. “No matter what people say, there were no positives in losing my sight,” he tells Feldman and Kravetz. He refused to sugarcoat his situation, but that didn’t mean he was going to give up on his life.
After he accepted that he had no future in the military, he determined he would find another alternative to a boring lifestyle. He decided that he would paddle a rowboat from Spain to Barbados. “People thought I was nuts. But this was my life now, and I wanted to do something that stretched me mentally and physically. I was shooting for a watershed moment,” he tells the authors.
So in 2008, he set off with his sighted friend Matt Boreham, and after 86 days they completed their journey across the Atlantic. They had raised money for the charity Sense, which supports people who are both deaf and blind.
Since then, Lock has raised more money by running the 243-kilometer Marathon de Sables in the Sahara and trekking across Antarctica to the South Pole.
Lock went through the process that defines every supersurvivor, using an approach Feldman and Kravetz say anyone can benefit from.
“First, they grounded themselves in what could not be changed,” Feldman tells us. Lock realised that positive thinking wasn’t going to bring his vision back. And though he grieved his fate, he did not give in to despair. He accepted what was out of his power to change. He let go of his goal to become an accomplished military man, but he made room for new ones.
After taking a realistic view of the past and present, these survivors take a highly optimistic view of the future. They take a “slightly inflated view of oneself and one’s ability to control one’s future,” which the authors write is a trait common among powerful people like successful CEOs of big corporations.
Kravetz explains to us that Lock had such a high level of self-confidence when he set out to row across the Atlantic that any regular person could have found him delusional, but the fact that he traveled with a sighted friend, a GPS, and plenty of equipment shows that he wasn’t acting on some reckless, denial-based positive thinking.
And finally, Feldman and Kravetz tell us, all supersurvivors bounce back with a support group behind them. Studies have shown that survivors who accept the motivation and counsel of loved ones have a better chance at post-traumatic growth. Lock, for example, has pushed through his endurance tests alongside close friends and for the benefit of those dealing with vision and hearing impairment.
Feldman and Kravetz say that the purpose of their book changed as they interviewed more subjects. They write: “We intended to write a book about how a few extraordinary people had survived trauma. With the help of supersurvivors… we ended up writing about how every one of us can live more fully.”
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