There’s an unhealthy belief in the startup world that adversity makes for a great entrepreneur. It’s the “if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger” kind of thing. Stats like “7 in 10 entrepreneurs cite** traumatic childhood experiences as the reasons for their business success**” are thrown around to support it.
I don’t agree with this belief. Instead, I think it’s the positive things - the love and support and mentorship - in one’s life that are far more important in making one successful.
What’s Wrong with Idolizing Adversity?
First, it’s empirically wrong. There are many serious counterexamples to the “adversity” argument. In fact, they’re some of the most famous entreprenur success stories out there, with names like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen, and Steve Jobs on the list.
Jobs and Gates; successful despite having healthy childhoods ^_^
Moreover, in a way focusing on childhood trauma as key to success celebrates the trauma instead of vilifying it, which makes me very uncomfortable.
Finally, idolizing adversity begets a certain attitude. The kind of “F you, world, I’m going to succeed regardless of what you throw at me” combative attitude, which doesn’t help you mentor your own employees, doesn’t make customers believe in you, nor does it change the world for the better.
All those good things come from a positive place. A place of hopes and dreams, and from a resilient attitude that has very little to do with adversity.
My Father’s Horatio Alger Story
My father faced adversity, to put it lightly. He escaped Cuba with his sister as part of the Pedro Pan operation at age nine. His parents remained in Cuba where they were both imprisoned for years. Many people he knew growing up with executed to shouts of Peredón! In the US, he and his sister jumped between foster homes, living largely in poverty, until their uncle managed to escape Cuba and settled them in Port Chester, New York.
In public school, he was sorted into the lowest class, because he couldn’t speak English. His lifelong friends from that era are a mixture of blue collar workers, hardened criminals, and drug addicts (many of whom I knew as a kid but are now deceased).
He went to a Catholic University, Fordham, because his best friend’s mother pushed him to apply. It was the only school he applied to, and he worked to pay his own way through school.
He retired a wealthy man. A senior executive & officer of GE Capital, running risk management for EMEA.
What Made My Father
Despite all of the above, I don’t believe the adversity he faced is what lead to his eventual success.
My father had a great early childhood. He rode horses at his grandfather’s ranch, went to private school in Havana, and was loved.
Throughout his life he had role models. His father early, and later in his teens. His uncle during middle school. His best friend’s mother, who did a lot to look after him. And many mentors over the years at GE who spent time with him and helped him grow within the company to a great height.
Knowing him as I’ve known him my whole life, I believe those things, the positive things - and not the adversity - have been more instrumental in his success than a narrative of pain and suffering.
Resilience, Not Adversity
My father survived his traumatic experiences, and came off no worse for wear, because he’s resilient, which is absolutely an important factor of what makes a successful entrepreneur. When starting a business, bad things happen almost constantly, at every stage. A deal goes sideways. A key employee quits. A competitor beats you to the punch. Two of your employees are at each other’s throats. You’re nearing the end of your cash runway. The list of crap that happens is endless.
“Resilience” is a hot topic in mental health. Essentially, it means how a person deals with something bad that happens.
My wife and both her parents are psychiatrists. They have treated patients from children through geriatrics, from poor to rich, from all walks of life, over decades.
It turns out that some people are simply more resilient than others. A recent New Yorker article goes into this in more detail:
Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?
Said another way, the only thing that adversity does is help identify people that are resilient, not create them!
Now to my quick beef on the “7 out of 10” quote. Maybe 7 out of 10 of everyone in the world could cite traumatic childhood experiences, and I bet in every single case they would say, for better or worse, the traumatic experiences made them who they were. Moreover, one person’s “traumatic” may be another person’s, “that’s not so bad” (example: Elon Musk running away to Canada; tough but not even in the same league as what my father dealt with).
Anyway, my in-laws actually teach resilience to teenagers they treat. You know what correlates with greater success in learning to be more resilient? My father-in-law put it best:
With the teenagers I see, the key to overcoming adversity is the development of new skills (learning to control impulses, learning to delay gratification, discipline, practice, etc) in the context of supportive, nurturing, almost loving relationships. Like good psychotherapy and good parenting, love, and loving relationships are strengthening.
That is, having positive things in your life are integral to building resilience and succeeding against adversity.
My personal beef with the adversity belief boils down to a celebration of suffering. It sends the message that it’s somehow okay that Oprah was sexually abused because that abuse *helped *to create the megastar that she is today; that her success can and should be attributed to her abuse. In no universe should that be an acceptable idea. Pain does not make you better. Let’s not tell ourselves or anyone else that.
It’s not adversity that makes the entrepreneur, it’s resilience (among many other things), which is fueled by support and love.
Bad things happen to good people. Good people are not made by bad things happening to them.