Of all the popular archetypes in storytelling, one stands out as being the most popular with the most people. Almost everyone loves a good ‘rags-to-riches’ tale for some reason, even when they know the first few chapters might be a little hard to stomach. In fact, that makes it a better story; the worse the tragedy, the more vindicating the success. Whether it’s a spiritual tale or a love story or an actual poverty to providence example, the heights reached by the hero in the end are made more sweet when we remember the depths they plumbed in the beginning.
In fact, it sometimes seems as though greater tragedy brings about greater success for some people. It’s a disturbing correlation, but one that is pretty difficult to deny. Most of us get tripped up mentally or emotionally by even the smallest trauma, and we may take years to process it in a way that makes us feel like it’s dealt with; but others seem to feed on it in some peculiar way. The more of this strange fuel these folks get, the more dramatically they seem to rise to the top.
Rags to riches is one thing, but poverty is seldom the only difficulty someone living this story has to deal with. Abusive or neglectful parents might be a factor, crappy peers and teachers and relatives may play a role, and ailing health could even be a recurring theme. Some hugely successful people started with all of these things stacked against them, and others have horrible stories about serial rape or violence being a regular part of their daily existence for awhile. We don’t hear much about the people broken by these circumstances, but we know of plenty of folks who propelled themselves from these situations into some sort of success.
Of course, we don’t get to hear the story until the success comes. During the hard years, we didn’t know these people existed. It isn’t until they break those bonds and fly high that they create a blip on our radars, and the stuff they went through always seems to be a worthwhile price to pay from the outside and in retrospect. Even the examples themselves often say they wouldn’t trade those early years for anything, as hard as they may have been.
Maybe they know what I suspect, that sometimes tragedy is a better launching pad than opportunity. Of all the happy and successful people that came from happy and successful parents, very few seem to have the drive that some of the people who come from nothing do. It’s as if having it good in the beginning may lead to having it good in the end, but seldom results in greatness. For that to happen, you almost have to start with some kind of trauma.
The last thing I want to do is encourage parents to deliberately neglect or abuse their kids in hopes that it will create greatness in them someday. One thing we don’t have to worry about is a lack of bad parenting in this country; the more time each generation spends pursuing a career or watching television or staring at their phones instead of paying attention to their kids, the more this trend is likely to persist. Very few parents think of themselves as bad parents in this country, anyhow; somehow most parents are convinced just being a parent makes them a better person, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Wherever this hubris comes from, it is a guarantee that kids will keep being traumatized.
Also, financial success does not always bring happiness along with it. While the average person might look at someone with tens of millions of dollars and wonder why they don’t just relax and take some time off, people with this kind of drive don’t always have the desire or ability to turn it off. You or I might assume we would spend at least a year on a beach once our bank account hit eight or nine figures, but money is seldom the reason these folks pushed so hard for so long. It might just be the pushing itself that they are obsessed with, and stacks of money was just a happy by-product of that obsession.
A good parent would rather have a happy kid than raise someone who becomes a wildly successful douchebag. But sometimes the greatness these people achieve is as much spiritual as it is financial. They become better people by holding up bad examples to good ones, and choosing the best of what they see; just like they looked at the financial situation they were raised in and decided they could do better, they also examine the behavior of the people around them and imagine how it might be tweaked into some sort of constant kindness.
The first people that made me think of this kind of thing deeply were comedians. Stand up comedy has been one of my favorite parts of life on Earth ever since I discovered it as a kid, and part of the appeal has always been the brand of honesty the best comedians always seem to bring to the table. These people were talking frankly about their lives long before it became popular to do so, pointing out things other people were afraid to talk about in a way that both rang true and got laughs. Not only that, they all seemed to have one thing in common.
That’s right, trauma. Comedians may be well known for having messed up childhoods in some way or another, but they’re not the only ones. They just tend to be the ones that share the most detail, and put parts of their private inner dialogue out there for everyone to see and possibly relate to. I could name quite a few comedians off the top of my head that endured circumstances we might mildly refer to as ‘seriously fucked up’, but that wouldn’t be fair. Then I’d have to name all the artists and musicians and entrepreneurs who had a similar start, and this post would just be one long list of household names.
Besides, it’s not up to me to prove any of this. If you haven’t noticed it for yourself yet, start looking into the early lives of the people making their mark in a big way. Most people find such stories inspirational if nothing else, and who doesn’t love a good shot of inspiration? Also, that way I don’t have to dedicate an entire blog series to these countless examples of what I’m talking about…because that’s truly what it would take. Tragedy really does bring out the best in some of us, no matter how we turn this issue to look at it in other ways.
Which brings us to our next topic. I mean, what are we supposed to do if we didn’t have the good fortune to have a bad childhood?
That’s a joke, by the way. If you’re not laughing, now is the time.
Human beings are sort of designed to rise to a series of challenges, on some very basic levels. When we push the limits of our bodies, we grow stronger; when we learn new skills and systems, we get smarter. A fairly primal urge exists within each of us that drives us to push against some limitation or other, while the desire to make life as easy as possible on ourselves also seems to be present to some degree in all of us. Is it possible that these are not separate drives, but perhaps two sides of the same coin that is constantly flipping end over end for most of us? That view suggests the obvious, and we might say…
But we’ll wait to say it outright, at least until next week. Then we’ll go a little more deeply into how challenging ourselves in our personal lives can lead to greater success in the professional realm, how most success stories read like a self-help manual, and how personal development is the number one strategy for success in any field according to nearly any book that talks about this sort of thing. Apparently we all just need to make life harder, if we want things to be easier.
I hope you come back next week, and get into that one with me.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,