Yale Law Professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in a recent New York Times opinion piece entitled “What Drives Success?” postulate that some cultural minority groups achieve success far beyond what their proportion of the population would indicate because of three traits: a feeling of exceptionality, juxtaposed with a feeling of insecurity, focused by impulse control. Chua and Rubenfeld focus on minority cultural groups who are doing strikingly better than the rest of society overall. But I believe there is a direct mapping from their triple package to the traits which tend to make individuals dealing with a physical disability excel dramatically beyond their previous selves or even their non-disabled peers.
To someone like me who has lived with a disability for a significant period of time (in my case 41 of my 57 years), these three traits match exactly with my personal experience and those of the many disabled persons I have worked with — and this article puts these success traits into a broader cultural context.
Lauro Halstead studied success of polio survivors who tended to excel first at their chosen discipline, but early success there carried over to all aspects of their lives. Franklin Roosevelt may be the most famous of this group but it may surprise many to find that the polio survivor group also includes Johnny Weissmuller, Neil Young, Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, Donald Sutherland, Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur C. Clarke, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Itzhak Perlman, Mitch McConnell, Wilma Rudolph, Jack Nicklaus, and many other famous success stories. Polio survivors have become leaders in every field of endeavor. In his 1998 Scientific American article Halstead wrote,
Many post-polio survivors exhibit an extraordinary commitment to exercise, a legacy from their recovery from polio. When a physical therapist prescribed 10 repetitions twice a day to strengthen a certain muscle, patients typically would do 20 or more repetitions three times a day. For many, exercise became a daily obsession, for others, almost a religious devotion. Thus, survivors of polio developed a special relation to their bodies unknown to able-bodied persons. They experienced a new mastery over their muscles and movements, an element of control that had not existed before polio. It was a visceral lesson that carried over into other aspects of their lives and probably accounts for why so many polio survivors have excelled at school and at work
The “mastery” and “element of control” Halstead writes of, leads to overcoming the almost fatal blow to one’s self-esteem that accompanies a physical disability. It is the rebuilding of one’s self-esteem and a heightened sense of self-confidence that leads the disabled to actually achieve the feeling of exceptionality Chua and Rubenfeld consider the first of the triple package of traits.
The newly disabled initially feel pain, fear, and anger, quickly followed by the realization that the losses include significant physical abilities, perhaps friends, and he or she is now saddled with something that acts like a social stigma complete with staring and occasional finger pointing. The individual is surrounded by low expectations that pour out of people, maybe inadvertently. Even if it remains unspoken, the disabled person senses the pity that is coming from all around; pity is most unwelcome.
The loss of the ability to do the most simple physical tasks, at least initially, much less their former abilities, leads to an almost catastrophic loss of self-confidence and self- esteem. As Gloria Steinem said, “It’s not that self esteem is everything. It’s just that there is nothing without it.” Humans cannot live without self esteem and so it forces us to fight back no matter what the disability. Still, we feel alone — we might not know anyone in this situation and many recently disabled express no desire to be in a group of similarly affected individuals anyway. So we begin to feel unique and, because the alternative is unconscionable, we have to fight back somehow so we start to try — something, anything physical that will make us feel better about ourselves. For someone physically disabled, relative to the low expectations all around them, it is not surprising they exceed those expectations, which starts them on a path to see themselves as exceptional.
A small amount of progress is a big deal and once they see even a glimmer of hope, they are motivated to keep going and the virtuous circle begins. One feels relatively exceptional at this first accomplishment and so he or she tries the next thing and pretty soon everything seems doable and the person truly does become exceptional.
Forty-one years ago at 16, bone cancer and amputation made me disabled overnight. I focused on what I had lost. Reinforcing my own negativity were those who said I couldn’t ski, skate, or play football. Once I had a modicum of strength, I started to crutch hike and as I got stronger, exceptionalism (“I’m hiking further than anyone said was possible”), kicked in. Skiing was my worst loss but I focused on conquering one-legged skiing. I did. I would dramatically fly past two-leggers stopped at the brim of a hill as they plotted their course. I knew they were staring and loved it. I had been transformed from a scared teenager into having a feeling of exceptionality; trait one, check.
Chua and Rubenfeld wrote, “It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it is precisely this unstable combination that generates drive.” Indeed, it is this same paradox that drives the disabled to overachieve after being so down and out. With a disability we are not “normal”, and are always reminded of that. We live in a constant fear of failure: amputees fall an average of once a week their entire lives.
There is only one way out: constantly re-prove oneself. I can ski down a steep bump run fast, but when I get to the bottom, I have to walk on crutches and cannot easily carry my ski. The areas of high achievement are bookended by being severely limited. So we become dependent — even addicted — to the things where we have excelled because so many other aspects of life still reinforce the feelings of inferiority. I’ve done the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim from Alcatraz Island 1.5 miles back to Fisherman’s Wharf every year for 20 years. Most participants consider it a bucket list item and ask me, since I successfully did it once, why do I keep coming back? The answer is that it is like a pilgrimage that re-builds the defenses against insecurity. That swim is hard; it requires extremely diligent focused effort to get ready for, but I can do it and most cannot. So it wipes away a lot of the insecurity but just for a while. The brave face of the exceptional disabled person has behind it the doubts and self-drive of the insecure; trait two, check.
Trait three is impulse-control. Self-discipline is the best friend of the disabled. Hard work is essential to conquer anything challenging. One must do things people consider hard and lonely; no problem for the disabled: it’s all hard and we are all lonely. Insecurity drives us so we keep at it. Strong work ethic leads to success: the virtuous circle kicks in again; trait three, check.
Chua and Rubenfeld write, “In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; impulse control can produce asceticism. Only in combination do these qualities generate drive.” For the disabled, they do appear in combination and help the individual not just survive but thrive.
In fact, the authors observe that any (able-bodied) individual can excel beyond what they normally might have:
The way to develop this package of qualities — not that it’s easy, or that everyone would want to — is through grit. It requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn’t ethnically or religiously exclusive. It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.
Yes, anyone, even the able-bodied, can cultivate these traits, if they have grit. Grit the disabled come by naturally. The triple package is the life blood of personal superiority for the disabled. And it is why so many physically disabled individuals achieve success in everything they do.
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s New York Times opinion piece “What Drives Success?” can be found here .