Childhood Pain and the Price of Success


Citing an aside in David Brooks's column on the Sotomayor hearings,

It is amazing how many people who suffer parental loss between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become astounding high achievers.

a reader in India writes

I would enjoy knowing the other examples that Brooks had in mind when he remarked that often those losing a parent in their childhood grow up to become high achievers. I can think of many such people in my own life, but would like to know the public figures.

This is the kind of paradox I've been looking into. Teresa Amabile, in Creativity in Context, cites a number of studies (212, 263):

"Eminent scientists": 26 percent
"Eminent French and English poets": 24 percent
"Eminent English writers and poets": 55 percent
"Historical geniuses": 30 percent
American Presidents: 34 percent
British Prime Ministers: 33 percent

Even allowing for higher morality before the later twentieth century, these are quite a contrast with the average of 8 percent who lose a parent by 16.

In the current Atlantic, see Christopher Hitchens on Abraham Lincoln's traumatic childhood:

The law as it then stood made children the property of their father, so young Abraham was "hired out" only in the sense of chattel, since he was obliged to turn over his wages. From this, and from the many groans and sighs that are reported of the boy (who still struggled to keep reading, an activity feared and despised by his father, as it was by the owner of Frederick Douglass), we receive a prefiguration of the politician who declared in 1856, "I used to be a slave." In Lincoln's unconcealed resentment toward his male parent, we get an additional glimpse of the man who also declared, in 1858, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."

Joshua Wolf Schenk has likewise traced the origins of Dr. George Vaillant's quest to understand long-term mental health in his father's unexplained suicide when the son was only ten.

Returning to the main point of David Brooks's column, he seems to be saying that if you want to know the price of success, you can't afford it. We still don't know why  tragedies and abuse seem to strengthen some people and shatter others. But maybe it really isn't so bad to get what you wish for. High status people live longer. The tensions of power are a walk in the park compared to the stress of powerlessness. The elite have many pressures, but these arise from their greater autonomy. Even many middle-class people with professional credentials may have little control over the decisions most closely affecting them, especially now. And nobody understands this better than people who have known poverty and loss.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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