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Book review: Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail by Rom Brafman

This review was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.

Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail: The Six Principles of High Achievement

By Rom Brafman

Crown Archetype

$25.95

One of the most resilient people I know just happens to be my kid sister.

Ellie was only 11 years old when our dad suddenly died. They’d been inseparable. My dad had summers off so most of every July and August was spent at the beach. He was proud of his daughter and no doubt grateful and relieved that she had the smarts and focus that appeared to be missing in his two older yet somewhat less mature sons.

A few years after losing her husband, our mom decided to start over. So Ellie said goodbye to her hometown friends and moved from a big city to a very small town with an even smaller high school. 

Now, my sister could have opted to become a sullen, miserable and rebellious teenager. Had she strayed from the straight and narrow, hid from the world and made some stupid choices, we would have understood and given her a free pass.

Instead, Ellie met the nicest boy from that very small town. Her grades were so good in high school that I wondered if there’d been a mix up in the maternity ward and she’d accidentally wound up with our family. Ellie graduated from high school with top marks and went on to university. She earned scholarships and research grants, served as a student leader and reluctantly became one of the poster children for the university’s nationwide marketing and recruitment campaign.

And when Ellie completes her PhD in a few months time, I’ll get to call my kid sister Dr. Robb.

Author Rom Brafman would also call my sister a tunneler. “Working as a psychologist, I have had the privilege of interacting with a number of clients who are tunnelers. When they relate the difficulties in their lives, which are often filled with unimaginable hardships, I’m constantly intrigued by their ability to fight through their difficulties and surmount the challenges that would keep most people back. What allows them to go on to lead extremely successful lives – to graduate from college, form loving relationships and lead successful careers?

“When I bring this to their attention and ask them how or why they think it is that they were able to overcome their disadvantages, they are puzzled. They don’t realize they are tunnelling or doing anything out of the ordinary. But as we spend more time together, it becomes increasingly evident that they lead their lives differently from most of us.”

And how they lead their lives reveals what Brafman calls the six enduring principles of high achievement. The good news is you’d don’t need to graduate from the school of hard knocks to adopt these principles.

“I believe that by embracing these principles, all of us can learn how to better face and overcome adversity in our lives. Instead of giving in to events – no matter how challenging or difficult they may be – we can find ways to work through that adversity and appreciate life and its endless potential to the fullest.”

High achievers point the limelight at themselves rather than the world around them. “They take full responsibility for the events that unfold in their lives, viewing themselves as central participants,” says Brafman. They don’t point fingers, blame others when things go sideways or cast themselves as helpless victims to forces beyond their control.

High achievers have a desire for generating meaning in all aspects of their lives. “An essential aspect of the drive to persevere and overcome the odds involves the extraction of meaning.” They put a premium on engaging in activities that they find fulfilling.

High achievers have an unwavering commitment to persevere and stay the course.  They’re blessed with an even-tempered disposition and don’t get easily worked up or stressed out. They use humour to counteract adversity.

And they have what Brafman calls a satellite. It’s not all inner drive with high achievers. They have someone in their corner who offers what psychologists call unconditional positive regard.

“Think back to any significant challenge you had to overcome in your life. Chances are you can point to a specific individual who was there to support you, whether a mentor, a good friend or a trusted family member. He or she acts as a satellite – someone who is consistently available when needed, who’s there as a point of strength. Knowing that we have someone on our side, someone to whom we can turn whenever we need help, makes enduring life’s burdens a lot easier.”  

Which brings me back to the resilient and high achieving soon-to-be Dr. Robb.  My mom moved to that small town to live a few streets over from her brother and sister-in-law. My aunt and uncle took my kid sister under their wing. They included my sister and mom in winter vacations, family get-togethers and holidays. They went to every graduation ceremony and celebrated every birthday. And when Ellie married the nicest boy from that very small town, it was my uncle who proudly walked my kid sister down the aisle.

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