The Think Piece Interview: David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz

The book isn’t what you think it is. Yes, it’s called Supersurvivors. Yes, it’s about the power of resiliency. Yes, it’s inspiring. No, it’s not about positive thinking. It’s more an ode to the power of realistic thinking, or what authors David B. Feldman (right) and Lee Daniel Kravetz, both psychologists in the Bay Area, call grounded hope. For their book they conducted more than 150 interviews with people who have endured terrible events, from an Olympic swimmer with cancer to a Hollywood stuntman who lost a leg to several subjects struggling with mental health issues. They examined what caused some people to bounce forward from trauma. Their conclusions are fascinating and not obvious at all: that positive thinking is fine but not if it leads to magical thinking; that perceived support can be as good as real support; that a bit of overconfidence is not such a bad thing; and that chances are you can’t do everything you put your mind to, and that’s a truth that can set you free.

TP: I really liked how your subjects wanted people to know they aren’t super heroes or anything.

Feldman: That’s right. Just about everyone wanted to make that perfectly clear. They aren’t super human. They are channeling the positive strengths that they have inherent within them. It just might have just taken a traumatic event to spur them in this direction.

TP: You make is clear early on that this is not a Norman Vincent Peale book. It’s not about hugging.

Feldman: We found that people who accept the reality of their situations do better, and that shows up in the data. These people don’t paint a smiley face over things. They say, Look, I have lost a leg that’s not coming back, or I lost my eyesight. I can’t erase the past in any way. But given that, what can I do? Casey Pieretti became a stuntman; he tried a lot of  things. There’s no shortage of things he wants to try. Many didn’t succeed. But then he’d just try something else. He knows with his leg he’s not coming back as his old self, but he knows he can still do some pretty amazing things. We  saw this pattern happen over and over again with people we interviewed.

TP: I love the phrase grounded hope, which you make clear is the central takeaway of the book. Where did that come for you?

Feldman: I can’t remember who said it first, but once we came up with it, it quickly became the theme of the book. And we kept seeing it in our research. It was just evident that this was what people were talking about when they told us their stories. Over and over again, within the first 20 minutes of talking to us, we’d hear it, and that is what we we kept coming back to. Grounded hope, grounded hope, grounded hope.

TP: I haven’t read in a lot of places how positive thinking can be a negative thing, but you didn’t shy away from saying that.

Kravetz: What people told us was that in the aftermath of their traumas people would tell them to just think positive. Smile. Be happy. Don’t let negative thoughts enter your mind. If you just think positive things, things will work out for you. But most of our subjects said that wasn’t possible. I think of Alan Lock, who at 20-some years of age, was in the British Royal Navy, a job he had always dreamed of having, and then suddenly he went blind from macular degeneration. He lost his job and dreams. If you fast-forward a few years, he becomes the first blind person to row a rowboat across the Atlantic Ocean, for which he now holds a Guinness Book of World Record. He says he didn’t do it through positive thinking. He told us the only way forward was to ground himself in the reality of his situation and then ask himself a very hopeful question: how can I move forward? He set new goals, which were ambitious but realistic, and he marshaled his personal strengths and he did amazing things.

TP: And the story of Dutch swimmer Maarten van der Weijden underlines this point.

Kravetz: He told us that growing up he was told he could do anything if he just put his mind to it. He kind of believed it. When as a young man he was diagnosed with cancer he was told the same thing in the cancer ward. Just think positive and everything will work Maartenout. But he found it impossible to think positive. The more he forced himself to think positive in the midst of a cancer ordeal the more he felt like he was lying to himself. So he began to realistically assess his chances for survival. It was low, under 50 percent. He began to read about his cancer and he began to do things that would make himself healthy. He was eventually, amazingly, declared cancer free. He brought that same realistic, forward-thinking mentality to his swimming career. He knew he wasn’t the fastest or the most naturally physically gifted swimmer. If he was going to win he needed to admit that to himself. He set a rigorous training schedule, a realistic training schedule, and he ended up winning an Olympic gold medal.

TP: Through the book you’re also careful to say there is a role for positive thinking, a big one, as long as it doesn’t veer into magical thinking. Yes?

Feldman: Of course. It’s just wise not to trick yourself. Going back to Casey. There’s a second characteristic of his that helped him move forward. He has immense self-confidence. It’s what Lee said. Casey tries many things. Many fail. Casey tried to make a TV show. It didn’t work. But Casey was able to say, OK, that one didn’t work, I’m going to try again. He has little fear of failure. We call that a slight bit of overconfidence. Researchers sometimes calls that a positive delusion of control. Believing that you have a little more control over your situation than you really do. It turns out that high achievers who are mentally healthy have that slight overconfidence.

TP: If anything Casey in the book comes off a bit cocky.

Feldman: Yes, and Casey wasn’t the only one in the book, although he was probably the most ostentatious. But at some level every person we spoke with has this sense of being confident. They think, of course I was meant to do this, or win this, or change the world. When you  look at it it’s not narcissism or overconfidence in a negative sense. It’s just an inner strength.

TP: You seem to have quantified a formula for grounded hope in this book.

Feldman: It’s a combination of being fairly realistic on the one hand and having a bit of a distorted positivity on the other.

TP: It was fun to read about the moment when subjects were empowered by their traumas, when they thought, Well that happened, the rest of life should be manageable.

Feldman: They do have that sense that I’m just going to keep going. I’m comfortable taking risks because I’ve lived through the hardest thing ever.

TP: I was so intrigued with your chapter on a faith belief and how the data shows that can often lead to longer, calmer lives. The numbers on the nuns, for example. Much longer lives.

Feldman: I think that in America today we have people who are on two opposite extremes. I hear a lot of people say religion is a good thing, we all should have it. We have people saying the exact opposite. I think the truth is probably in the middle. We paint a picture of two subjects in the chapter on spirituality, both of whom went on to do amazing things. One of them had a faith that was very nurturing, which encouraged him to bounce forward. The other person we interviewed had more of a struggle with spirituality, and had a lot of a guilt and shame. That person had to give up that type of spirituality before he could move forward. The message of the book is spirituality can be good and can be not so good, and I don’t think that should be surprising  as there is great diversity among religious communities. As far as the nuns go, there’s something about their religion and the life they’ve chosen that helps them live longer. We don’t know why. Could be the peace and tranquility that comes with their spiritual tradition. It could be that they’re well taken care of with medical care,. We don’t exactly know. But it’s clear that certain kinds of religion and religious life can lead to really wonderful benefits.

TP: And there is always a place for hope.

Feldman: Yes, because we always have control over what we do and the goals we set for ourselves and the choices we make. I hope people find that a life-giving message. I think a lot of people think of trauma as kind of the end, but trauma, as painful as it is, as awful as it is, can be an opportunity for a beginning of the next phase of your life.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing