Excelling after a personal disaster--is it common?

There are two examples that spring to mind: Stephen Hawking and Lance Armstrong. For those who don’t follow such things:

Stephen Hawking was a promising young student of physics (at University College, Oxford) but never really got off his ass and excelled–he just did enough to get good grades. Then, shortly after his 21st birthday, he found that he has ALS. He says he was somewhat bored with life before the discovery. Clearly, not so much after! His name is now mentioned in the same breath with Einstein and Newton–and he is featured on Star Trek.

Lance Armstrong was a talented athelete who eventually settled on cycling as his sport. Word in the pro ranks was that he was talented but weak on the hills. Then tests revealed advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and his brain. On his Web site he says it was “… the best thing that ever happened to me.” As most know, he is possibly the best cyclist that’s ever lived, especially good on the hills–and he’s dating Cheryl Crow.

So, are these data points anomolies? Is this a common occurance? Is there any way to tell what sort of person will take the lemons and make lemonade*? Certainly there are many people who could have made more of their lives after such a personal disaster but didn’t. What makes the difference?

*What?!? No napkins!?!?

I have known several WWII concentration camp survivors. Every one of them shared two things

  1. They were very sucessful in business.
  2. Their children were crazy. Not hearing voices crazy, but minor crazy like OCD.

I understand #1, but not #2.

Not that this is anything but anecdotal, but I had a boss tell me once that whenever an employee got divorced, they became workaholics to make up for the sudden lack of home life.

I would say the ratio is easily 100 to 1 of losers who never recover to their former level, or in some cases, simply auger in after disaster. Lots of people simply give up and crawl into a bottle. Doesn’t make a very uplifting after school special, but I bet it is closer to the truth.

Lance Armstrong was already the number one rated cyclist in the world before he was diagnosed with cancer.

Really? Cite?


Here’s a biography of Armstrong:


Look at the paragraph in the middle headed “Cancer”. Armstrong was the number one rated cyclist at the beginning of 1996. In October he was diagnosed with cancer.