'Supersurvivors' author: Crises carry profound financial impacts
By Sally Herigstad | Published: July 14, 2014
If you've been through, or are still going through, a traumatic event in your life, "Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success" authors David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz have some encouraging news for you.
You stand a better-than-even chance of experiencing positive psychological change after a trauma. We're not just talking about the sense of relief that comes after a negative event has passed, either. According to Feldman and Kravetz, a number of survivors go on to change not only their lives, but the world as well. The authors call these people "supersurvivors."
Feldman and Kravetz interviewed 150 people and narrowed it down to 17 whose stories are featured in the book. These crisis survivors faced a wide variety of crises, but one thing the authors found was consistent: virtually every type of traumatic event, even if it is not primarily financial, has profound financial consequences.
CreditCards.com talked to co-author Lee Daniel Kravetz about the financial side of surviving a traumatic event and rebuilding your life after it.
LEE KRAVETZ, CO-AUTHOR,
Lee Kravetz was just 29 when diagnosed with cancer. After months of grueling treatment, he was told by his doctor he was cured, but couldn't go back to the life he lived before. What inspired him to write "Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success" was how well many people bounced back after tragedy -- and how some went on to become incredibly successful.
A: I'm a journalist. I have a master's degree in psychology. At the age of 29, I became a cancer survivor. Of course, there was a financial component to that. I lost my job. If I was lucky enough to live, what I would do with my life afterward? I couldn't go back to my life before.
Q: What did you do before the cancer?
A: I did marketing and public relations. It just didn't fit my life anymore. I started becoming very interested in the way people bounced back. I met a lot of cancer survivors who went on to live fulfilling lives. It seemed to me a subject I hadn't really explored.
I had been making a six-figure salary, but I realized that I couldn't see my life in a business setting. I made a conscious choice to leave behind that big paycheck. I went back to grad school and collected even more debt -- about $40,000. On top of that, I had two children. I was paying day care costs, things like that.
Here's the big takeaway. I reevaluated my choices and was able to examine my life and pursue things that were intrinsically true for my life.
I've always on some level wanted to be a writer. But I was terrified of what that would look like in real life. Everyone will tell you it's not necessarily the smartest move. But this is something I've always wanted to do. Life is short. It's too short not to go after the goals that are important to you.
Q: Couldn't you have accomplished great things without the trauma?
A: I think so. You don't need trauma to change your live and change your career. I'd like to think that I would have accomplished my goals, but I don't know if I would have done it in this manner, or if I'd have done it when I did it.
I was in a doctor's office and he said you need to be treated right now or you're not going to live. I went through chemo for three-and-a-half months, which is really rough. I had a couple surgeries.
Eventually, the same doctor said, "Go home. You're cured. Live your life." As wonderful as that was, it was jarring. My head was spinning, and I didn't quite know what to do. How can you go back to doing what you'd been doing before? It changes everything. You realize who your friends are, you realize what's important to you. We go through life thinking we're all going to be OK. Reality is, that's not true. If you can understand that at an early age, you're better off.
Q: When people go through traumatic events, how often do they go through a financial crisis as well?
A: We interviewed people with macular degeneration, [who] survived genocide -- all of these things hit you financially. I don't have the statistics, but I can tell you that 60-80 percent of all people experience a traumatic event in their lives. The majority have indicated finances become a concern. When you are facing a life-threatening event, even people coming back from the theater of war, for example, people have trouble landing jobs and keeping them. It's unfortunate, but all too common.
Q: You don't seem that sold on so-called positive thinking. Why not?
A: The science just doesn't support it. To assume that positive thinking will lead to positive results, you must also assume that the reverse is true, that negative thinking will lead to negative results. What if I'm a positive thinker but bad things continue to happen to me? Is it my fault? It gives the mind more power that it actually has. Being a positive thinker is better than being a negative thinker, but it doesn't get you to the next step.
Q: Is there something you recommend instead of concentrating on positive thinking?
A: We call it Grounded Hope. Grounded Hope is a combination of realistically looking at the situation at hand and not painting a smiley face over it. You're saying, "This is the situation I have to face, and I'm looking at it very realistically."
The second part is hope. I've looked at this realistically, now I look at the things I can control and the things I can influence. This is where we can kind of fantasize a little bit. What are our dreams? How can I realistically go after these dreams? We start setting small goals for ourselves, and we start to achieve them.
Eventually, the same doctor said, "Go home. You're cured. Live your life." As wonderful as that was, it was jarring. My head was spinning, and I didn't quite know what to do. How can you go back to doing what you'd been doing before?
Someone I interviewed said you could walk into a car dealership and be completely broke, and you put your hand on the car you want and say, "I claim this on faith," and in a couple of years you will miraculously have this car.
Unless you have the faculties to actually move toward it and to take small steps toward reaching that goal yourself, positive thinking is an empty promise.
Q: Can you give an example of a supersurvivor who succeeded financially?
A: A great story in the book is about a woman name Amanda. She owned a business called Brandables in Phoenix. She had just bought this company. She was about to get married. She was celebrating her engagement with her fiance while water skiing when she had an accident and a suffered a traumatic brain injury. She went into a coma. When she came out of the coma a month later, she couldn't talk, she couldn't think straight, she couldn't walk straight. She had to relearn how to be human.
She had a traumatic brain injury the same week the economy really started to crash. The Phoenix area was hit hard. As she was recovering in the hospital, the economy around her just bottomed out.
About a year into her recovery, she was told that she owned this business. She didn't even remember. The business was still holding on, but doing badly. She decided she had to take over. She had to lay everyone off. Her mother came in, and they resurrected this business to become a multimillion company, while all the businesses around them were failing.
It wasn't positive thinking. She was having trouble thinking at all! She made a plan and slowly implemented this plan, and today the business is thriving.
Q: What made it possible for her to succeed so spectacularly?
A: It's social support and perceived social support. It doesn't have to be a lot of people. It can be one or two people.
Her fiance joined the company. Her mother and fiance provided the social support.
Q: We all hear about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but you talk about post-traumatic growth. What's that?
A: Post-traumatic growth, or PTG, is positive psychological change after a trauma. The research shows that anywhere between 50-80 percent of us will experience positive psychological change after a trauma.
You don't need to experience a trauma or tragedy to make changes.
When we experience a trauma, we start to relate to people differently. We develop stronger bonds. We begin to make choices in a more conscious manner. We start to develop greater personal reliance. When bad things happen, we're able to persevere more. There's a greater appreciation for life -- the sky is bluer and the grass is greener. You think, "I'm alive!"
Here's the thing. As with depression and anxiety, PTG is time limited. It can last six months or a year. Most people go back to baseline. If you started out before the trauma as a happy person, you'll go back to the person you were before. If you were unhappy, you go back to that.
Supersurvivors do more. They are somehow able to spin PTG to not just change themselves for the better, but sometimes to change the world as well.
Q: Do you have other stories about people who made a financial and career comeback?
A: Another woman had breast cancer in her 20s. She came out of the treatment, not sure what to do with her life. She couldn't go back to what she had been doing. She started taking improv violin lessons while she was in chemo -- something she'd always wanted to do. She moved to Los Angeles from New York, and within one year she had a recording contract. She's been all over the world. She was with "The Tonight Show" band, the "American Idol" band. It's pretty remarkable.
Q: What would you tell someone who is facing financial problems -- perhaps high debt -- at the same time they are fighting a disease or going through a divorce?
A: You don't need to experience a trauma or tragedy to make changes. [The principles in the book] are really common principles.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to tell people?
A: For every supersurvivor story, it does not negate the bad stuff. One hundred percent of supersurvivors also experienced the bad side of trauma, like the depression, the anxiety. One does not cancel out the other. They happen. They are not mutually exclusive.See related: Great American financial failures: From Jefferson to Disney
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