Growth through adversity

Miss Lauren Phillips, School Psychologist
Friedrich Nietzsche’s often-heard axiom: ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger’. (Image, Wikipedia)

Challenge and trauma can be used as catalysts for releasing a person’s best potential, ultimately leading to a happier and more fulfilled life. When we look at the world around us, at present and through history, it becomes clear that many people who have achieved the most have experienced hindrances, injuries or the hardest of times. A number of examples follow:

  • German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was called ‘hopeless’ as a composer by his music teacher. Later in life, he became progressively deaf (being completely deaf by age 46). Nevertheless, he went on to write his greatest music, including five symphonies (Canfield & Hansen, 1993).
  • Corrie ten Boom was imprisoned for helping many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. Following her prison and concentration camp stays, Corrie ten Boom was taken finally to Ravensbrück death camp in Germany, but was later released due to clerical error. She went on to set up a rehabilitation centre in the Netherlands for concentration camp survivors, and received a number of honours in her name (ten Boom, Sherrill, & Sherrill, 1971).
  • When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he had carried out more than 2000 experiments to reach the point where it worked. When asked how it felt to fail so many times, he replied, ‘I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2000-step process.’ It is worth mentioning that Thomas Edison was home-schooled after his teachers complained he was ‘too slow’ and ‘too stupid to learn anything’. He went on to create more than 1300 inventions, and was probably the greatest inventor in American history (Canfield & Hansen, 1993).
  • Wilma Rudolph was the twentieth child of twenty-two, and was born prematurely. By the age of 4, she had contracted double pneumonia and scarlet fever, which left her paralysed in her left leg, forcing her to wear a leg brace. Having been told she would never walk again, Wilma Rudolph took off her leg brace at the age of 9 years; by 13, she had developed a rhythmic walk which the doctors proclaimed a miracle. That same year, Wilma decided she wanted to be a runner, and came last in every race she entered; but she persevered and started to win her races, going on to win three Olympic gold medals. ‘My mother taught me very early to believe I could achieve any accomplishment I wanted to. The first was to walk without braces’ (Wilma Rudolph qtd. in Canfield & Hansen, 1993).
  •  In 1962, four young musicians played their first record audition for the executives of Decca Recording Company. This British rock group, who called themselves The Beatles, were turned down, with one executive stating, ‘We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out.’ The Beatles went on to have twenty-seven number one hits (Canfield & Hansen, 1993).
  •  Helen Keller was born in 1880, and in 1882 she fell sick and was struck blind, deaf and mute. She later worked with an extremely dedicated teacher named Anne Sullivan, who supported her in making tremendous progress in her ability to communicate. Helen Keller sought to learn more about the world and how she could help improve the lives of others. During her lifetime, she received many honours in recognition of her accomplishments, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, election to the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1965, and countless honorary doctoral degrees (A+E Television Networks, 2013). Throughout her remarkable life, Helen Keller stood as a powerful example of how determination, hard work, and imagination can allow an individual to triumph over adversity. By overcoming difficult conditions with a great deal of persistence, she grew into a respected and world-renowned activist who laboured for the betterment of others.

Post-traumatic growth

Quote_LPhillipsGrowth through trauma, specifically, is well documented in psychological research. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, psychologists at the University of North Carolina, interviewed survivors of acute injuries (1996). They then went on to survey elderly people who had lost their spouses. Person after person told them the same thing: they wished deeply that they had not lost a spouse or been paralysed, but nonetheless, the experience changed them for the better.

Patterns began to emerge in a further study with trauma survivors. People reported positive change in five areas: they had a renewed appreciation for life; they found new possibilities for themselves; they felt more personal strength; their relationships improved; and they felt spiritually more satisfied. Tedeschi and Calhoun named this ‘post-traumatic growth’ (1996).

Evidence of post-traumatic growth has been found across cultures: in Palestinians who were held in Israeli prisons; in Turkish earthquake survivors; in Germans who survived the Dresden bombing; and in Israelis who survived terrorist attacks (Rendon, 2012). Stacey Holmes (2004) and others have reported similar findings in people’s reactions to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City.

Evidence in nature

Growth through adversity is evident in many facets of life. An example in nature exists with grape vines: water stress, whereby vine roots must grow deeply into the earth to reach their water supply, actually improves the fruit quality. Making vines struggle will generally result in the production of better quality grapes. If you take a grapevine and make its physical requirements for water and nutrients easily accessible, then, somewhat counterintuitively, it will give you poor grapes.

California’s first documented imported European vines were planted in Los Angeles in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes (Wikipedia, 2013). Conditions were ‘perfect’, with nutrient-rich soil and a good water supply; but wine produced from these grapes did not taste as good as wine produced in Europe. In the 1850s and 1860s, Agoston Haraszthy promoted vine planting over much of Northern California. He dug large caves for cellaring, promoted hillside planting with little soil, and fostered the idea of non-irrigated vineyards. Essentially, he made the vines struggle to grow and, in turn, was rewarded with grapes of high quality.

When relating this example to growth through adversity, it is because the vine has a choice; in a favourable environment, it will choose to take the easy option, focusing its energies on making leaves and shoots, with less concern for producing grapes. When circumstances are made more difficult for the vine — such as having a restricted water supply, having limited nutrients available, being pruned harshly, or made to grow in close proximity to other vines — then the vine will focus its energy on reproducing itself, which, for a vine, means producing good fruit.

Embracing challenges

Quote2_LPhillipsAmerican Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr. once said, ‘There are no great people in this world, only great challenges which ordinary people rise to meet’ (cited in Power Performance, 2003).

It is easy to be disheartened when things don’t seem to be going well, but challenges can build emotional resilience. However, that doesn’t mean difficulties always have to be faced alone. By taking advantage of support from others, the obstacles we encounter may become easier to overcome; through sharing experiences and seeking guidance from professionals, emotional growth is attainable.

Here at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, girls learn that it is acceptable and wise to seek support. The Student Care team can help girls with many issues, supporting them to manage problems and work through difficult situations. It is important to provide a nurturing environment, but an equally important aspect of student care is to ‘push’ students on their way, encouraging them to set their own challenges and goals, to go one step further, to aim higher, and to continue to grow from within. There is a delicate balance which we strive to preserve: the provision of care when students face external challenges, and encouragement of students to grow inwardly stronger, to exceed their self-perceived boundaries and to ultimately achieve their individual potential.

Camps at Marrapatta provide opportunities for students to challenge themselves, both mentally and physically. Camp leaders are available to assist students to reach beyond their own (sometimes falsely perceived) limits to achieve goals that they initially would have thought unobtainable.

The marvellous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. — Helen Keller (qtd. in Annin, 2013)

Research overwhelmingly suggests growth occurs through adversity — be that in nature, or when, as people, we face emotional or physical challenges. We bend; we break; we repair; we rebuild; and often we grow, changing for the better in ways we never would have, had we not suffered along the way.

The ‘Irish Blessing’ (Island Ireland, 2013) says:

May the road rise up to meet you;
May the wind be always at your back;
May the sun shine warm upon your face.

Perhaps it should say:

May you rise up to meet the road before you, at times tortuous, volatile and gruelling;
May you embrace the tempestuous elements that bear down upon you,
Until the sun shines warm upon your face.


A+E Television Networks (2013). Helen Keller: Biography. Retrieved July 1, 2013, from

Annin, S. (2013). Quotes on courage, hope, and overcoming obstacles. Retrieved August 10, 2013, from

Canfield, J., & Hansen, M. V. (1993). Chicken soup for the soul: 101 stories to open the heart and rekindle the spirit. Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Holmes, S. E. (2004). Adjustment in victims of September 11: Reactions to a large-scale civilian trauma. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Science & Engineering, 65(7-B), 3710.

Island Ireland. (2013). Irish blessings and prayers. Retrieved July 15, 2013, from

Power Performance. (2003). Motivational and inspirational quotes. Retrieved July 14, 2013, from

Rendon, J. (2012, March 22). Post-traumatic stress‘s surprisingly positive flip side. The New York Times. Retrieved July 10, 2013, from

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The posttraumatic growth inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455–71.

ten Boom, C., Sherrill, J. L., & Sherrill, E. (1971). The hiding place. New York: Guideposts Associates, Inc.

Wikipedia. (2013). History of California wine. Retrieved July 12, 2013, from

Original publication date:  22 August 2013

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