A decade or so ago, I served as a lead trial attorney in one of the major sex abuse actions against the Catholic Church. If this sounds grim, it mostly was. Since we had 150 clients (of California’s total of eight hundred), it took several months to work through their voluminous case histories, and eight years to resolve the cases. It was a slog through the lowest depths of human depravity. The particulars of what our clients endured as children were gruesome beyond anything reported in the media, and as morally reprehensible as anything I’d experienced, though I’d represented some of the nation’s most notorious murderers. Indeed, as I read on, it was clear that the very term “adult survivor” was misplaced. In case after case, these individuals were victims of what psychologist Leonard Shengold terms, with pitiless accuracy, “soul murder.”
The one-on-one meetings only added the human dimension to the grim statistics. Even now, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, having to relive those experiences was for most sheer torment. If not etched on their faces the moment they walked through the door, it soon showed itself in sullen silences, out-of-nowhere bursts of anger, or simply cold defiance. It was ever-present, inescapable. Though we were their allies, we were also authority figures, and if there was one lesson burned into their psyches, it was never to trust one of those—not a teacher, a cop, a boss, a lawyer, certainly not a priest.
Little wonder that so many had severe drug or alcohol problems, failed in school, or spent time behind bars. What most of us take as the standard markers of normalcy—holding a job, sustaining a relationship, a spouse, a family—were impossibly beyond reach. Their lives as functional human beings had been stopped dead by those long-ago horrors. Even the slightest frustration was an insurmountable object to forward movement. For some clients, this case became their life; they called every day. Three of them would commit suicide before we eventually won.
Yet—and this is the telling thing—a handful among them, perhaps twenty of the 150, stood apart. Not only had they not surrendered to the past, but in surmounting it they discovered a sense of their own power and possibility.
Indeed, early on in the deposition process, I had one of the most memorable encounters of my professional life.
The abuse this particular client had endured was as unspeakably vile as any of the rest. It was all there in his file. He was nine when his father died unexpectedly, the priest presiding over the funeral service afterward seized the opportunity to volunteer himself to the stricken widow as a surrogate father figure for the boy, and the predator was gratefully welcomed into the family home. While the mother cooked dinner, the honored guest would be upstairs molesting her child. It went on for three years. Yet today, in his early forties, he had a postgraduate degree from a highly regarded university; was senior vice president at a prominent San Diego–based electronics company, pulling down more than six figures a year; had been married to the same woman for eighteen years; had two well-adjusted kids, one of whom he coached in little league; and was active in an array of good causes in his community.
He showed up on time for his interview, arriving from work in a well-tailored suit.
“So,” he said, during preparation, “what do you want to know?”
I explained that we had what we believed was a pretty complete report, but it would be useful to hear it in his own words.
“That’s what I figured,” he said with a pained smile. He hesitated a moment, took a deep breath, and launched into it. He spoke for a good half hour, answering my questions along the way, leaving out nothing and adding a number of details I hadn’t been aware of. His voice steady, looking me in the eye, he might almost have been discussing someone else.
“You don’t seem to have trouble talking about it,” I observed.
“Well, I know you have a job to do. I hate what happened, if that’s what you’re asking, hated it. But that was—what?—twenty-eight years ago.”
He described the life he’d built for himself, his pride in his professional success and his family.
“How much do your kids know about what happened?”
“Enough—not the details. What they know is the most important thing: bad things happen to everyone, sometimes awful things. The question is whether you let those things define you.”
In fact, he had a hard time grasping why so many of the others had been unable to move past it. “Their past has such a hold on them,” he noted, with equal parts bafflement and empathy, “they sometimes see people like me as a traitor.”
As their lawyer, I could see their point—talk about an ideal witness for the other side, a sure damages killer! But even as I made a mental note to never let him near the witness stand, it was impossible not to be struck by his lack of bitterness; and, even more, by his clear sense of its corrosive power.
“Look,” he added, as if reading my thoughts, “I don’t mean to sugarcoat this. It was bad. It made me feel pretty lousy about myself, it turned me off to organized religion. The only time I enter a church these days is for a wedding or a funeral. My wife’s the one who takes the kids to Sunday school.”
“But it’s okay with you that they go?”
“Listen,” he said, “I’m basically a spiritual person. I’m just someone who had bad luck.”
Though few articulated it so precisely, it was an attitude shared by every one of the others in that 15 percent who’d gone on to live stable, productive, meaningful lives. They had plans and goals, and surrendering to that awful childhood ordeal was simply not an option. To the extent the experience marked them—and of course it had to—it was in forcing them to harness the emotional resources to surmount it. It made them stronger.
Nor, it turned out, was that 15 percent figure random. Psychiatrists told us that more or less the same percentages applied to other abuse cases across the board—abuse by parent, police officer, teacher, any authority figure. For 85 percent, it destroys their lives. For 15 percent, they not only overcome it, they are stronger because of it.
In his best-selling David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell surmised that “one time out of ten, out of despair rises an indomitable force.” I’m not only an admirer of Gladwell, but a bit more of an optimist. My premise is that the actual number is one and a half out of ten—or 15 percent.
Indeed, around the same time, I was seeing very much the same phenomenon in other settings. The greatest honor I’ve ever received is membership in the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a virtual who’s who of American success, and as the society’s representative on the scholarship committee, the largest need-based scholarship program in the country, we were awarding tens of millions of dollars a year in scholarships to seriously deprived kids. The candidates were in their midteens and had suffered through often intense adversity. Under the leadership of our extraordinary managing director, Terry Giroux, the Horatio Alger Association now has tens of thousands of applications for 2,500 scholarships. Since we are also looking for young men and women who will not just complete their schooling, but go on to help make the world a better place, Terry organized a panel of psychological experts to help us better evaluate candidates. In their characterization of those apt to keep moving forward regardless of handicaps or barriers, those experts, too, cited the figure of 15 percent. Quite simply, in such cases, fundamental aspects of their makeup dictate that nothing will stop them.
What’s especially striking, looking closely, is they’re very much the same qualities evident among the membership of the Horatio Alger Association itself. As the name suggests, almost all of the members, past and present, are rags-to-riches stories. None of us was predestined for success. Yet from A—baseball’s Hank Aaron—to Z—Eastern European immigrant and legendary Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor—each of us came to excel in his or her chosen field; and, indeed, in the words of the organization’s charter, to epitomize “the simple but powerful belief that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles.”
In my case, my professional life has been a series of headlong charges down different paths, some of them simultaneous. Beginning by building one of California’s most successful criminal law firms, I went on, as an entrepreneur, to start and/or buy thirty-five companies, including a car dealership, a bank, and luxury European hotels. Along the way, I produced a play on Broadway, owned magic clubs, and served as a special adviser to or troubleshooter for, among others, Richard Pryor, Werner Erhard, and the children of Martin Luther King Jr.
Looking back, I sometimes still wonder how I got here. Admitted to the Horatio Alger Association in 1994, at the time the third-youngest member (after Oprah Winfrey and Ben Carson), a couple of years later I found myself in a hotel bar at the annual gathering surrounded by John W. Rollins, the business mogul who was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in Georgia, became the man of his household at twelve years of age, and went on to found nine New York Stock Exchange companies; Harry Merlo, the Italian immigrant’s son who made his fortune in timber and became one of the Northwest’s leading philanthropists; and W. W. “Foots” Clements, a Texas entrepreneurial genius who went from driving a delivery truck to becoming the chairman and CEO of Dr Pepper. I was wide-eyed to be in such august company. They started arguing about who started out the poorest. John Rollins seemed to have been the winner as he related the difficulties of being a dirt farmer in rural Georgia in the 1930s, but Harry raised his hand for the final word. “Lemme tell you guys, we were so poor that on Christmas Eve, Dad would take us out and show us Santa’s grave!”
In fact, as we shall see, I could have given Harry a run for his lack of money—at least his father was around, and presumably upright.
What are the qualities and habits of mind that define the 15 percent? Ambition, of course, and drive. But it is more than that. In dealing with those who’d surmounted sex abuse and those who excelled, despite severe adversity, among the young scholarship applicants, it became obvious that they’d have succeeded under any circumstances; that if instead they’d suffered severe physical trauma, left paralyzed and wheelchair-bound in an accident, they’d have seen that, too, as a mere impediment, and gone on to live the lives they imagined for themselves.
In history and popular culture, we tend to lionize such people—FDR, Stephen Hawking, Charles Krauthammer, Texas governor Greg Abbott—as of course we should. But what’s less evident is that those with the same attributes exist in every realm and field of endeavor. They’re the ones who inexorably rise to the top, no matter how they start out or the obstacles they face along the way.
I have long made a point of being on the lookout for such people, both because they’re the ones I want to be associated with professionally (success breeding success) and because, this being a rough-and-tumble world, they’re often the ones with whom I have to contend.
Take, for instance, Dave Carter.
Not to be immodest, but back when I was a young criminal defense attorney in Orange County, California, I considered myself the fastest gun in the West—until I ran into Dave Carter.
Talk about the 15 percent, this was a guy who let nothing stop him. A former track star at UCLA, he was with the marines in Vietnam when his unit was overrun during the battle of Khe Sanh. Badly wounded, having taken twelve or thirteen bullets, he woke up to find the Viet Cong shooting the survivors but managed to crawl into a ravine and hide. It was three days before he was rescued, and he spent three years in the hospital recovering. I mean, one tough SOB.
It was my bad luck that when he was well enough, he went to law school and ended up in the DA’s office in Orange County. Let’s put it this way: at one point, I won thirty-four criminal cases in a row—mostly acquittals, a couple of hung juries, a handful reduced from first-degree murder all the way down to manslaughter. But that streak was bookended by losses to Dave Carter.
Another of that ilk, a close friend of a friend, is a guy on Long Island named Jerry Kane, who came from the sort of grinding poverty and early scrapes with the law that might easily have led
to a life behind bars. Yet instead he wound up a New York State Teacher of the Year, with two generations of ex-students crediting him with their success. “It was his incredible government class that turned me onto politics,” as then–Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy joked to the daily Newsday. “If people don’t like me, they have Jerry Kane to blame.” But what’s truly extraordinary is that even as Kane was carrying a full teaching load, he was carving out a second, hugely successful career as a builder of luxury homes two hours away in the Hamptons. Now eighty-five and still at it, he muses: “I suppose the other teachers were both jealous and confused, since I was the only millionaire teacher they knew. They didn’t seem to get that anyone can do it—you just have to work at it.”
But of course, those other teachers, among most others, must surely have wondered: Is it really that simple?
Therein lies the real issue: Are the qualities that set such a person apart, that distinguish the 15 percent, innate or learned?
Are a lucky few just built that way? Maybe. After all, as every smart advertising executive will tell you, most people are born followers (and only like to think they’re not). In contrast, the 15 percent are oblivious to groupthink almost by definition.
However, I also know—and again my own experience is proof—that the qualities that distinguish this rarefied group can be learned, practiced, and mastered. What’s essential is the willingness to recognize and consciously break old patterns and establish new ones.
What’s become especially clear to me over the years is how often, without even being aware of the fact, people stop themselves. The 15 percent never do. Indeed, where others see problems, as often as not the 15 percent see opportunity.
This recently hit me with renewed force on a transatlantic flight. A lifelong sports nut, I’d taken this rare opportunity to chill out and watch an episode of 30 for 30, the ESPN documentary series. The episode in question was on the 2002 Duke lacrosse rape scandal, and it was at once riveting and infuriating. As those who followed the case will recall, it featured a corrupt prosecutor ready to go to any lengths to convict three Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of raping a young African American woman, abetted by a national press cheering him on. The unlikely hero of the piece appeared about two-thirds of the way in: a mild-mannered and unassuming attorney named Brad Bannon, the junior member of the team representing one of the defendants. The prosecutor, Michael Nifong, claimed to have rock-solid DNA evidence that would nail down what was already widely seen as a slam dunk, and the defense had only a few days to prepare for Nifong’s expert witness. Into the breach rushed Bannon. Though he’d never so much as taken a math course in college, he buried himself in the office conference room with thousands of pages of raw data and a book called Forensic DNA Typing, staying there for three days and two nights; until, having mastered this impossibly arcane subject, he determined that Nifong had been hiding evidence that was clearly exculpatory. Which is why, soon after, it fell to the inexperienced and still unsure young lawyer to cross-examine the prosecution’s veteran DNA expert on the stand. “You could see Brad’s legs were shaking,” recalled his client. “He was really scared.”
“Listen,” the firm’s senior partner told him, “there’s a difference between lawyers and great lawyers, and that difference is moments like this. You are a great lawyer, Brad. I’ve always told you that, but you’ve never believed it. You can do this. You will do this. And you’ll do great.”
Over the next two hours, Bannon proceeded to tear Nifong’s key witness to shreds, along with his bogus case.
Sitting on the plane, watching the guy coming so fully into his own, I wish I’d been able to say it to him personally: “Way to go, young man—and welcome to the 15 percent!”