About 80% of us are resilient to stress. We can find ways to survive, cope, and even thrive no matter what life throws at us. Science writer David Dobbs calls us “dandelions.” We can grow in a crack in the cement. We are considered normal. We make sure the lights go on, planes don’t crash, and see to it that most families and organizations work.
For the most part we are calm, reliable, and sensible. We get our work done. We color inside the lines. We can grow anywhere. When we fail we pick ourselves up, show up and do our work. About 15% of dandelions are super-thrivers who will excel no matter what. They work hard for stupid bosses and endure mean spouses and learn from lazy teachers.
But not everyone is a dandelion. Although being a dandelion is considered normal, it’s just not the only way to be. University researcher Bruce Ellis and Dr. Thomas Bryce have been combining genetic research with experiments on learning and performance, and what they found might revolutionize how you look at people who are abnormal. In fact, you may just begin to see them as extraordinary.
It turns out about 20% of us are extra sensitive to our social environment. That means how others treat you, whether you are encouraged, supported, and nurtured makes a critical difference in whether you thrive or become a problem. But (and here’s the big deal) a large percentage of the super sensitive group achieve the extraordinary when they have a positive advocate or a nurturing environment.
You see unlike dandelions they need special treatment. Someone with super sensitive genes are known as “orchids.” They can thrive beautifully in a hothouse with just the right amount of water, nutrients, heat and light. But orchids don’t grow out of cracks in driveways. As children they either wither around mean, judgmental, competitive people, or they fight back, often with violence.
Orchids frequently suffer from a high number of challenging conditions – ADHD, depression and dyslexia are common. Nevertheless, they are called orchids for a reason. Famous ADHD orchids include Galileo, Walt Disney, Dwight Eisenhower, Stephen Hawking, and, of course, Robin Williams. Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Buzz Aldrin are just a few extraordinary orchids who battled depression. And Bill Gates, Edison, Henry Ford, Ted Turner, Muhammad Ali, DaVinci, Richard Branson, John Chambers, and John Lennon have transcended their dyslexia. So what’s the point?
Well for both leaders and parents it’s this. Emerging research indicates that this list of super-achieving orchids isn’t just happenstance. New experiments are showing that people with a super sensitive genetic make-up definitely do worse in adverse environments but absolutely zoom in supportive ones.
By zoom, I mean orchids zoom past dandelions on a host of performance measures. While not everyone with ADHD, depression, and dyslexia is a genius, a disproportionate number may be extraordinary. The lesson for leaders and parents is that one sure way to fail is to treat everyone the same.
As successful sport coaches know, great players have different needs than good players. And exceptional talent is often found in orchids who need exceptional support. What’s exciting is that research is showing that a supportive environment can be just one positive, nurturing person who is a patient gardener in a field of weeds.
To make the dandelion and orchid theory unforgettable, please watch this short, heart-inspiring video: Shy Boy and his Friend Shock the Audience with The Prayer Unbelievable. You’ll see a dandelion and an orchid paired up to do something absolutely amazing in the face of immense pressure and a hostile world, so perfectly embodied by Simon Cowell.
After watching, ask yourself, “Do I have an orchid on my team? How about in my home? How might I be a patent gardener?”
Will’s book, Working to Win, focuses on how to raise your self-awareness so you change a few essential habits enabling you win more often at the game of life.