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Are all these people proof the secret of success is childhood tragedy?

Are all these people proof the secret of success is childhood tragedy? That’s the thesis of a fascinating new book that shows how so many presidents, PMs, sports stars and billionaires share one surprising thing in common

The multi-millionaire businessman and Conservative peer Stuart Rose has vivid memories of one of his earliest birthday presents: a second-hand Dinky toy car.

Down on their luck at the time, he, his parents and sister were living in a freezing cold caravan in Warwickshire, where his father had dug a ditch to create an outside loo.

‘As he was digging, he found a Dinky toy,’ says Rose, now chairman of the supermarket chain Asda and the clothing brand FatFace. 

‘I remember him repairing it with great care and I had it as a birthday present.’

Life turned round for the family when his father got a job as a civil servant in Africa, and in his early 20s Rose took his first steps on the ladder of his illustrious retail career as a management trainee at M&S, where he would later become CEO.

He recalls how, as a junior member of staff, he took particular pride in making sure the jumpers were neatly folded on the shelves. 

His life seemed under control and he was on a trajectory to a comfortable management role. 

Stuart Rose (pictured) is convinced that dealing with tragedy early in life ‘hardened’ him and gave him the qualities needed to succeed in the ruthless world of business

Then, as he puts it, bluntly: ‘One day I woke up and my mother had killed herself.’

Yet the poverty and tragedy he experienced in his early years would shape the rest of his life.

We have been interviewing people for more than 20 years — prime ministers and poets, CEOs and chefs, actors and archbishops, Olympic sports stars and Nobel Prize-winning scientists — and what has struck us is how many of them have overcome bewildering trauma or loss in their early lives.

An astonishing number of these highly successful individuals lost one or both parents in childhood.

Others have been afflicted by a serious illness, involved in a horrendous accident, or grew up in families riven by addiction, mental health problems or poverty.

When we first noticed the pattern, we thought it was a coincidence. Then, as the cases accumulated, we began to realise that a traumatic start can sometimes provide a catalyst for the talented, giving them an extra dose of self-reliance and ambition.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (pictured with Lauren Sanchez) never knew his biological father

Far from holding them back, the struggle to deal with disadvantage or distress has driven them on.

We started looking for examples and discovered that of the 55 British prime ministers going back to 1721, nearly half had lost a parent as a child.

Herbert Henry Asquith’s father died when he was seven; David Lloyd George’s died when he was one; and Neville Chamberlain lost his mother at the age of five.

The pattern is repeated in more recent times. James Callaghan’s father died when he was nine, while Tony Blair’s dad suffered a stroke when he was ten.

Only child Theresa May also lost both of her parents early, within a few months of each other, when she was in her 20s.

The three current party leaders in the House of Commons all experienced significant trauma as children; the same is true of many other senior politicians we have interviewed.

Boris Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Wahl, who died last year, was convinced his childhood ‘desire to be world king’ was born of a wish to make himself ‘unhurtable, invincible and somehow safe’ from the pain of her disappearance for eight months when he was ten, after she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Former US President Barack Obama’s father left his family when he was two years old. (Pictured: Barack last April) 

Sir Keir Starmer’s mother battled with Still’s disease, a rare and incurable condition that meant she could not speak for many years and ended up having a leg amputated. 

As a child, he spent hours sitting by her bedside in hospital high-dependency units.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey lost his father when he was four. Then, when he was 12, his mother became terminally ill and he was her carer for three years until her death.

According to one study, seven in ten entrepreneurs cite traumatic childhood experiences as a formative event. 

James Dyson was nine when his father died of cancer. Apple boss Steve Jobs was given up for adoption as a baby and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos never knew his biological father.

The picture is the same across the world. Of the 45 men who have served as U.S. president, 12 lost their fathers when young, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Herbert Hoover.

Tennis champion Sir Andy Murray (pictured hoisting the Wimbledon trophy in 2013) was nine when the Dunblane massacre unfolded at his school

Bill Clinton’s died before he was even born, while Barack Obama’s left when he was two.

Nelson Mandela’s father died when he was 12. Napoleon Bonaparte lost his father when he was 16, was whipped by his mother and later said her brutality had led to his success.

While happy, stable childhoods typically lead to happy, stable careers and family lives, disruption can be the trigger for the astonishing creativity and innovation that catapults some exceptional people to the very top and prevents them from compromising their ambition because they have more to prove.

For Stuart Rose, the phenomenon can be described in medical terms. 

‘Early trauma is like a vaccine,’ he told us. ‘It gives you the antibodies to fight future pain.’

His moment of inoculation with the trauma vaccine came in the mid-1970s with the death of his beloved mother, Peggy, aged 49.

She had, he told us, struggled with depression for years. 

As a child he would be told: ‘Mummy has a migraine.’ but he soon realised that ‘Mummy was depressed and didn’t want to get out of bed’.

It pains him to say that ‘today it would probably have been sorted out with a bit of therapy or a few pills. 

Former US President Bill Clinton’s father died before he was even born. (Pictured: Bill Clinton)

But she had a doctor who gave her more than a few — he gave her tons of pills: ‘enough to kill a battalion’.

Rose had seen his mother on the Saturday before she took her own life. That Sunday, she had gone to bed ‘with a migraine’. 

Rose went to work on Monday morning, ‘worried about her, but no more than normal’.

He remembers thinking on his commute that he should ring her, but when he got to the office he became distracted by the busy weekly stock-take.

‘I didn’t think about ringing her until nine o’clock. She’d killed herself at 8.30am,’ he said. 

‘She’d had a bath, gone into the kitchen, drunk a bottle of whisky, taken a pile of pills and she was dead on the kitchen floor.’

His father had come home and found her in the kitchen, and she was still there when Rose arrived at his parents’ flat that evening.

He went straight into ‘organisation mode’, ringing undertakers and coroners rather than bursting into tears.

‘My father was stupefied. My sister was very distressed. I had to do something,’ he explained. 

‘I had a little mental checklist of all the things I had to get done. I kicked into ‘Right, someone has to take control’ mode.’

He can’t remember ever crying after his mother’s death. 

‘To be honest, I didn’t feel the effects of it until quite a long time later,’ he confessed to us.

‘I stuck it in a box, tied the box up, stuck the box under the bed and off I went. When I went back to work, no one mentioned it. There was, as there still is today, a huge [attitude of] ‘We don’t talk about suicide’.’

British inventor and businessman James Dyson (pictured) was just nine when his father died of cancer

It was ten years later when what had happened really hit him, and the trauma eventually took an emotional toll.

‘It’s easy for me to make excuses, but I’m sure the subsequent break-up of my first marriage wasn’t helped by that,’ he said. 

‘There was a lot going on in my head, but I never talked about it. I didn’t go to a therapist. I didn’t talk to my wife about it. I didn’t talk to anyone about it.’

Rose, who has since remarried, still sometimes feels a cloud descending on him.

‘Churchill had the ‘black dog’. I do get the black dog, but I beat myself up and say: ‘Right, OK, you’ve had three days of this. Snap out of it’.’

Despite his achievements and accolades, Rose still has a surprising amount of insecurity.

He is 73, but still works six days a week. 

He admitted to us: ‘The workaholic bit has only come because I’m terrified of failure and having no earning capacity.

‘I’m not going to have to worry where the next meal is going to come from. But I have restless dissatisfaction, which I think is a positive thing.’

He is convinced that dealing with tragedy early in life ‘hardened’ him and gave him the qualities needed to succeed in the ruthless world of business. 

Only child Theresa May (pictured) also lost both of her parents early, within a few months of each other, when she was in her 20s.

Having lost a parent in such traumatic circumstances, he can handle the most cut-throat takeover bid or disloyal colleague.

‘Life deals you all sorts of things — don’t always take everything as bad. How do you turn a negative into a positive? No one is trapped. What’s more tragic than death?’

When we asked him what he wished he’d known when he was young, he replied: ‘Don’t get complacent. It might all disappear.’

The idea that, as Nietzsche put it, ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger’ is at the heart of many of the stories human beings have told themselves throughout history, whether in real life or fiction.

‘Grit’ and ‘resilience’ have become 21st-century buzzwords — skills ‘taught’ in schools and on management courses. But survivors of adversity do not have to cultivate these qualities in classes. They acquired them the hard way.

Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling has described the impact of his traumatic childhood. 

‘When I was two, my father was murdered. That shaped my entire life,’ he wrote.

His mother left him and his sister with their grandmother in Jamaica while she worked in England, and he recalls feeling jealous of other children who had their mums.

When he was five he joined his mother in London, but life there was tough. 

As a child he would sometimes wake at 5am to go and help her clean hotel toilets before school. 

His elder sister would take him on three buses to get to football training every day.

Yet the family’s struggle gave him the strength and determination to succeed in one of the most competitive sports in the world. 

‘My mum sacrificed her life to get me here,’ he later explained. ‘My sister sacrificed her life to get me here. 

‘My whole mission was to get a proper [playing] contract so they didn’t have to stress any more.’

Tennis champion Sir Andy Murray was nine when the Dunblane massacre unfolded at his school. 

He finds it too painful to talk about face to face, but in an interview recorded as a voice memo on his phone for a documentary in 2019, he described how he had dealt with his emotions through sport.

‘My feeling towards tennis is that it’s an escape for me in some ways. Because all of these things are stuff that I have bottled up. They are not things that are discussed. Tennis allows me to be that child that has all these questions, and that’s why tennis is important to me.’

There is such a clear pattern of triumph over tragedy and misfortune that several people have told us they worry that their own happy, healthy children will be hampered by the lack of any real struggle.

Throughout history, tragedy and trauma have been the catalyst for great art, music and literature. Vincent van Gogh painted while in emotional torment; John Lennon and Paul McCartney forged their creative partnership after the deaths of their mothers; John Milton wrote Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter and his eyesight.

Of course, not all survivors of adversity react by chasing success. Many are left with a debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder from which they never recover.

Throughout history, tragedy and trauma have been the catalyst for great art, music and literature. Vincent van Gogh painted while in emotional torment; John Lennon and Paul McCartney (pictured) forged their creative partnership after the deaths of their mothers; John Milton wrote Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter and his eyesight

Psychologist Nassir Ghaemi thinks the long-term effect may be as much about people’s innate character as the context in which they find themselves.

‘It has to do with the interaction between your traumatic life experience and your personality,’ he suggests. 

Those with a ‘manic personality’ are most likely to gain strength from adversity. They have all the traits of resilience, they’re positive, they’re future-oriented, they have large social networks.

‘They tend to be very charismatic people, and they’re also creative, so they might find creative ways of dealing with the negative life experience they had,’ he adds.

Most of our interviewees do not now see the adversity they suffered as a disadvantage; rather it is an integral part of their identity and their success.

Perhaps they are the lucky ones — but many have learned to make their own luck. Their refusal to allow themselves to be categorised as victims is a common theme.

There are lessons for us all from their extraordinary lives. Parents can take comfort from the fact that children are astonishingly adaptable. Instead of trying to protect them at every turn, we need to let them discover the world, develop resilience and self-reliance.

Sir Alex Ferguson, widely regarded as the best British football manager of all time, grew up in a tenement block in Govan, one of the poorest areas of Glasgow. Football was his way out of poverty.

There was, however, no self-pity as he described to us the strong sense of community and work ethic he learned as a child.

In fact, he seemed almost nostalgic about the struggles he had left behind. ‘You can’t forget your upbringing, because that’s what’s made me,’ he told us.

Then he paused. ‘I remember reading in a newspaper article, ‘Alex Ferguson’s done well despite coming from Govan’.’

But, he says: ‘It’s because I came from Govan that I did well.’

Adapted from What I Wish I’d Known When I Was Young: The Art And Science Of Growing Up, by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson, to be published by HarperCollins on May 12 at £20. To order for £18 go to or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until May 21, 2022.

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