The high-flyers who used trauma as a springboard to a better future

Sir Mo Farah, the Olympic gold medalist, reminisced about his traumatizing childhood in a documentary that aired this Week. He is one of many people who have overcome adversity and managed to thrive.

The UK got to meet Sir Mo Farah this week. The decorated Olympic athlete and UK national treasure shared his traumatizing childhood in a remarkable act of bravery for a BBC documentary which aired Wednesday. 

He is actually Hussein Abdi Kahin. The name Mohammed Farah belonged to another young boy, who’s documents were used to traffic Kahin into the UK from Somalia, where he was separated form his family. He was forced to work as an domestic servant in London. Running was his escape. He was an athlete who excelled at it. His two gold medals in the 2012 Olympics in London, where he was born, was a highlight of a remarkable life.  

We have been interviewing people since more than 20 years as broadsheet newspaper columnists. This includes prime ministers, poets, CEOs, chefs, actors, and archbishops. It has been a constant surprise to us how many of them have survived bewildering traumas in early life.

We thought it was just a coincidence at first. As the cases piled up, we realized that these high-flyers were not being held back by their struggle to overcome disadvantage.

We began looking for examples and found that 25 of the 55 British prime minsters dating back to 1721 had lost one or both their parents as children. A further three lost a sibling, eight were affected by serious mental or physical illness and two endured a dramatic change in family circumstance. According to our analysis, 69% of these politicians suffered from serious traumas in childhood.

Tony Blair, former prime minister, was just 10 years old when his father suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed and ruined his legal career. It was, Blair told us, “the event that shaped my childhood.”

The mother of current Labour leader Kier Starmer 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. He spent hours as a child sitting by her bedside in hospital high-dependency units.

Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader was four when his father died. When he was 12, his mother was terminally ill. He took care of her for three years before she died.


James Dyson, the inventor, was only nine years old when his father died from cancer. Image: James Dyson

Soon, we realized that this phenomenon could be applied to many spheres in public life. One study by an educational charity found that the following: Aldridge Foundation71% of entrepreneurs cite traumatic childhood events as a defining event. James Dyson was nine years old when his father died from cancer. His mother gave Steve Jobs away as a baby. Terry Leahy was a former Tesco boss and shared a room until he was 16. He wore his school uniform until then, as there was no money to buy other clothes.

Creativity seems to thrive in harsh environments. John Lennon, abandoned by his father when he was five, then lost his mother – who has often been described as his muse – when he was 17. Oprah was raped as a nine-year-old and fell pregnant at fourteen with a child who later died in infancy. This gave her an ability to empathize with others, which allowed her to convince them to talk on television.

Ade Adepitan is a paralympian, TV presenter and TV presenter. Ade was a baby when Ade Adepitan contracted Polio in Nigeria. He lost the left leg. His parents used all of their savings to bring him to Britain for treatment. It gave him, he told us, “a sense of urgency. I needed to prove I was worthy.”


Ade Adepitan’s loss of the use his leg gave him a sense of urgency. Image: Ade Adepitan

Victor Goertzel, a psychiatrist, studied 400 well known figures from the 20th Century for his book. Cradles of Eminence. Three-quarters of these exceptional people had suffered from poverty, broken homes or abusive parents, as well as alcoholism, illness and other disadvantages. “The ‘normal man’,” Goertzel concluded, “is not a likely candidate for the hall of fame.”

There is growing scientific evidence that trauma can have a psychological and neurological effect. Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, US, believes that ‘normal’ people tend to be conformist, more willing to compromise and to take safe decisions, whereas it takes an original mind, a restless energy and a risk-taking streak to become a leader in your field. 

Martin Lloyd-Elliott, a psychotherapist who has worked with high achievers, said many are driven by a “disproportionate burning desire to compensate” for an ego that has been “wounded” by childhood trauma. “The trauma becomes a driver,” he explained.

He also points out that it’s wrong to romanticize adversity. “Most people who’ve suffered severe trauma in childhood never really recover without significant therapy. High-achieving individuals often have dysfunctional relationships, even if they are highly successful. The trauma still manifests itself somewhere in that person’s story.”

They often believe that they made it through misfortune rather than because of it.

Get started with research Public Health Wales, the national public health agency in Wales, found that those who have suffered four or more adverse childhood experiences are 20 times more likely to have been in prison, 16 times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin, and four times more likely to have a drink problem.

These children are often ignored and forgotten. This makes it even more crucial to learn how we can help them to accept their past. We may be able to help young people with complicated childhoods by learning from those who have overcome adversity.

Many of the people we interviewed believe that a difficult childhood is only the beginning. They also share a remarkable optimism about life. They often believe that their success is due to, rather than despite, their misfortunes. Although it is troubling that some people believe a key ingredient to success is a childhood tragedy, it is also reassuring to both parents and children that a past that is not perfect can lead to a better future. 

Three high-flyers with traumatic histories

Angela Rayner is the deputy leader of Labour Party

Raised on a council estate in Stockport, Angela Rayner was a carer for her mother – who has bipolar disorder – from the age of 10, became pregnant at 15 and left school with no qualifications at 16. 

She has a reputation for being ballsy and confident – a “fiery, ginger” Northerner, as she likes to say. Yet she admitted: “I can’t be loved because I never have been, so I find it difficult being nurtured and feeling happy. I haven’t got that inner peace.” 

Rayner’s earliest memories are all “pretty horrifying”, she told us. “My mum has never really been a mum, because she’s not been able to. She cut herself, she’s been sectioned, I’ve had to bathe her and get her out of bed, then get up and go to school.” 

She was looking for love at the time she became pregnant. She was forced to leave her home by her father and found work as a caregiver to help her son Ryan. “I was determined to give him everything that I didn’t have,” she said. “I just wanted to prove people wrong.” 

Rayner believes that Rayner’s past has made her stronger and a better politician. She may not be able to read PPE at Oxford but she is very familiar with power and hierarchies. As she put it: “On the council estate there were levels of superiority. We were the bottom. It taught me structures and it taught about people. The master’s degree in ‘real life’ that I have has been the thing that I’ve used the most all my years I’ve been in parliament.” 


Brian Cox, actor


The actor Brian Cox’s childhood in post-war Dundee was, he told us, “blissful up to a certain point and then it went belly up”. His father, a shopkeeper who died suddenly at eight years old, and his mother suffered a series from nervous breakdowns. He often used his early experiences to help him act.

His father Charles’s death came just three weeks after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His mother Mary’s mental health deteriorated dramatically. One particularly frightening moment is what the actor recalls. “I came home and I could smell gas. She was on her knees and the oven was open; she said: ‘I’m just giving it a wee clean.’ I only realised in hindsight that it was a suicide attempt. Then, she became really ill. It was pretty bleak.”

She was eventually transferred to a psychiatric facility. Cox was raised by his three older sisters. He would spend hours at the local cinema, watching films back to back, partly to keep warm, but also to escape the harsh realities of his life.

He joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre at the age of 14, then got a place at drama school in London. Cox has won many awards but he claims that it was his early struggles that defined him. He says these experiences gave him inner strength and a sense urgency. “I realised I wasn’t going to waste any time,” he told us. “I don’t in go for any ‘shoulda coulda woulda’, I just think, ‘Do it.” 


Lemn Sissay is a poet and author

The internationally acclaimed poet (pictured, centre right) started writing when he was living in a children’s home to prove that he “wasn’t alone”. 

Yemarshet was a young Ethiopian girl who came to England to study. She discovered she was pregnant while here and gave her son up for foster care so she could finish her education. She wanted their separation to be temporary but the social worker refused to see her son. He even gave the boy a new name: Norman (the social worker’s own name) Greenwood (the name of the family that was going to foster him). It was only when he was 17 – and finally got to see his birth certificate – that he discovered his real name was Lemn Sissay. 

Sissay remembers his early childhood with the Greenwoods in 1970s suburban Bury as “blissfully happy”. When Sissay was 12, the Greenwoods turned on him. Mrs Greenwood had a second child and turned on her foster boy. Sissay was attacked and accused of theft as the rows escalated. He was sent to live in a children’s home. 

Wood End, where Sissay lived as a teenager for many years, would later become the subject of an abuse probe. It was, the poet told us, “brutal”. Poetry was his escape. He recalls the feeling of freedom he felt after he had completed his first piece of writing while he was in a deserted dormitory. “I want to say you don’t need to suffer pain to be a poet,” he told us, “but I do feel like you have to have a real reason to create, that’s the spark to the engine.” 

It was amazing. Sissay, then 17, self-published his first poetry book, Perceptions of the Pen. He sold it to striking miners in Lancashire. At 21 years old, he published his first book of poetry. His work is widely recognized and celebrated today. 

This is an edited extract from What I Wish I’d Known When I Was Young: The Art and Science of Growing Up by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson. William Collins is publishing it now   

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