Successful People All Have This One Experience, According To Research


In the mid 1990s, two of the most successful CEOs had a life-changing conversation.

John Chambers (Cisco) was in his mid-forties. Jack Welch (GE) was in his late 50s. Both titans managed tens of thousands of people.

At the time, Cisco was on its way to becoming the most valuable company in the world, and Chambers asked Welch for advice…

“I think we’ve got a company that’s close to becoming a great company. What am I missing?”

Without pausing, Welch responded…

“John, a near-death experience!

Feeling like he understood, Chambers started to list examples from his own life, “Well, I’ve gone through some pretty tough times…”

Welch interrupted him, “No John. Until you’ve gone through a near-death experience, you will never be a great leader, because you have to question your ability to lead, your friends who suddenly turn on you. You’ve got to go through that, and your company has to go through that as well.”

It wasn’t until the 2001 dotcom crash happened and Cisco had to lay off 7,000 employees that Chambers understood Welch’s advice. Looking back on the experience today, he credits this harrowing experience as the turning point that made him a great leader.

This story matches one of the most fundamental findings in the psychology of human development…

This Type Of Experience Is A Crucial Ingredient Of Greatness

Whether you study Columbia University’s Jack Mezirow model of disorienting dilemmas or Jean Piaget’s model of accommodation or Harvard University’s Robert Kegan model of optimal conflict or researcher Dean Keith Simonton’s model of diversify experiences or researcher Warren Bennis’ model of crucible experiences, the pattern seems to be the same.

Although each of these researchers use different words, they all seem to be talking about the same thing. To reach our full potential, it is important to have a unique type of experience with the following qualities:

  • Cannot be explained using our existing mental models.
  • Forces us to question and change some of our most fundamental assumptions about who we are, why we’re here, and how reality works.
  • Is deeply painful, but not so difficult that we can’t grow from it.

Put more simply, experiences that are outside of our comfort zone, but before our burnout zone are particularly transformative. This mirrors the idea of the 5% Rule Of Growth.

To understand the nuance, let's dig deeper into the research...

Robert Kegan defines optimal conflict as…

The persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma, life puzzle, quandary, or personal problem that is perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing in some sphere of our living that we care about, with sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it.

Harvard Business Review article, written by Warren Bennis who interviewed more than 40 top leaders, put it this way:

We were surprised to find that all of them — young and old — were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities…the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose — changed in some fundamental way.

Jack Mizerow believed that there are 10 steps to transformation and that disorienting dilemmas were the first step:


Researcher Dean Keith Simonton defines diversifying experiences as…

Events or circumstances that disrupt conventional and/or fixed patterns of thinking, thus enabling a person to view the world in multiple ways.

Simonton came across the power of diversifying experiences by studying some of history’s great innovators. In one really interesting study of 700 eminent people, a surprising 45% of them had at least one parent die by the time they turned 20 years old.


Finally, according to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, as we gain more experience in the world, we build a schema (mental models) in our brain of how it works. Then, there are two ways we process new information—assimilation and accommodation.

Our preferred approach is assimilation. With assimilation, we take in information without changing our schema. Sometimes we even distort the information in order to fit that schema. For example, let’s say we have a close friend, but then a colleague says that friend lied to them. Our first reaction is likely going to be sticking up for that friend (“oh, maybe there was a misunderstanding”). We aren’t going to immediately change our whole schema of that person.

Accommodation is when we update our schema to match the information. Accommodation takes much more energy, and so we often avoid making deep updates. In a way, it’s like trying to remodel a skyscrapers foundation. Our fundamental beliefs create the foundation for other beliefs, which create the foundation for more surface levels beliefs. When we change a fundamental belief, it cascades throughout our whole life in large and unpredictable ways.

This is where disorienting dilemmas, optimal conflict, diversifying and crucible experiences come in. These are the rare experiences that challenge us to change our fundamental models.

So what do we do with this information? How do we live our life differently?

I suggest there are two core things we should consider…

First, we should never let a crisis go to waste

Disorienting dilemmas don’t feel good. Our body tells us to avoid them. But, counterintuitively, they are our biggest learning opportunities, and we must train ourselves to walk toward them rather than away and to embrace them rather than reject them.

When we experience a crisis rather than simply pushing through it, we should also set aside time to reflect.

Second, we should embrace exploration

More specifically, when given the choice between doing what we've always done and exploring, we should bias towards exploration and experimentation. We should train ourselves to be comfortable being uncomfortable and our minds to explore new ideas that challenge our fundamental assumptions.

If you want an extreme example of what I'm talking about, I recommend watching Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days TV series. In each episode, someone tries something radically new for 30 days that challenges one of their most fundamental beliefs. For example, here are few of my favorite episodes (I've watched all of them)...

  1. Morgan Spurlock tries to get by on minimum wage with no access to prior money or health insurance while living in an apartment whose rent was less than his wages for one week.
  2. A devout Christian with offensive views of Muslims spent 30 days living with a Muslim family.
  3. A border-patrolling Minuteman lives in the home of illegal immigrants for 30 days.


As a writer and researcher, I love learning across disciplines. I go by Ken Wilber's dictums that no field:

  1. has a monopoly on all of the insights
  2. has zero insights

I find the idea of transformative experiences fascinating because multiple fields seem to be saying the same thing and it also jives with my own experiences. My dad passed away when I was 8 years old and this one event had a profound impact on me.

How does the idea of disorienting dilemmas resonate for you? Is there a transformative experience that played a major role in making you into the person you are today? Share in the comments.