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Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.

interview by Steve Kayser

Steve Kayser (S): When The Beethoven Factor manuscript was finished, what unexpected obstacles arose that almost derailed it? How did you overcome them?

Dr. Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. (Dr. P): I think the ideas and research regarding survival and even resilience over adversity are so dominant in the literature that the idea of “Stress Induced Growth” (SIG) and adversity inspired creativity, beyond mere bouncing back, were a little difficult for many people to accept.

I knew, however, that someone would be aware of the newly emerging field called "positive psychology" and its emphasis on what's best and bravest about us rather than what's worst and how to fix it.

I kept searching until I found a publisher with integrity and what we Hawaiians call "good mana" or energy. I found one in Hampton Roads.

S: What did you think and/or feel when an editor told you that you were a "difficult author” because you were likely to die before you could promote your book?

Dr. P: I've long ago learned the P's of dealing with bad news and toxic people. I don't take criticism or adversity Personally, and do not view setbacks in one area of my life as Pervasive to all other areas, and most of all, I know that that nothing is Permanent.

I thought the editor was right that I am "difficult." My Hawaiian name is "Ka`ikena," meaning "person charged with sharing the vision," and I've learned that: You can’t help create light without at least a little heat.



S: What is the Beethoven Factor?  

Dr. P: The Beethoven Factor is "SIG, Stress Induced Growth.”

Like the composer, there are persons for whom adversity is a stimulus for personal growth and creativity. Also like Beethoven, they aren't "super humans."

Like all of us, they are flawed beings, but something within and about them allows them to construe their lives with an upward psychological trajectory even when things seem at their worst. They are not just naive blind optimists. They are "benefit finders" who can discover growth where many others see only disaster.

“Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat
is in the hands of the Gods. So let us celebrate the struggle!”

- Swahili Warrior Song


S: You use Beethoven as the epitome of a “Thriver.” Could you explain?

Dr. P: Beethoven was a brilliantly creative person. Even pending death, total deafness, and often deep despair didn't prevent him from composing the "Ode to Joy" when we might expect him instead to compose the "Ode to Misery."

 “Life begins on the other side of despair”
–Jean Paul Sartre


Dr. P: He was a member of what I call the CIA, Crisis Inspired Awakened. He did what thrivers do and particularly in his later string quartets which broke entirely new ground in classical composition.

“When written in Chinese, the word ''crisis'' is composed of  two characters -
one represents danger, the other represents opportunity.”

- John F. Kennedy


S: In your book you speak about “five reactions to life's challenges.” What are they?

Dr. P: When adversity strikes, we can kindle, meaning make matters worse for ourselves by self-pity and anger, or, we can become victims stuck in a "poor me" mode.

We can become survivors, but that wastes a lot of creative energy.

That’s why I never call myself a cancer "survivor." We can bounce back to recovery and keep on going on, ever on the brink of relapses, or we can be resilient and get back to where we were before our adversity or challenge.

The Beethoven Factor is about thriving, when we actually manage to flourish not only in spite of but also because of your crisis.

Five Reactions to Life’s Challenges … Choose Wisely

   1. Kindling – Make matters worse. React like kindling wood added to fire.
   2. Suffering – Poor me.
   3. Surviving – Pretty essential, but don’t you want more?
   4. Resilience – Bouncing back to where you were before.
   5. Thriving – Flourishing not only in spite of the crisis, but because of it.


S: Are there certain questions one could ask to see if an individual is thriving … or trying to?

Dr. P: In the book, I have a checklist. The more items you check in the checklist, the more likely it is you’re honing your talent for thriving. Some of the questions would include.
1.  Do you feel more alive today than yesterday?
2.  Do people seem to be made happier by your presence?
3.  Are you laughing hard every day?
4.  Are you in love with life?
5.  Have you been made stronger by adversity?
6.  Do you often feel overwhelmed by the grandeur and beauty of simple things?

S: What’s your definition of thriving?

Dr. P: “The emergence of a new creative spirit through and because of the darkest times, a spirit that guides us to the Beethoven Factor so we too, can creatively conduct our daily life as an ode to joy.”

S: How do you find meaning in misery? In your book, you speak of a man called Izzie. How he found meaning in misery. Izzie is 86 years old, in robust health, vibrantly alive, happy as all get-out, and has a devilish twinkle in his eye.

But Izzie has also, in his life …

· Watched his sister and parents be dragged away in the middle of the night

· Watched his sister be raped

· Watched as Nazi soldiers shot and killed his family … he ran away with eyes closed and fingers in his ears

· Was tortured, starved to skin and bones

· Slept for more than a year in human waste with the haunting, agonizing cries of his fellow prisoners

Izzie should be dead. Izzie should be crazy.

How could he find meaning in that misery? Any joy in life?

Dr. P: Izzie and the other thrivers I studied not only maintained, but also enhanced their personal hardiness, natural happiness, capacity for healing, and unrelenting hope.

All of us have these innate thriving skills, but we are often too busy surviving or languishing to be aware of and mobilize them. Too often we are not fully awake and alive until something goes terribly wrong.

S: Languishing?

Dr. P: Yes, languishing. The eighth deadly sin is "languishing." It was originally listed as one of the deadly sins until Pope Gregory removed it from the list, but it still robs our life of its energy and joy. Languishing in my research turned out to be the silent epidemic of mistaking a busy and intense life for a meaningful and full one.

Thrivers never accede to acedia [spiritual torpor and apathy; ennui].
They grow in hardiness, happiness, healing, and hope.


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Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., is the author of over 200 professional articles and 15 international bestselling books, including The Beethoven Factor, Miracle in Maui, and The Heart’s Code. He’s a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and one of the most requested speakers in the world. He is also a frequent consultant to national television including “Dateline,” “20/20,” and CNN.

Excerpted from interview by Steve Kayser

See Paul Pearsall titles at upper right >

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The Secret to Invincibility

by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.






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