Post-Traumatic Growth

My buddy Nassim Taleb posited a question in his book, ‘Antifragile’ that regarded ‘post-traumatic growth’. I think I’m one of the lucky few who was actually made stronger because of trauma– not weakened. I want to use this essay as a chance to share why I think I was able to grow from trauma, and some practical ideas on how we can help our future children thrive from stress and trauma.


So the word ‘trauma’ goes to the Ancient Greek, which literally means “wound”.

From a stoic perspective, we cannot change the fact we will be wounded in life. However, we can control how we react or respond to the wound. Do we complain that we got wounded–or are we clever and figure out how the wound can actually make us stronger?

Post-Traumatic Harm

Some people when they suffer trauma (wounds) — they get destroyed, or end up having serious mental illnesses and debilitations. As a child of trauma, my heart goes out to you.

But this is the question I’m curious about:

Why is it that I (Eric Kim) suffered horrific trauma as a child, yet somehow didn’t end up becoming a drug addict, a criminal, or suffered with debilitating mental downsides?

First of all, I can attribute my post-traumatic growth to these factors:

  1. Good role models
  2. Good schooling/education
  3. Luck
  4. Strong work ethic instilled by my mom
  5. A social structure which allowed me upward mobility (I got lots of student scholarships and loans that afforded me to attend UCLA as an undergraduate, which allowed me to get a degree, which helped me get my first job, then jet-packed me onto my entrepreneurial pursuits).

Let me touch upon some of these points.

1. Good role models

I just watched the Mike Tyson documentary on Netflix, and found it hugely inspirational how his mentor (a 70+ year old white dude named Cus) took this tough kid from the juvenile center, taught him boxing, morals, work ethics, and the spiritual side of fighting. If it weren’t for Cus, Mike Tyson would have probably been killed as a kid, become a drug addict, or perhaps a menace to society.

Sometimes we are just lucky. There are many angels out there in the world who (for no reason) help others. For example, one of the strongest role models in my life was my tennis coach Greg Lowe– who was like the Mr. Miyagi (Karate kid mentor) for me. He taught me work ethic, that I didn’t need fancy equipment to be a good player (he himself played with a super old-school wooden racket and whooped all of us), and the importance of recognizing that in tennis (and life) I could get beaten, yet not lose.

I honestly have a trillion people I can thank– but had I never been exposed to positive role models, I would have probably become a drug dealer, a gangster, or some petty thug — or who knows, even got killed.

Proposition 1: We need to embed more positive role-models in society.

2. Good schooling

I was lucky enough that my public education was very good. I had opportunities to attend AP classes, and lots of free extra-curricular activities. I had many teachers who loved what they did, and genuinely believed in the students. Having a good education helped empower me to get into a good college (UCLA), where I also got further great sociology teachers– who taught me to question everything (shout out to Terri Anderson and Mark Jepson).

Now, I see a lot of kids fail because they were never exposed to the opportunity to good teachers or good schools. You cannot blame a kid for not succeeding in life, if he/she was never given an opportunity.

Proposition 2: We should improve our public schools.

3. Luck

Why is it that I ended up not getting ruined by my childhood trauma, when so many others did?

Well — probably a lot of it was luck. I was lucky to have met the right role models who guided me, rather than me harboring resentment in my heart. I was lucky that I was born in California, which has good public schools. I was also lucky that I was born Korean-American (Koreans instill a high importance on education and schooling).

Proposition 3: Increase opportunities via luck, by having our children enter random extra-curricular activities, which exposes them to a higher likelihood of meeting empowering mentors. Also increase opportunities for kids in crappy school districts to apply to better schools (outside of their district) if they show the right work ethic and effort.

4. Work ethic

I believe anyone with a strong work ethic can succeed in their life.

Now, work ethic is tricky — it ain’t something you’re born with; work ethic is something you’re taught.

My mom taught me to have a strong work ethic, and not to make excuses. Also I was lucky enough that I saw my mom suffering, and thus I put it on myself to hustle hard, to one day become successful and help her out.

So this is the irony:

When a child sees their parents suffering (especially my mom who sacrificed everything for me and my sister) — children put in more effort to work hard.

To be honest, I had so many opportunities to do really bad shit in life as a kid (join a gang, maybe get into selling drugs, etc). Yet, I didn’t — because I knew it would be wrong, especially when I saw my mom suffer so much domestic abuse from my dad (verbal and physical) while working 7 days a week and 16+ hour days just to put food on the table and pay rent.

But how do we teach work ethic?

Proposition 4: Teach a military-style discipline system, with real consequences, rewards, and to have tough yet loving educators. I think a lot of the hard-core charter schools popping up in these “ghetto” neighborhoods in LA is a good thing. Sometimes parents don’t teach the kids hard work ethic. Thus, we need to allow teachers in these schools to be really tough on their kids, and to expect much from them.

Me and my mom. UCLA, 2009
Me and my mom. UCLA, 2009

5. Merit-based social structure

I believe in ‘meritocracy’ — the idea that one can advance in life purely based on merit, hustle, effort, hard work, and ingenuity-smarts.

The truth is there can never be a 100% pure democracy, which is purely based on ability. The truth is that life ain’t fair– nor should life be fair.

For example, much in life is ‘who you know’ not ‘what you know’. And that is fine.

Yet, we still must provide some sort of social structure which allows social mobility.

One good thing I see here in the SF-Bay Area is the boom of computer science, programming, and technology. To be frank, any kid who ends up studying computer science-programming at the College-University level will FOR SURE get a job in the SF-Bay Area making at least $60,000 USD+ a year.

I really like that a lot more programming is being taught to kids, for free.

Proposition 5: Add more mandatory computer science courses at the elementary, middle-school, high school, and college level.

The reason I like this idea is this:

Anyone who works hard at computer science will be guaranteed a job.

Now most people don’t have computer science, math, or science as their passion. But I think that is fine. Lots of aspiring actors hate coffee, yet work as baristas at Starbucks to make ends meet, to pursue their passion on the side. In Vietnamese culture, there is a concept of the ‘left hand job’ and the ‘right hand job’. The left hand job (I believe) is your hobby and passion you do on the side. The right hand job is your 9-5 job that puts food o the table.

The tech-sector is booming– we should exploit this, to train more of our children to become computer-programmers, scientists, and engineers — yet still encourage them to pursue arts, poetry, history, and the humanities.

But unfortunately at this moment in history, there are not that many viable options for humanities-majors to make a living from their passion. So my pragmatic solution is have them study computer science, get a stable job, and pursue their passion on the side.

How to grow from trauma

Sorry I totally got off-topic.

To take it back, I believe that we NEED trauma in order to grow.

For example, when you go to the gym and lift very heavy objects, you are apparently creating “micro-tears” in your muscles (micro-trauma) which stimulates muscle-growth pathways in your body, which prompts muscle growth.

Thus, you cannot grow muscles without this micro-trauma done to your body.

I believe the same goes with your mind. You cannot grow a strong and resilient-antifragile mind without some trauma. A child who grows up in a bubble (think bubble boy) with no external trauma will end up becoming a weak, anaemic, and puny human being.

But the trouble is this:

How much trauma should we expose our children to, in order to make them strong?

The answer is this:

Expose your children to enough trauma in order for them to self-explore, self-play, and self-learn on their own. Don’t protect them too much. Push them to their limit, but when you see them start to fall apart a bit, take a step back.

For example, my current “1 rep max” for my dumbbell press is 95 pounds. Every week I try to push my limit, to get into that 90-95 pound zone. Some weeks I hit a new “PR” (personal record) and can lift more weight. But some weeks I cannot lift the weight. But I push myself to the max. And when I cannot hit my max, I just back-pedal a bit, and lower the weight, and try again. This is what ensures I keep growing.

As a child of trauma, I taught myself at an early age:

Everything happens for a reason. (This was primarily fueled by my faith in God, and my Christian-Catholic upbringing).

Then also I learned:

In life, shit happens. Yet you have the choice to either cry and mope about it, or to grow a thicker skin and armor, and carry on.

I decided as a child to not blame nobody. I knew that the world was often a shitty place — and the world wasn’t fair. And acknowledging that the world wasn’t fair was the first step to my personal liberation and self-empowerment.

Thus my next proposition is this:

We should NOT teach our children that the world is fair. In-fact, we should teach our children that the world is UN-FAIR, yet we still must work hard to thrive in life.

We often cannot change our circumstances (sometimes we can), but regardless of your position in life– you can always strengthen your mind (studying stoic philosophy), and re-interpret your life experiences in a positive manner.

You have the power

I no longer believe that everything happens for a reason. From an empirical perspective, I think this is nonsense.

Now what I believe is more subtle:

Shit happens to you, but you have the power to re-channel that shitty happening into something that makes you stronger.

In other words,

When life gives you shit, make sweet lemonade.

Life is tough, life is rough– yet that is what makes it beautiful, challenging, and fun. A video game with no difficulty or challenges would be boring and not worth playing. Life is the same way– a life with no challenge, trauma, or difficulty would not be a life worth living.

Become the change you wish to see in the world

My friend Gandhi said it the best:

Be the change which you wish to see in the world.

And let me add something else:

Take actions in your life which you wish to see manifested in the real world.

For example, I hated that no practical information was online (for free) that taught me how to shoot street photography. Thus, I solved my own problem, by ‘open sourcing‘ my photography, and putting it all online for free.

Now, I kind of hate how shitty social media has become. Thus, I made my own (ARSBETA.COM)– a positive, empowering, and uplifting social media community for photographers, visual artists, and anyone.

More practical thoughts

  1. Determine what your goals, ambitions, and dreams are in life, then take the smallest practical step forward toward that dream.
  2. Work on your passion projects everyday, regardless of what your job is.
  3. When you have financial, economic, or life constraints– treat it like a fun ‘creative constraint’. The best innovations come from constraints, not from unlimited options.
  4. Be audacious. Be a bit ridiculous, and have a ‘big hairy audacious goal’ (Peter Thiel, ‘Zero to One’) you desire to solve.
  5. Help others: Elon Musk (Joe Rogan Interview) said something like, “Work on something which helps other people, which you enjoy doing.”