Nurture, Nature & Reality

We hear all the talk about adversity and how it can shape us.  Well, it's true. This is a guest post* from Nick DiNardo, author of The Game of Adversity, who shares from experience how we really can turn adversity into opportunities, if we want to.  Nick is passionate about this and it's infectious.**

“Needs are imposed by nature. Wants are sold by society.”

— mokokoma mokhoNoaNa

Imagine this. We have identical twins: the same DNA, the same looks, the same insides. They were the same twins in high school whom you confused more than you’d like to admit and even now can barely tell apart. Now, let’s take these twins and separate them at birth. As soon as they’re born, they’re reared in completely separate environments: different parents, different upbringings, different households, different...everything. They’re the same people—the same twins with the same DNA—but are in wildly different environments. Now, let’s take twins who were brought up together in the same household as a control group and compare the two sets of twins. Here’s the surprise: This was an actual experiment that took place nearly thirty years ago, and its implications are far-reaching.                              

The researchers had a few questions: How will these two sets of twins turn out? How will this go? And what does this say about nature versus nurture? It was about figuring out how much of who we are is ingrained at birth and how much of who we are is a function of our environment. Interesting things started happening immediately. First, some of the identical twins in the same household actually ended up being wildly different. Yeah, they were competing in the same household, yet they took on very different roles within it. On the other hand, there were twins who had never met who also ended up different as well. The research is by no means conclusive on whether or not we’re 100% nature or 100% nurture. But, as Martin Seligman states in his book Learned Optimism, around 50% of a person is genetic, and the remaining percent can be learned through experience, explanatory style, and growth mind-set. And this is good news. Controlling all the variables, especially all the variables of someone’s life, is a near impossible task. But the science is clear: Who we are is a combination of nature versus nurture. It’s all contextual, and we have the power to change it. If it wasn’t—if we didn’t have a choice—would I have written this book [The Game of Adversity]?

Yes, there are things that give you a specific predisposition to maintaining a growth mind-set and being self-aware. But your environment essentially does the same things: Over time, it cultivates these traits within you. The interesting thing is this: It’s not one or the other. Nature feeds into nurture, which feeds into nature. It all works together as a group effort, and by the end, who you are is a collection of the events that happen to you. You are the end result. By intentionally putting yourself in environments that are difficult and challenging and by understanding yourself on the hero’s journey, you override nature and build your inner greatness—but only if you are equipped with the right tools to flip adversity into advantage. Some of the progressive research has come from leaders in the field of neuroplasticity (brain plasticity)—Norman Doidge and Michael Merzenich, the authors of the books The Brain that Changes Itself and Soft Wired. Prior to the 1970s, the consensus among scientists was that the human brain was relatively fixed—or hardwired—after a critical point in early childhood. Most forms of brain damage and mind-sets were seen as irreversible, and the attitude was nearly apathetic. But over the last thirty-five to forty years, significant research has proven that the brain is far from fixed. Instead, it is supple, plastic, and regenerative, even for those in old age. The process is straightforward: As the brain takes in new information, it rewires itself and forms new neural connections that change the matter of the brain itself. The key point here is, of course, that the inputs matter. Whether you’re a voracious reader or a dedicated gym goer, you are kneading the flour that is your neural network. And this is liberating. What you’re doing this afternoon has a neural impact on who you are going forward, however small, however big. As Robert Greene argues in his book Mastery, “People get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life. Despite the popularity of genetic explanations for our behavior, recent discoveries in neuroscience are overturning long-held beliefs that the brain is genetically hardwired. Scientists are demonstrating the degree to which the brain is actually quite plastic—how our thoughts determine our mental landscape. They are exploring the relationship of willpower to physiology, how profoundly the mind can affect our health and functionality. It is possible that more and more will be discovered about how deeply we create the various patterns of our lives through certain mental operations—how we are truly responsible for so much of what happens to us.”

So, the next time you face a challenging client, a tight timeline, or a bad to focus on the opportunity in the obstacle.  Each of those situations is an opportunity to build new skills and improve.  Adversity shows itself every day, and you'll be better equipped to address because of what you faced today.

*Repurposed from The Game of Adversity:  8 Principles to Turn Life's Toughest Moments into Your Greatest Opportunities.

**Nick interviewed me for his Meet Education Project Podcast.

Nick is an entrepreneur, author, consultant, and public speaker focused on adversity, personal growth, and education.  Throughout his career, he has interviewed hundreds of experts on overcoming adversity, dealing with trauma and stress, and the crucial role that it plays in our cognitive development and education.  

Nick has dealt with adversity his entire life.  At seven years old, Nick's family went from living the American Dream to a foreclosed home, divorce, and mental illness.  He spent a year sleeping on the floor of a one room apartment and sharing a kitchen with 17 people.

He writes and podcasts more about his journey, the story and science of adversity, and personal growth at and


What do you do when Life Redraws Your Map?

I grew up in Rumson, NJ by the ocean (I used to say “the jersey shore” but can’t anymore) spending mySea Bright, NJ post Hurricane Sandy summers on the beach in Sea Bright and sailing in the briny rivers and ocean.  There were “traditions” around certain weather occurrences, like the annual Nor’easter that helped get the boat out of the water, the annual winter beach erosion and summer rebuilding and the very very rare snow on the beach.  On Monday, October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy re-designed that coastline. 

In 1938, a Category 5 hurricane, “The Great New England Hurricane”, literally reshaped the coastline of Rhode Island…so much so that the US Army Corp of Engineers had to redraw the national maps of New England. It killed about 700 people, cost about $39.2B in 2005 USD, and like Hurricane Sandy, hit during an Astrological (Autumnal Equinox) Full Moon with a 16’ storm surge into Narragansett Bay.  I’ve heard first-hand accounts of that storm from friends up in Maine and the fear and loss are still palpable.

Mantoloking Bridge - Hurricane SandyWhile I loved hanging out with my friends on the beach in Sea Bright, NJ all summer long as a kid, I never understood the grand mansions and condos that were build (and rebuilt) on Sea Bright’s very narrow slit of land which the ocean washed over, breaking sea walls, destroying property almost every year, turning parts of Rumson into ocean property.  Each time, government money was spent to bring in sand and rebuild Sea Bright, trying to preserve a way of life.  And each time, the ocean made it clear it was in charge.  This was, and still is, a predictable cycle.

In Maine, we are guided by the tides - we are not free to do what we want when we want.  Early on in their lives, my kids learned to check the tide clock before planning the day.  And growing up sailing on the ocean, the fog could come out of nowhere and it wasn’t hard to loose your bearings, even in waters that were second nature. 

Our society is preoccupied with control – controlling our circumstances, our employees, our children, our businesses, our spouses…you name it.  It does take a 2x4 over our heads to remind us we are not in control of much, only of how we react to our lack of control. While it’s always been this way, it seems more so now.  I always preferred hurricanes to tornados – you could prepare for a hurricane, you knew it was coming.  A tornado comes out of nowhere.  But, all our preparations don’t guarantee safety, security and normalcy, before or after.

We all have experiences in our lives that redraw our maps. So what will you do when life redraws your map? Grieve if needed, rescue what you should perhaps, and go on.  These events use our vulnerability to build resilience.  While we can’t protect ourselves and those we love and are responsible for, when the maps get redrawn, we can be there for each other, we can give each other strength to become more resilient and we can help each other rebuild, rebuild on new soil and with new opportunities instead of the ones that will just wash away again. 

Thank you to my friend Denise Fletcher, for prompting me to write this post.