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


Power in Innovation Networks

A few weeks ago, I was driving by an abandoned Ford plant in Lorain, OH.   The plant, a key regional employer closed in 2005.  What

struck me were the parking lots.  Some of them were fields!  You couldn’t even see any concrete.  Others were still in the process of re-fielding.  In 6 years, the force of nature was powerful enough to break through concrete and asphalt, not just in cracks made from wear and tear but also in solid concrete.  Do you know how much power and strength that takes?  So I thought I’d find out. Two of my ‘learnings’ really hit me:

  1. The Network: since plants need light and water (remember osmosis and photosynthesis?), all it takes is 1 plant sprouting up between a crack to ‘distribute’ the energy and nutrients of light and water throughout its underground root system causing others to grow and push through.
  2. The Chemistry: the cellulose, starch and lignin in the plant cells creates electrical charges when wet – like water (2H are +, 1O is -).  The water permeates these natural polymers creating a chemical bond (hydrogen bonding) that makes the cell contents and wall swell exponentially, which creates tremendous pressure - pressure strong enough to break through concrete and asphalt.

The Network.  Nature has an incredible under-on-over-ground network that I believe is indestructible – not that we can’t damage it a lot.  Man has a lot of hubris to think we are powerful enough to fully destroy what existed long before us.  We have a lot to learn from nature’s powerful networks. Networks increase strength, resilience, diversity, and adaptation, which facilitate growth and innovation.  We can use networks to create these same traits in society, in communities and even our companies: to solve wicked problems facing our world; to tell, share and create stories that transform; even to just have fun. We need to get over our hubris of our individual power and knowledge, just like our hubris with the planet, and realize its “The Network, Stupid”.   We – as companies, organizations, people - need to stop fearing the network (e.g., twitter, Facebook, etc.) and embracing it – it is a key to survival.

The Chemistry. Have you ever met someone and you just clicked? The same strength of physical chemical bonds between atoms happens between people.  These can’t be commanded or coerced, they happen (or don’t) naturally.  It’s the power of these bonds between people that create, sustain and grow networks.  That’s why networks, which are collaborative are great at innovation – whether in sustainability or other areas.  When atoms collide, they create energy and new structures.  When people collide, they create energy and new ideas, solutions.

So, look at the parking lot again.  What can you learn from the power of nature, from its underlying extending network and adaptive evolving chemistry?  How can this apply to your company, project, initiatives and people? You don’t have to start at some grand scale.  All it takes is one small stalk sticking up through a crack in the seemingly impermeable concrete (your culture?) to spread.