Freak Genes

The following is guest blog post from Dallas Summit speaker David Rendall.

Dandelions are very resilient. They can grow and thrive in almost any conditions. If you have dandelion genes, you’ll be able to adapt to difficult circumstances and overcome significant obstacles.

Orchids, on the other hand, are not resilient. They require very specific environments in order to thrive. If you have orchid genes, you have a greater risk of failure when facing harsh conditions.

If you had a choice, which would you choose? Would you want to be an orchid or a dandelion? As a parent, teacher or manager, would you want orchids or dandelions?

Conventional perspectives emphasize the value of adaptability, flexibility and dandelion genes.

Orchid genes are traditionally seen as a liability. These genes increase the likelihood of “depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, heightened risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors, and other problems.”

Doesn’t sound too good does it? But this isn’t the whole story.

This genetic vulnerability is activated by negative experiences, especially early in life. Childhood trauma seems to trigger the negative potential of orchid genes. Children who don’t go through traumatic events don’t experience the downside of their fragile genes.

Additionally, scientists are now realizing that “these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts, but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts.” People with orchid genes aren’t just vulnerable to bad experiences; they have a “heightened sensitivity to all experiences.”

Unfortunately, “most work in behavioral genetics has been done by mental illness researchers who focus on vulnerability. They don’t see the upside, because they don’t look for it.”

What we are learning is that orchids “wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.” They “falter in some environments but can excel in those that suit them.” This can “prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife or many kinds; and migrations to new environments.”

Because of this advantage, these seemingly “troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.”

Studies show that when people with supposedly bad genes “are put in the right setting, they don’t merely do better than before, they do the best,” even better than their peers with normal genes.

This research confirms my belief that characteristics perceived as weaknesses in one situation are actually powerful strengths in other situations. Situations are very influential. We find success, not when we eliminate our weaknesses and become perfect, but when we find the right fit. And sometimes we need others to help us find or create the right environments.

This truth has important implications for our relationships with our children, students, spouses, co-workers, employees and friends. It is tempting to emphasize weaknesses and dismiss people that aren’t as hardy, resilient or flexible as others. However, in doing so, we might lose the very people who have the most potential. Our job is to create environments that allow orchids to bloom.

Remember, in the real world, we see dandelions as a nuisance but we prize orchids for their rare beauty. Maybe we need to start doing the same in the rest of our lives.

* Quotes are from David Dobbs’ article, The Science of Success, The Atlantic, December 2009

During the last fifteen years, avid Rendall has spoken to audiences on every inhabited continent. His clients include the US Air Force, Australian Government, and Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T, State Farm Insurance, Ralph Lauren, BASF, and GlaxoSmithKline.

Prior to becoming a speaker, he was a management professor, stand-up comedian and endurance athlete. He also managed nonprofit enterprises that provided employment for people with disabilities. He has more than twenty years of experience leading people and organizations.

David has a doctor of management degree in organizational leadership, as well as a graduate degree in psychology. He is the author of three books: The Four Factors of Effective Leadership, The Freak Factor and The Freak Factor for Kids. For more information go to

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