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Dr. Joy's Research

Having coached various elite individuals for several years and being an elite performer herself, Dr. Joy was inspired to conduct research to explore what appeared to be an association between career success, excessive drive, and difficult early-life experiences.

Success as a Protective Factor:
Humanizing Elite Athletes, Leaders, and Entrepreneurs

Existing theories and associated research have confirmed multiple factors impacting career success, including personality, work-related knowledge, skills, and competencies, and work-nonwork dynamics. The literature does not offer information regarding these and other nonwork antecedents and outcomes of objective career success for elite performers in high-status positions.

Grounded theory research methodology was used to develop a theory to explain the phenomenon of the impact of personal life experiences on career path success for elite performers across industries, including Fortune 100 CEOs, producers (entertainment), entrepreneurs, and former NBA & NFL athletes.

Interviews with thirteen elite performers yielded five categories reflecting nineteen themes that emerged from participants’ stories:

  • Difficult life experiences

  • Unexpected career-related setbacks and challenges

  • Feeling and managing emotions

  • Success components

  • Unintended consequences

These categories informed the development of the theory success as a protective factor, which explains the phenomenon of the impact of personal, nonwork experiences on the career path success of elite performers.

Population Demographics

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The central theme of the above-outlined categories and associated themes informed by elite performers’ interviews is success as a protective factor. Participants’ descriptions of difficult life experiences included challenges and traumas in childhood, the death of a loved one, experiences of discrimination in childhood and adulthood, and unexpected career-related setbacks and challenges. They experienced negative emotions such as anger, darkness, and grief due to these and other life stressors. Various management strategies, including channeling negative emotions and self-soothing through giving, were employed to address these emotions. The positive results of their emotion management are created through various success components, including constant busyness via action toward goals and having an unwavering belief in themselves that yields above-average career outcomes. These strategies and actions do not account for the unintended consequences of work-life conflict, insatiability, and career success only partially resolving the initial conflict and associated emotion(s). To effectively maneuver the dynamic realities and associated emotions they encountered, participants engaged in ongoing perception modification to relieve internal and external conflicts that arose.


The theory of success as a protective factor provides the blueprint for how elite performers cope with and overcome a dichotomous reality that offers levels of success that most others will never achieve while not being exempt from the unforgiving complications of being human.

Key Findings

  • Adaptive responses to early-life threats yielded above-average career outcomes, confirming a direct connection between career success and traumatic/difficult life experiences.

  • Elite performers developed a sense of self that connected their ability to perform to their self-value during the early-life read more

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As a leading human behavior expert and business strategist, Dr. Elizabeth Joy lends her leadership in various initiatives and organizations beyond her own to improve individual, organizational, and societal outcomes. She provides consultive and advisory guidance to numerous entities and high-profile individuals to enhance performance by providing solutions designed to account for individual needs while solving organizational and societal problems.

Leveraging her research and the success as a protective factor theory, Dr. Joy designed the GPS for TRU Success framework to support elite performers as well as emerging leaders in developing skill sets and mindsets for personal AND professional success in today’s world. Her work is facilitated through a broad and curated curriculum that includes keynotes, self-paced learning modules, live workshops, and coaching programs.

Get the full report.

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Get instant access to the Success as a Protective Factor White Paper, which includes the key findings in entirety, research methodology, presentation of data, a detailed summary of results, thorough review of implications for elite performers, organizations, and teams & agents, and an appendix with study participants' responses that informed theory development. 

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