Change the world


Anyone going through a tough spot; read on. Research conducted by Roelf van Niekerk, a clinical and industrial psychologist, and human resources practitioner, is so forward-thinking,  that Nelson Mandela University has awarded him a professorship.

After twenty six years of psychological – biographical research on extraordinary individuals, Professor Roelf van Niekerk has drawn firm conclusions. Often it is the individual we thought less likely to succeed, that turns out extraordinary.

Traditional thinking maintains the view, certainly in the school system, that the individual most likely to succeed in life has good grades, is balanced, and has stable relationships. Based at the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, Professor van Niekerk – who was inaugurated into full professorship at the University last year – has proposed theories relating to a person becoming extraordinary, that are contrary to the established view, or as he more delicately puts it, “theoretical frameworks”.  

Extraordinary individuals often share a shaky, traumatic start in life. This may include insecurity and inferiority; emotional, relationship and family problems; ill health or disability; social problems (including discrimination), and death experiences (parent and/or sibling). 

The psychological-biographical researcher uses psychological theory to illuminate certain components of an individual’s life story.  “One case at a time, deciding what type of story and case, and then selecting the individual,” Professor van Niekerk explained. “We take individuals from the beginning, right to the end of their life, or to the current moment.”

The individuals are mentioned by name and not confidential. The first example the professor cites is Elizabeth, who grew up as one of triplets in Switzerland. Elizabeth loved nature, animals and caring for twelve bunnies, which she saw as her own.

Eventually her father asked her to take a bunny to the butcher, as it was to be their dinner. She collected it after school, and remembered the heavy feeling in the bag. Elizabeth had no appetite for dinner.  Appalled and traumatised, she had to repeat the exercise until there were no bunnies left. Filled with grief and sadness, she grew up to become Elizabeth Kubler- Ross.

Time magazine listed Kubler-Ross among, ‘100 Most Important Thinkers’ of the Twentieth Century’. Her theories are taught to students of medicine, social work and psychology.  Among laudable achievements, Kubler- Ross received 19 honorary degrees, Woman of the Year 1997, and New York Library: Book of the Century. 

“Elizabeth Kubler Ross spent her whole life trying to describe what happens when you lose someone to death,” Professor van Niekerk explained. “She described the five stages of grief and was a pioneer in the establishment of hospice care.”

Van Niekerk shared the case study of an extraordinary South African pioneer. The third of five children, his parents lost two children before his birth. One child died due to congenital heart disease, and the other died at birth. This extraordinary individual lost their first job, while in their early 30s, due to ‘irreconcilable differences with colleagues’. 

He achieved international prominence at the age of 45. Doctor Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant using a human heart.

“The following extraordinary individual was diagnosed with polio in the first year of his life,” Professor van Niekerk shared. “This left him with an atrophied right hand.  He was forced to write with his left hand. At the age of 14 years he contracted tuberculosis and spent 22 months at a sanatorium.

“The teenager dreamed of becoming a medical doctor.  As the family couldn’t afford studies, he qualified as a teacher instead, which was free. He resigned from his job as a teacher shortly thereafter, as it wasn’t for him. You would feel this individual had quite a difficult time,” Professor van Niekerk reflected. “Yet, this person, [the late] Archbishop Desmond Tutu, celebrated his 90th birthday [last October].”

The researcher related the story of an entrepreneur, whose early years didn’t suggest promise. “He experienced a sense of abandonment after being adopted. He was bored at school, a prankster and had serious problems with authority.

“He lived in a violent neighbourhood, was bullied, and a loner during his adolescence. He gave his parents an ultimatum to move him to another school, which they did, but things weren’t much better. It was the hippy era and he experimented with drugs. Then he dropped out of university.”

This extraordinary individual was Steve Jobs. 

“What we should do about psychological problems... These theories need to be revised substantially. It is adversity that struck these individuals and had fantastic outcomes in the end,” the respected academic explained.  

Of challenges, the professor shared that editors of journals tend to refuse to publish a paper if he refers to himself as a pyschological-biographical researcher.

“They perceive it as pseudo-psychology. If I send the same paper and refer to case studies, they publish it. We give too much weight to terms.”

Professor van Niekerk’s inaugural lecture, “Psychological perspectives on the development and manifestation of extraordinary human achievements" is available on YouTube.

Contact information
Prof Roelf Van Niekerk
Professor in Industrial and Organisational Psychology
Tel: 041-504 4014