We have updated our Privacy Policy Please take a moment to review it. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the terms of our updated Privacy Policy.

Why you need a transforming experience to be unreasonably successful

What are the ingredients for unreasonable success and how is it achieved? How do people of seemingly ordinary talent go on to achieve unexpected results? What can we learn from them? In tracing the lives of twenty influential and extraordinary individuals, bestselling author Richard Koch has identified the nine key attitudes and strategies that can propel anyone to new heights of accomplishment. In this article, he shares the third landmark on this map – transforming experiences – and shows how the Falklands War played a profound, career-changing role in the life of Margaret Thatcher.

One of my thrilling and important discoveries in writing this book was that nearly all my players had at least one unusual experience which prepared them for unreasonable success. They were transformed by an event or episode which made a deep impression on them and equipped them with unusual insight, knowledge or convictions. Without these experiences, we might never have heard of them. There are profound and hopeful implications for how to drive forward your own career.

Margaret Thatcher: Transformed for unreasonable success

Margaret Thatcher managed the difficult feat of becoming prime minister without having had a transforming experience. In the third year of office she was the epitome of reasonable success, having always wanted a career in politics; and as someone who started as a Conservative admirer of Churchill at the time of his greatness, she was strongly opposed to socialism. She always worked hard and had a clear idea of her objectives, and although her ascent to power was sudden, unexpected and rather lucky, her plodding determination and simple focus on unchanging beliefs paid off.

There was, up to 1982, no important discontinuity in her character or career. True, the translation from Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School in Lincolnshire to Oxford University marked a dramatic change of environment. Oxford gave her confidence and self-belief, but it did not transform the young Margaret Roberts as one might have expected. One of her best and most even-handed biographers, John Campbell, says that university ‘opened doors to her and set her on the way to a political career. Yet Oxford was not for her, as it was for so many others, a golden period of youthful experiment and self-discovery. In the four years she spent there she made no lasting friendships, underwent no intellectual awakening . . . The most remarkable thing about her Oxford career, in fact, was how little the experience seemed to change her.’

How important was it that Margaret Roberts met and eventually married Denis Thatcher, a prosperous manager and owner of a family paint and chemicals business? Denis had been a distinguished soldier during the Second World War, and although considerably older than his wife-to-be, he had a certain ‘style and dash’ and drove a Jaguar. Marrying Denis was a shrewd and important step for Margaret – she left behind the austerity and cultural vacuum of her lower-middle-class provincial roots for a wealthier life in the Home Counties, and was free to pursue both her political ambitions and her training as a barrister without needing to worry about money. But did being Mrs Thatcher rather than Miss Roberts transform the inner Margaret? It seems doubtful. Thatcher herself said it was ‘certainly not’ love at first sight. John Campbell says, ‘Both were dedicated to their own careers, which neither ever curtailed for the other.’

The last two pivotal events in Thatcher’s life before 1982 – which nevertheless fell well short of personal transformation – were her election as Conservative Party Leader in 1975, and her victory in the first general election thereafter, in 1979. Both were fortuitous. The former event owed everything to three factors – the extreme unpopularity with Conservative MPs of Ted Heath, the leader she ousted, who had lost three out of four general elections, and who was gratuitously rude to everyone; the failure of nerve amongst other possible challengers to Heath; and her own courage and ambition, a constant part of her nature.

Her win as Conservative leader was a conundrum, with strong overtones of faute de mieux. ‘We’ve gone mad,’ said Sir Ian Gilmour, a prominent minister, ‘She won’t last . . . she can’t last.’ The Labour Party were delighted at her election, rejoicing that she was ‘bloody unelectable’. Within her own party, ‘Her position remained insecure for the whole period 1975–79 . . . A powerful section of the party, including most of Heath’s senior colleagues whom she was obliged to retain in her Shadow Cabinet, remained conspicuously uncommitted to her.’

‘Thatcher was in a weak position,’ says Professor David Cannadine. ‘Tory grandees such as Lord Carrington, Sir Ian Gilmour, Christopher Soames, and William Whitelaw looked down on her, on account of her gender and her lowly social origins, condescensions vividly articulated in Whitelaw’s description of her as “governessy”. It was the same in the Conservative Research Department, where Thatcher was described as “Hilda” or “milk-snatcher” . . . Thatcher did not seem a plausible prime minister in waiting.’

Yet Thatcher was again assisted by external events – the Labour Party’s tiny majority eaten away by by-election losses, leaving the government dependent on other political parties; the appalling economic record and extremism of many leading Labour figures while in office from 1974–79; the failure of Jim Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, to call an election in the autumn of 1978, when he would probably have won it; and luckiest of all for Thatcher, the 1978–79 ‘winter of discontent’, when thanks to striking workers demanding huge pay increases, rubbish piled to high heaven, ambulance drivers refused to take the sick to hospital, the dead were not buried, and petrol ran out. The Labour government lost all control – any Conservative leader would have won under these circumstances.

So when she became prime minister in 1979, expectations of Thatcher were muted. She had to depend on a Cabinet of Tory ministers, most of whom were contemptuous or unsympathetic. Though dealt a difficult hand, Margaret Thatcher proceeded to make an extraordinary mess of her first two years as PM.

Professor Cannadine sums up: ‘She was genuinely unsure of herself now that she had obtained the supreme office . . . By the end of 1979 inflation was [rising] . . . even higher, and business confidence had collapsed. By the summer of 1980 prices had risen 22 per cent in a year, gross domestic product was down 5.5 per cent in two years, and unemployment stood at 2.7 million, an increase of one million in the previous twelve months . . . interest rates were raised from 14 to 17 per cent, the highest level ever. By the spring of 1981 it did not seem as though anything the Thatcher government was doing was working. Stagflation was intensifying, prices and wages were still rising out of control, but so too was unemployment . . . her chances of surviving until the next election, let alone of winning it, seemed minimal.’

Only she and three other cabinet ministers, out of a total of twenty-three, backed her hard-line economic strategy. The prime minister suffered from ‘physical and mental exhaustion, harsh public image and alienation from her friends’. When Thatcher finally sacked three of her most vocal critics within theCabinet, one of them, Ian Gilmour, told journalists, ‘It does no harm to throw the occasional man overboard, but it does not do much good if you are steering full speed ahead for the rocks.’

There were riots protesting against unemployment in London, Liverpool and elsewhere. Lord Hailsham, the veteran lord chancellor, told Thatcher that Herbert Hoover had succeeded in destroying the Republican Party by his policy of austerity and sound money in the Great Depression of the 1930s – she could destroy the Conservatives the same way.

Thatcher insisted on sticking to her economic plan, which she claimed would eventually work; but most ministers and other observers reckoned there would be no long term if the short-term pain had not dissipated before a general election.

That seemed unlikely. New political developments threatened Thatcher yet further. In March 1982, four prominent Labour figures, dismayed by the Labour Party’s further lurch to the left, started the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and formed an alliance with the Liberal Party. The electoral results were stunning, with the Alliance taking the lead in the opinion polls – at one time polling 50 per cent, with Labour and the Tories pushed down to 23 per cent each. Thatcher’s approval rating plummeted to 25 per cent, making her the most unpopular prime minister since polling began. Three devastating by-election losses in rock-solid Tory seats came in quick succession; in the last of them, in March 1982, Roy Jenkins, the SDP leader, won a famous victory at Glasgow, Hillhead, and seemed likely to become the next prime minister.

Into this bear pit dropped a seismic event of terrible proportions for Britain’s standing in the world. Encouraged by British defence cuts, and a sense Britain would not defend its few remaining colonies, rumours began circulating towards the end of March 1982 that the Argentine dictator, General Galtieri, was about to invade Britain’s Falkland Islands, an outpost in the Southern Atlantic where eighteen hundred fiercely loyal British subjects lived.

The Argentine invasion happened on 2 April 1982, unopposed. When she heard about it, Thatcher said it was ‘the worst moment of my life’. The defence minister, John Nott, told Thatcher that recapturing the islands – just three hundred miles from Argentina, but eight thousand miles from Britain – was practically impossible.

THATCHER: ‘You’ll have to take them [the Falkland Islands] back.’

NOTT: ‘We can’t.’

THATCHER: ‘You’ll have to.’

Into this deadlock stepped Admiral Henry Leach, the head of the British navy, who asked for her permission to assemble a task force to retake the islands.

THATCHER: ‘Can we do it?’

ADMIRAL LEACH: ‘We can, Prime Minister, and though it is not my place to say this, we must.’

THATCHER: ‘Why do you say that?’

LEACH: ‘Because if we don’t do it, if we pussyfoot – we will be living in a totally different country whose word will count for nothing.’

With a rueful half-smile, the prime minister gave permission to assemble the task force.

Thatcher had very little diplomatic leverage, and it seemed likely that her career would be over in a few days. In the House of Commons Enoch Powell spelt out the challenge to Mrs Thatcher. The Soviets had half-mockingly called her the Iron Lady, and Powell taunted: ‘In the next week or two, this House, this nation, and the right honourable Lady herself will learn of what metal she is made.’ Alan Clark noted in his dairy ‘how low she held her head, how knotted with pain and apprehension’ she seemed as Powell spoke.

On April 5 and 6 the task force sailed from Portsmouth with military music and wives weeping. Despite Admiral Leach’s optimism, many military experts considered the chances of retaking the islands were minimal; the US navy said it was ‘a futile and impossible effort which could not succeed . . . a military impossibility’.

For the six weeks that it took the task force to reach the south Atlantic, the focus shifted to non-stop diplomatic activity. To her immense irritation and frustration, Thatcher found that America wanted to avoid taking sides between Britain and Argentina.

The American position was complex and contradictory. President Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, appeared to want any available peaceful outcome, though Haig privately urged the president to side with Argentina; Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US permanent representative to the United Nations, openly supported Argentina against ‘colonial’ Britain; while Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger backed Britain. He secretly provided the use of America’s Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic for refuelling, along with Sidewinder missiles and full access to US intelligence – without which winning the war would indeed have been impossible.

Thatcher played a blinder with Haig and Reagan. It was a delicate balance; she could not accept a ceasefire or a solution that would reward Argentina’s aggression, such as joint British-Argentine sovereignty. But at the same time, she could not afford to alienate the USA by appearing intransigent.

Reagan constantly begged her to agree a ceasefire. Thatcher resisted all the peace-mongering American and British bureaucrats, adamant that a military victory was the only acceptable solution. With a natural affinity for the armed forces, she saw that they got everything they wanted. Her very ignorance of military matters helped, making her for once a very good listener. Philip Goodhart, a former soldier and defence minister, said, ‘She wouldn’t have done it [invaded] if she’d been a man and in the armed forces during the war. Then she’d have been aware how dreadfully wrong everything was likely to go.’

Instead of attempting to land near Port Stanley, as the Argentines expected, and helped by bad weather, the task force reached San Carlos Bay undetected. On 21 May nearly five thousand men were safely put ashore.

Argentine troops outnumbered the British by over two to one, but the former were conscripts and not used to the Falklands’ bitter weather. On 14 June British troops recaptured Port Stanley and on 15 June eleven thousand Argentine men surrendered. The war was over; Thatcher was triumphantly vindicated.

‘Although Thatcher gave full credit to the service chiefs,’ says Cannadine, ‘she was the supreme architect and beneficiary of their victory. She had taken huge military and political risks, but her resolution and determination had never wavered.’

How the Falklands experience transformed Thatcher

  • It gave her new, transcendent self-confidence. The Falklands crisis was the time of her life, said Robert Armstrong, when ‘she lived most intensely’. She was sure that only she could have done it. It was the defining moment, the greatest triumph of her whole career.
  • She thought it proved that Britain could regain its greatness. After her Falklands triumph, she went back to Downing Street, mingling with the people, young and old, singing Rule Britannia. ‘It was their triumph,’ she said. ‘We have ceased to be a nation in retreat.’
  • As Charles Moore said, her mindset was ‘both conservative and revolutionary. She saw herself as restoring an inherent British greatness . . . At the same time, she saw herself as bringing about enormous change.’
  • She went from being on probation with her Tory colleagues to complete dominance over them.
  • The full Thatcherite agenda to save Britain from socialism was now able to emerge.
  • Finally, the Falklands experience made Thatcher dangerously over-confident, intransigent and unwilling to listen to close colleagues. Her success in war made her increasingly intolerant, autocratic and unable to compromise.

Why a transforming experience is necessary for unreasonable success

Reasonable success can follow from a linear and ordered career plan – doing all the ‘right’ things. But following a conventional path won’t lead to unreasonable success.

On the other hand, unreasonable success can spring from one or more intense experiences which call forth unsuspected talents or latent character. The seeds of extraordinary personal achievement are watered and germinate during a time of extreme weather – a personal crisis or other learning and testing period which marks a profound discontinuity in your self-belief, expectations, rare knowledge, direction, certainty, focus and potential.

  • Without a transforming experience you are unlikely to attain unreasonable success.
  • It is possible to engineer a transforming experience for yourself. So position yourself in the slipstream of events where the right kind of transforming experience is most likely.

Margaret Thatcher and the players in my book did not consciously engineer their own transforming experiences. You are more fortunate. By learning from their experiences, you can plot a transforming experience which may catapult you to unreasonable success.

All our players had a personal transformation – an event which changed them profoundly, connecting them with their destiny. They acquired rare new knowledge, rare determination, rare self-confidence and certain other indefinable but omnipotent psychic gifts which made them George Bernard Shaw’s ‘unreasonable man’ or woman, in contention for unreasonable success.

With very few exceptions, our players did not know they were heading for transformation, nor consciously choose their transforming experiences. But you can, and if you aspire to unreasonable success, you should.