Terry Giles on Turning Adversity Into Lasting Success

May 5, 2020 Updated: May 12, 2020

Terry Giles is a serial success story. He built one of the top criminal-law firms in the state of California early in his career, owned 35 businesses from cars to computers to a castle-turned-hotel, and went back to law in the civil realm with great success as well.

But this is all despite incredible adversity, and throughout his career, Giles met many high achievers who similarly overcame huge obstacles to be at the top of their field.

It was during a case defending 150 sex abuse victims of the Catholic Church about a decade ago that Giles learned there was a term for this psychological phenomenon.

Many of the victims were, as expected, traumatized. They were debilitated by their pasts even years later, unable to move on. But one articulate man stood out to the lawyers because of how he had moved on to create a stable, productive, and meaningful life and family.

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Terry Giles. (Courtesy of Terry Giles)

“When I started dealing with the psychiatrists, that was the first time I’d heard that within psychiatric science that when someone goes through extreme hardship 85 percent of the time they are negatively impacted—sometimes destroying their life,” Giles said.

“But for some reason, 15 percent come out the other side stronger and better off than if they hadn’t gone through the hardship at all,” Giles said.

The theory came up again when Giles was serving as chairman of the Horatio Alger Association’s Scholarship Committee, one of the nation’s largest need-based privately-funded college scholarship providers, and asked what they were looking for in applicants.

“And without hesitation, they said, ‘Oh, that’s easy, you’re looking for the 15 percent,” Giles said.

He wondered, was it DNA? Luck? A skill set that one is forced to learn?

Looking into it, Giles realized he was exactly one of these cases, and, delving into the common characteristics of these “15 percenters,” he determined there were teachable lessons anyone could apply.

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Giles, age 29, at a press conference. (Courtesy of Terry Giles)

Teaching Resilience and Optimism

In Giles’s recent book, “The Fifteen Percent: Overcoming Hardships and Achieving Lasting Success,” he uses his own story as a lively case study, sharing both the good he’s done and the mistakes he’s made.

He introduces us to his childhood self, who in third grade had to walk home during a tornado because his dad couldn’t be reached. The family would move constantly—on the run from bill collectors—and he remembers miserable childhood and teenage years. But hindsight is 20/20, and as Giles put together the book, he was able to pick out all the right choices he had made that brought him to where he is today.

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Giles’s recent book “The Fifteen Percent: Overcoming Hardships and Achieving Lasting Success.” (Skyhorse Publishing)

The first rule of success he gives is: “Don’t be stopped by fear or failure.” In many 15 percenters, he noticed a low fear factor. But this rule is not the same as fearlessness, it is the willingness to keep going despite fear or failures.

“When we all go through hardship, and I don’t care who you are, you will have a tendency to say, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’ Everybody does that,” he said. “But the biggest mistake one can make is getting stuck there.”

The 15 percent who succeed are the ones who continue to push forward, because they manage to find a way. Giles gives advice about how to make the unconventional choice, how to learn from and do better because of mistakes, and how in the right frame of mind “nothing” can become everything.

Giles is an optimist: Left to nature, 85 percent of us suffer in adversity. But if we teach these lessons about resiliency and living outside our comfort zone, especially to young people, one day that 15 percent will be 25 percent, or 35, or 50, or more, Giles said.

Unfortunately, Giles said, “as a young person, you hear the word no a lot.”

“No, you can’t do that. No, that won’t happen for you. No, that’s impossible. We hear ‘no’ a lot more than we hear ‘yes,’ and I think that’s why there’s only 15 percent that ignore that and somehow come out of the other side better,” he said. “But if we could teach these things, there’s no reason that we couldn’t have more of the population achieving greatness even though they go through hardship.”

“And wouldn’t it be a better world, if that were the case?”

Success Tempered With Integrity, Not Arrogance

Giles’s story is a cinematic one, with tales that sound almost too incredible, which he credits to perhaps karma, or fate, or some grand design. There’s an instance where going out of his way to return $4,000 cash turned into a gift twice over, and businesses booming or failing because of decisions of integrity.

The theme of character and conduct played into his first career change, where after five years into building a successful criminal law firm that was making headlines in the paper more days in a year than not, Giles defended a man involved in creating snuff films and realized he was using his talent to help bad people.

He left criminal law to go into a completely new business, and seemed to find overnight success.

“I think inherently, deep down, we know if what we’re doing is the right thing or the wrong thing. It’s probably just as easy as saying, ‘Would I want somebody else to know I’m doing this thing?’ and if the answer is no, maybe you’re doing the wrong thing,” he said. “Then it’s just a matter of being disciplined and being willing to do the good, even though it may seem to be leading to a negative result.”

“If you’re doing good, what might seem like a negative is going to reverse,” Giles said. It requires admitting your mistakes and making up for them. “And that’s hard, that’s painful.”

“But if you do that, you come out the other side better, stronger, and great things will happen in your life and make up for it,” Giles said.

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Giles working late one night in 1991 when he was chairman of Pacific National Bank. (Courtesy of Terry Giles)

Positive Thinking

Giles, who has been baptized four times in different denominations because his grandmothers and mother were of different faiths, says his view is spiritual, not religious.

“I went through a [spiritual] renaissance, I would say, in my 20s,” Giles said. “When I was a kid and a teenager, life was pretty miserable for me. But when I went off to college, from that point on, life got pretty good. I mean, a lot of what I consider to be miracles happened in my life.”

“Every time I needed something good to happen, it seemed to happen, and so I began to think about whether or not I had some control over my life, that I wasn’t at the mercy of life,” he said. It was something his mother said often when he was growing up, but now he was believing it. “And the more I started to believe that, the more I wanted to know: Where does positive thinking come from?”

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Giles with this mother LaDon Giles Hix when she was 75 years old. (Courtesy of Terry Giles)

Positivity can be taken lightly, but it can also lead somewhere very deep, and spiritual.

Giles, speaking by phone while in voluntary quarantine in the apartment above his horse ranch, said taking stock of his life and the right choices and mistakes he made while writing the book was, in short, cathartic. Above his ranch, he has filled many more notepads with an assessment of his life and what is truly important to him—”spending time with family, not just because we’re quarantined together!”

“I hate the coronavirus and I think it’s a tragedy on a number of levels,” he said. But it is forcing the world into taking a time out, and maybe we need to spend some time with ourselves. With a negative attitude, the isolation might feel hellish. But with a positive attitude, you can come out stronger.

“If in taking this time out, if we can not feel sorry for ourselves, but use the time to reflect, to maybe realign our goals, to take into account those things that are really meaningful to us both as a country as a state as individuals, this can end up being a very good positive, even though it looks like a very dark cloud right now,” he said.