What I Wish I’d Known When I Was Young: The Art and Science of Growing Up

By Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson

‘A superb study … brilliant stories, hilarious observations and jaw dropping revelations about so many figures in public life we thought we knew – but never understood’ EMILY MAITLIS

Loss and adversity are part of the human condition, but an imperfect past isn’t always an indicator of what’s to come.

This book traces a pattern: why is it that often the people with the hardest beginnings in life – children who experience displacement, disease, financial ruin, abandonment or bereavement – become the most successful adults? And is there something to learn from those people, who perhaps have the strongest sense of what matters most?

Of Britain’s fifty-five prime ministers, twenty-five lost one or both of their parents as a child and 69 per cent suffered some form of serious childhood trauma. For their acclaimed podcast Past Imperfect, Thomson and Sylvester spoke to some such prime ministers, as well as pioneers and poets, CEOs and chefs, actors and archbishops, sports stars and Nobel prize-winning scientists. How did Richard Branson overcome severe dyslexia? How did Daphne Park, born in lonely, rural Tanzania, become one of Britain’s top spies? How was diver Tom Daley driven on to win an Olympic gold medal by being bullied at school and his father’s early death?

This book brings together psychological research with scores of intimate, fascinating interviews. The resulting narrative is full of hope, and might help us all towards a better understanding of resilience, motivation, perspective and courage.

Format: Paperback
Release Date: 11 May 2023
Pages: 320
ISBN: 978-0-00-849750-7
Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist at The Times. She started writing about politics in 1996 and was a lobby correspondent on The Daily Telegraph before becoming political editor of The Independent on Sunday. She joined The Times in 2008. She is Chair of the Times Education Commission.Alice Thomson is a columnist and interviewer at The Times. A former Times trainee, she became a foreign correspondent, feature writer and political reporter for the paper before moving to The Telegraph as a columnist, restaurant reviewer and leader writer. She returned to The Times in 2008. She is the author of The Singing Line.Rachel and Alice host the Past Imperfect podcast together.


‘This is a superb study of the way strength can emerge from childhood trauma - brilliant stories, hilarious observations and jaw dropping revelations about so many figures in public life we thought we knew - but never understood’Emily Maitlis -

”'A punchy portrait of how character is forged in adversity. As an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging study, it works. Sylvester and Thomson have succeeded in avoiding 'pity porn” - ; their book is provocative and even uplifting’The Times


‘I promise not to praise Times podcasts unless I really like them. I’ve been recommending Past Imperfect to friends so it would seem unfair of me not to recommend it to readers. In Past Imperfect the paper’s crack interviewing team of Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson talk to politicians and celebrities about their pasts. Their theory is that all successful people are driven to achieve by childhood trauma. As a keen armchair psychologist I am fully behind this premise … Excellent’James Marriott, The Times -