It All Comes Down to You (Some Stories About Adversity)

This post is from way back in 2011 (remember those days?). I’m re-airing it because I very much need to hear it as I overcome my own challenges this month — namely, kicking my sorry tail into shape.

I have a feeling you could stand to read it, too, whatever challenges you’re currently facing.

So, sit back and listen up, kiddies. I’d like to tell you some stories about some people and the things they have done…


Helen Keller Was Deaf and Blind

She not only learned sign language, but earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, wrote 12 books and numerous articles, was a fundraiser for the blind, and campaigned for many liberal causes including women’s suffrage and workers’ rights. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

No one would have faulted her for living a quiet life of solitude, given her seemingly insurmountable disability. But she didn’t.


Beethoven Began to Lose His Hearing at the Height of His Career and Eventually Became Completely Deaf

He sawed the legs off his piano so he could set it on the floor and feel the vibrations as he played. His Symphony No. 9, of which he never heard a single note, is one of the best-known works of classical music.

He could have given in to the suicidal thoughts that overtook him at first and become just another poetic tragedy. But he didn’t.


Elie Weisel and Viktor Frankl Experienced the Unspeakable Horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps

Weisel went on to spread a message of hope, atonement and peace, drawing from his own struggles to come to terms with the presence of evil in the world. He wrote over 40 books, including the acclaimed memoir Night, and is a political activist for human justice, tolerance and freedom the world over. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his crusades for human dignity.

He could have become disillusioned, bitter and withdrawn from the world. Few of us would have faulted him for that. But he didn’t.

From his own attempts to find a reason to keep living in the midst of meaningless suffering, Frankl developed a philosophy that even in the cruelest and most hopeless of situations, man has the ability to find internal meaning and purpose. He went on to teach that even when we are helpless to change our circumstances, we have within us the power to summon the will to live. He pioneered existential and humanist psychiatric systems and wrote more than 32 books, including his hallmark Man’s Search for Meaning.

He could have been broken and defeated by the horrors he experienced. Most of us probably would have, in his situation. But he didn’t.


Nelson Mandela Spent 27 Years as a Political Prisoner

He became a leader among his fellow inmates, fighting for better treatment, better food and study privileges, earning his B.A. while imprisoned through a correspondence course. He also became a symbol of hope and anti-apartheid resistance for his entire country. While behind bars, he continued to build his reputation as a political leader, refusing to compromise his beliefs to gain freedom, and upon his release, he led negotiations that resulted in the democracy he had always fought for.

He was elected president of South Africa and received more than 250 awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. His funeral was a global event.

He could have decided to lie low, give in, and let those 27 years sap his motivation and his influence. It would have been easy enough. But he didn’t.


Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and Winston Churchill Are All Said to Have Displayed Signs of Learning Disabilities Like Dyslexia

They did poorly in school. They were told they were stupid, talentless, unteachable, and that they would never amount to anything beyond “mediocre.” I think you know they all went on to do some fairly impressive things.

They could have believed the negative voices and been the smallest versions of themselves. But they didn’t.


Speaking of Thomas Edison…

In addition to failing about 10,000 times before landing on a successful design for the light bulb (“I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”), his factory burnt to the ground when he was 67, destroying countless lab records and millions of dollars of equipment. When he surveyed his losses, he remarked, “There is great value in disaster.  All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”

He could have thrown in the towel at any one of these setbacks. It certainly seemed like “fate” was trying to tell him to do so. But he didn’t.


J.K. Rowling Was a Divorced Single Mom Living on Welfare When She Had the Idea for the Harry Potter Books

She walked her baby in its stroller until it fell asleep, then rushed to the nearest café to get out as many pages as she could before the baby woke up. She is now the revered master creator of a beloved global franchise and one of the richest women in the world.

She could have dismissed her idea as silly or focused on something more “viable.” But she didn’t.


James Earl Jones Still Struggles With a Speech Impediment

When he was young, his stutter was so debilitating that at one point, he actually gave up speaking.

He could have stayed silent. But he didn’t.


Jackie Joyner-Kersee Was Diagnosed With Asthma When She Was 18

She is now a six-time Olympic medalist in track and field, is ranked among the all-time greatest athletes in the women’s heptathlon, and was named by Sports Illustrated for Women as the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century.

She could have seen herself as defective or weak and given up on her dreams. But she didn’t.


Jean-Dominique Bauby Suffered a Massive Stroke That Resulted in “Locked-In Syndrome”

The well-known French journalist, author and editor was left paralyzed and speechless, his only thing method of communication being the ability to blink his left eyelid. He went on to write the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, letter by letter, with this one good eyelid. A transcriber recited a modified alphabet to Bauby until he blinked his eye to indicate the letter he wanted.

An average word took around 2 minutes to “write” this way. The book was written in about 200,000 individual blinks, accomplished in 4-hour-a-day sessions over a span of 10 months.

If anyone ever had the right to claim “writer’s block,” it was him. But he didn’t.


The Moral of These Stories

Circumstances mean nothing.

Limitations mean nothing.

Obstacles mean nothing.

It all comes down to you. (Tweet, tweet!)

YOU decide how you react to circumstances. You decide who you are in those circumstances and what you can do in spite of them (or because of them).

YOU decide what you do with your limitations. You can see them as a challenge, a minor setback or a message from the universe that you’re just not “meant” to do something.

YOU decide to let obstacles stop you or keep blazing ahead.

You know what the above people did. What’s your choice?


Image:  Flickr

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  • Thank you for sharing all of these famous success stories. I really need inspiration like this right now in my life because I want to persevere despite my circumstances. Some days are just so. damn. hard. Things like this? This makes it seem more attainable. Thank you.

    • I am right there with you.  I actually put this list together for myself in my free time because I was feeling frustrated about all the things “holding me back” from my dream future.  Felt considerably different about my situation after finishing up this post…

  • I would like to add an acquaintance of mine to this list, if I may.  Randy Pierce, of  He has an unknown neurological disorder (the doctors have no name for it) that has periodically taken not only his sight, but had landed him in a wheelchair a few years ago, completely unable to walk.  Instead of giving up, Randy relearned how to walk, has since gained some ridiculous level of karate belt, goes running every morning, started the 20/20 Vision Quest project, does speaking engagements, and is in the process of climbing the 48 highest peaks in New England, among other things.  One of the most amazing and inspirational people I have ever met.  It’s hard for me to let myself wallow in self-pity when things look “impossible” when I’ve got Randy 2 towns over from me, posting about the amazing things he’s doing all the damned time.

    • What a fantastic and inspiring story!  I hope plenty of people are able to connect with him through your link here.

      It’s one thing to look at back at great historical figures and be impressed by what they’ve overcome, but seeing a “real” person–and one you know personally!–triumph over adversity like this can be life-changingly inspiring.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent, inspiring article. We are weightless, if we choose to be. Our shackles are our own. Once we free ourselves, anything is possible.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks, Conor!  Wise words from you, too!

  • I’m glad it helped! 🙂

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  • WOW! you make me feel good. I like the post. 

    • I’m glad it moved you.  🙂

  • Chris Barba

    Hi Cordelia,

    Amazing idea for a post! Definitely am awesome way to start my Tuesday morning.  These legendary people should act as touchstones that remind us to never limit ourselves to judgements or titles.  Potential is unique within, the only external part of it is the outcomes you create with it.  

    One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until its done.”

    Outstanding post Cordelia.

    • Thank you, Chris.  I love that Mandela quote.

      I also love *your* quote:  “Potential is unique within, the only external part of it is the outcomes you create with it.”  So true!

  • Amazing stories Cordelia.  That must have taken a ton of time to track down and document the way you did. 

    What a way to inspire and drive hope into our lives.  We really do live in an amazing time and forget about how many wonderful tools we have at our finger tips. 

    Thanks for sharing.  This was great.

    • You’re very welcome.  I actually started researching these stories to encourage *myself* at a time when I was feeling kind of frustrated.  It definitely worked!

  • Just love these stories. One of my favorites is Steven Spielberg being rejected from his director/movie college application. And then, in the end, they gave him an honorary degree a few years back. They sure better – as he’s going down as the best!

    • I like that one–I’m going to add it to my list.  I’m thinking of doing another one of these in the future.

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  • Danielle

    Rock on!! It’s like when people complain, like the economy. Yes, it’s hard, but not impossible to get a job. It’s impossible if you don’t do anything, it’s not if you work hard. And sure, we all sometimes need time on the pity pot, but have your time, mope and pout, then the hell off  and get moving on the next step!

    • Exactly!  People with much greater problems/challenges than yours have overcome them in amazing ways.  There is truly no limit to what a person can do if they set their mind to it and believe it’s possible.  If these stories don’t prove that, nothing does!

  • These stories are exactly what I needed today. Thank you for sharing the encouragement! You are a rockstar!

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  • Shanna Mann

    I’ve always liked St. Francis of Assisi’s take: ‘Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’

    We are capable of so much if we don’t spend too much time thinking about how hard it is.

  • Glad you re-posted so that I was able to see it! Awesome pick me up for when we may begin to doubt ourselves! Another great example is Steve Jobs, a college dropout who wasn’t supposed to go anywhere, I think he ended up doing okay.

    I also like to add that every one of these success stories, had exactly the same amount of minutes in every day that we have right now. Think about that the next time you try to tell yourself that you don’t have enough time. There is always enough time to do something amazing!

    • I’m glad you liked it! I’m realizing I’ve got 3 years’ worth of content that lots of new readers have never seen before, so I’ll be rolling some of my favorite posts back out each month.

      Steve Jobs definitely deserves a place in this list. And I LOVE your perspective on time — it’s so true; the most amazing accomplishments happened over the same 24-hour days that we have. It’s all about how you prioritize your time. Brilliant angle on this!

  • http://thefearlessscribe.blogs

    This is a powerful post. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  • bf


  • bf

    hi kealem

  • bob


  • bf

    hi people

  • bob

    what is going on

    • bf

      im in this stupid class and im supposed to be writing a story

  • bf

    hi BOB

  • bob

    hi bf what are you doing

  • bf