Winston S. Churchill is quoted as saying, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” There are numerous people in history whose struggles are proof of the extraordinary courage they possessed. Even when every circumstance was screaming at them to quit, these people prevailed and turned their days of adversity into a lifetime of success. Here are 10 such individuals in history who succeeded against all odds.
1. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, separated from his mother at a young age, taught himself to read in secrecy, and was beaten severely when his attempts at learning were found out. He rebelled and finally escaped after numerous attempts, became the leader of the abolitionist movement gaining notoriety for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing.
Frederick Douglass, the African-American social reformer, was born in Maryland as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. It was the custom during those times to separate children born in slavery from their mother at a very young age. This happened with Douglass. At the age of twelve, his master’s wife started teaching him but stopped when his master disapproved. Then Douglass began learning to read and write in secret by observing the writings of men with whom he worked and from the White children in the neighborhood.
After being hired by a new master, Douglass began teaching other slaves at the plantation. When masters of the other slaves found out, they hit them with clubs and stones and the teaching was discontinued. Later, Douglass was sent to work for numerous masters, some of whom used to punish him severely. He rebelled and made numerous attempts to escape. On September 3, 1838, he escaped successfully by boarding a train and reached New York. There he married and adopted the second name, Douglass.
Soon, Douglass began attending abolitionist meetings and started giving eloquent speeches. He traveled to Ireland and Great Britain where he delivered lectures in churches and chapels. His powerful oratory drew masses, and the facilities were often “crowded to suffocation.” Douglass is best known for his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He wrote the book so eloquently that some skeptics doubted whether it was actually the work of a Black man.(source)
2. Claudius, a Roman from a noble family, suffered from several health problems throughout his life, avoided assassination of his family because nobody thought he was a threat, later he became the emperor, conquered Britain which was considered impossible at that time, and became one of the greatest rulers of ancient Rome.
Claudius was born into a Roman noble family, yet his family considered him to be an embarrassment. His unattractive appearance, ill health, and clumsy manner were the reason behind their disdain. He drooled, stammered, and limped, and even his mother thought that he was dimwitted. That’s why no one had any expectations of him, and Claudius was left to continue his own study and amusements.
As a young man, Claudius was made a consul under the reign of Caligula, his nephew. Caligula used to humiliate Claudius through practical jokes and tormented him relentlessly. Claudius’ fate changed on 24 January 41 CE, when the Praetorian guard killed Emperor Caligula and his family. They spared Claudius because no one believed the sickly-looking man to be a threat. After the murders, the palace soldiers found him behind a set of curtains, quivering and fearing for his own life. He was made emperor on January 25, the next day.
Claudius’ first act as an emperor was to execute the conspirators who assassinated Caligula. He brought law and order to the land and established peace, and soon proved to be an efficient emperor. During food riots caused by drought, he imported corn. He reclaimed some of the lost lands and expanded the empire into the Middle East and the Balkans. One of his most well-known conquests is the invasion of Britain during which he personally led the army across the English Channel and brought the island into submission.(1,2,3)
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected US president four times even though he was paralyzed from the waist down after suffering from polio. To run for public office, he taught himself to walk a short distance using a cane while wearing iron braces and took great care to never appear in public in a wheelchair.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, also known as “FDR,” is considered one of the three greatest US presidents. He is well known for his record of winning four successive presidential elections. Despite suffering from polio since 1921, he served as the president of US from 1933 until his death.
FDR fell ill while he was vacationing with his family in Canada. The illness left him paralyzed permanently from the waist down. Since Roosevelt was intending to run for public office, he began convincing people that he was improving. Due to the paralysis, FDR had to use a wheelchair, but he made sure never to use it in public. Using his iron will, he taught himself to walk while wearing iron braces on his legs and hips. He could only walk short distances and used to appear in public standing upright while supported on one side by his sons or an aide.(source)
4. African-American track star, Wilma Rudolph, suffered scarlet fever, whooping cough, and measles, survived infantile paralysis and required a leg brace until age nine. She went on to win three Olympic gold medals and was considered the “Fastest woman on Earth.”
On June 23, 1940, a premature baby girl was born to Blanche and Ed Rudolph. They named the girl Wilma. During her childhood days, Wilma suffered from double pneumonia and scarlet fever. At the age of four, she contracted infantile paralysis caused by the poliovirus and had to wear a brace on her left leg. With the help of physical therapy and a huge determination, she overcame her disability.
At the age of seven, she began attending Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville where she played basketball. Soon she started gaining acclaim for her running abilities. Under the training of Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple, she qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay.
After finishing high school, Wilma enrolled at Tennessee State University and began training for the next Olympics. During the 1960 Olympics, she won three golds in the 100-meter individual, 200-meter individual, and 4 x 100-meter relay respectively and became the first American woman to win three golds in a single Olympics.(1,2)
5. Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), left school at 13, lost numerous jobs, his wife left him, and at the age of 65, he retired as a failure dependent on his savings and money from social security. One day, knowing he was a good cook, he borrowed some money, fried some chicken, sold it door-to-door, founded Kentucky Fried Chicken and became a billionaire at 88.
Harland David Sanders, popularly known as “Colonel Sanders,” was born in Indiana on September 9, 1890. When he was just six years old his father died. As a result, his mother began working while he cooked and looked after his siblings. At the age of 10, he began working as a farmhand. At the age of 13, he left home and began working as horse carriage painter.
In 1906, Sanders falsified his date of birth and enlisted in United States Army. In February 1907, he was honorably discharged from the army. He then went to live with his uncle in Alabama and worked as a blacksmith’s helper, then as a cleaner at Northern Alabama Railroad, and then became a fireman. In 1909, Wilbur began working as labor at Norfolk and Western Railway. There he met and married Josephine King. But after the death of his son and losing his job again, his wife left him along with her children. Meanwhile, he began practicing law but his legal career ended after a brawl with his client in the courtroom.
At the age of 40, Sanders began running a service station in Kentucky. The service station featured fried chicken, and it was so popular that he was named a “Kentucky Colonel” in 1935. But his success was short-lived as at the age of 65 he had to sell his restaurant and was left with his savings and $105 per month from Social Security. Instead of bowing down, he borrowed some money, sold his fried chicken door to door, and finally opened a new restaurant in 1959 in Shelbyville. Soon, KFC grew in popularity and became an international success. The company’s rapid expansion overwhelmed Sanders, and he sold it in 1962 for $2 million ($15.4 million today).(1,2)
6. Helen Keller went blind and deaf as a toddler but still was able to learn sign language. She also learned to speak, read lips with her hands, go to school, earn a bachelors degree (rare for any woman in her time), and became an author, political activist, and lecturer.
The story of Helen Keller, a deaf-blind American girl who overcame her disability to became a notable author and humanitarian, has inspired people throughout the world. But she was not always a deaf and blind person. Born on June 2, 1880, Keller was a healthy baby. When she was just 19 months old, she contracted an illness and lost both her hearing ability and her vision.
In 1886, six-year-old Helen Keller was allotted an instructor, 20-year old Anne Sullivan, who was herself visually impaired. In the beginning, when Sullivan began teaching her words, Keller couldn’t understand that every object has a unique word. So, she became frustrated. One day, Sullivan took Keller’s hand and began pouring water on it while on her other hand began tapping out the alphabet code of the word “water.” As Sullivan repeated the process again and again, Keller realized the relationship between the cool water on her hand and the word. This ignited her interest and before nightfall, she had learned 30 more words.
After the breakthrough, Keller began learning and soon proved to be a gifted child. By the age of 10, she mastered Braille and the manual alphabet, and could even use a typewriter. By 16, she learned to speak well enough to enroll in school and then went to Radcliff College. She graduated cum laude in 1904. Soon, the little blind and deaf girl became one of the world’s most remarkable woman. She toured various countries delivering lectures, wrote books, and dedicated her life to improving conditions for deaf and blind people throughout the world.(1 ,2)
7. Karoly Takacs, a top pistol shooter of his time, was preparing for the Olympics when one day during a training session with his army squad, his right hand was mutilated by a hand grenade. Instead of giving up, he practiced with his left hand and won a gold medal at both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.
In 1936, a Hungarian army sergeant, Károly Takács, wanted to take part in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Even though he was a world-class pistol-shooter, he was denied the opportunity as only commissioned officers were allowed to compete. His dream of competing in the Olympics began taking shape again when this rule was lifted. So, Takács began training for 1940 Summer Olympics.
In 1938, life threw a new setback his way. During a training exercise, a defective grenade blew up his right hand and cost him half his right forearm. After being released from the hospital, Takács began training in secret. With determination and hard work, he surprised his countrymen by winning the 1939 Hungarian National Pistol Shooting championship.
But Takács’ dream of competing in Olympics still remained unfulfilled as the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were canceled due to Second World War. His chance came during the 1948 Olympics where he won the gold medal in the 25-meter, rapid-fire pistol event. He again won the gold medal in the same category during the 1952 Olympics held in Helsinki. Takács’ amazing story of grit and determination won him a place on the list of “Olympic Heroes” of the International Olympic Committee.(source)
8. Orphaned at the age of four, Paul Revere Williams, a Black man, became one of the most important architects of the Los Angeles area during the time when it was becoming a megacity and when racial exclusion was the norm across the entire country.
Paul Revere Williams was born on February 18, 1894, in Los Angeles. He lost his father when he was just two years old. His mother died two years later. Four-year-old Williams was sent to a foster home. His foster mother devoted herself to his education. In his elementary school, he was the only African-American child and everyone mixed together with little prejudice.
Williams first got the hint of racial prejudice in his high school when his teacher advised him against taking up architecture as a career since he may face difficulty in attracting clients from the White community. But with a determined faith in his own talent, Williams went ahead and pursued architecture and gained professional experience in Los Angeles’ leading firms. His outstanding achievement is also due to the fact that he mastered the skill of drawing upside down. He developed this skill so that his White clients, many of whom weren’t keen on sitting next to a Black person, could see the drawing while they sat on the other side of the table.
As Williams gained experience, his outstanding designs won him fame. He was the first Black architect who became a member of the American Institute of Architects. Williams designed the homes of numerous celebrities including Cary Grant, Lon Chaney, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Charles Correll. He designed about 2,500 buildings during his lifetime, most of which are in Los Angeles. Even today, the houses that Williams designed are in such high demand that they don’t usually come up for sale, and even if they do, they are gone within seconds.(1,2)
9. After suffering from a massive stroke at the age of 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby became entirely speechless. His mouth, arms, and legs were paralyzed, and he could only blink, yet he wrote the number-one best-selling book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly which was later adapted to produce a multiple award-winning movie.
On 8 December 1995, the life of the suave and flamboyant editor of French “Elle” magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, changed. He suffered a massive stroke which sent him into a deep coma. Twenty days later, he woke up to the realization that he had changed physically. He could not move a single muscle except for his left eyelid. The doctors diagnosed it as “locked-in syndrome,” a condition in which Bauby’s brain was functioning normally while his body was now in a vegetative state.
Within the first twenty weeks after the stroke, Bauby lost 27 kilograms. But nothing could dampen the indomitable spirit of this Frenchman. Laying in his hospital bed, Bauby started communicating with his children and others by blinking his eyes. He began dictating the account of his life and dreams while being trapped in a vegetative body. He dictated the letters of the words using the blink of his left eye which was then noted. Using this method, he composed and edited a complete book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The book was published on 7 March 1997, and went on to become a bestseller and was later adapted into a critically acclaimed film.(1,2)
10. Abraham Lincoln faced many hardships during his childhood and a number of failures during his later years. These included losing jobs, failed businesses, demotion in the army, and losing elections eight times before he became the President of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is considered as one of the greatest presidents in the history of US. His life, both before and after becoming president, is an inspiration for all.
When Lincoln was just nine years old, he lost his mother. In those times, he was considered lazy as he disliked physical labor which was associated with frontier life and preferred reading and writing. Lincoln left his father’s home in 1831. At the age of 23, he bought a general store on credit but sold his share as the business struggled. In March 1832, he began his political career and campaigned for the Illinois General Assembly but finished eighth among thirteen candidates. Then he became interested in law. So, he started studying law books and observing court sessions. In 1834, he won a seat in the state legislature.
In 1835, Lincoln’s romantic interest, Ann Rutledge, died leaving him heartbroken, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He picked himself up, and in 1836, he got admission to the Illinois bar and began practicing law. Between 1840 to 1845, Lincoln suffered numerous political defeats. In 1846, he ran for Congress and won. In 1849, he tried for the position of Commissioner of the General Land Office but was rejected. Between 1850 to 1858, he lost numerous other elections. Finally, in 1860, his undaunted determination brought him success, and Abraham Lincoln became the president of United States.(source)