6 People That Overcame 6 Life-Changing Obstacles

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

It’s easy to be caught up in your own problems. Your job sucks, nobody wants to date you, and you don’t make enough money.

It seems like everyone around you has it better. Instagram, Facebook, and social media only compound that effect. Beautiful pictures of envy-worthy vacations, cool people having an epic time, and “influencers” with a luxurious lifestyle you’ll never attain.

What most of us need is somebody to shake us out of this narcissistic stupor. To show us all we do have in our lives. To show us how great we actually have it.

But how can you truly appreciate what you have? One word: perspective.

You need the proper perspective for your own existence. One way to gain perspective is to study other people and their lives. To better understand what problems they faced and how they overcame them.

When you learn about other people’s stories it opens your eyes to real problems. It helps you realize what you are facing isn’t so bad. Or perhaps it provides you with a solution to the problems you are dealing with.

To gain a dose of perspective and maybe even a solution to a problem you currently face, let’s take a look at 6 people that overcame enormous barriers to become successful.

Teddy Roosevelt

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

Teddy Roosevelt was born into great wealth, privilege, and a loving family. Whatever he wished for was granted. Despite this, his early life wasn’t all that easy.

Roosevelt was born a sickly and frail child prone to horrible asthma attacks. His family feared he would not live long. Instructed by his father to toughen up, he sought to “make himself”. To build his body inch by inch. From an early age, he engaged in a rigorous strength and conditioning regimen. He learned to box, play tennis, and lift weights with a flurry of exertion and energy.

Slowly but surely he built his strength.

After schooling, Roosevelt dipped his toes into the political world becoming a New York state assemblyman. All in life was going well until one fateful day in February of 1884.

On the same day, in the same house, shortly after his wife, Alice Lee, gave birth to their first born daughter, Alice and Roosevelt’s mother fell ill. Both would succumb to their illness. Alice to undiagnosed kidney disease and his mother to typhoid fever.

Roosevelt would write in his journal that “the light has gone out of my life.”

Distraught, Roosevelt fled to South Dakota to a plot of land he had purchased before in the Badlands. With little to no knowledge, Teddy would become a rancher.

He sought solace and recovery in the company of cowboys, ranchers, and outdoorsmen. His therapist became hard, physical work. The therapist’s office: the outdoors.

Crisp air, rugged terrain, physical exertion, and constant movement was his medicine.

In 1886, a brutal winter descended on the Badlands. Roosevelt and the other ranchers in the area would lose nearly all of their cattle. Roosevelt was wiped out and lost a substantial amount of his inheritance.

But what he lost in investment he gained in experience. His time on the Badlands changed him forever. He relished the wildlife, the excitement of ranching, the inherent danger of the outdoors.

Through tough, physical labor on the frontier, he built up his body adding thirty pounds of solid muscle. His high pitched voice was replaced by a deep, gravely echo.

Most importantly, he learned to confront his greatest fears. Roosevelt became fearless in the face of danger.

The time on the frontier helped him to overcome the loss of his mother and wife and the ability to confront his fears would carry him onward for the rest of his life.

As Colonel of the Rough Riders cavalry in the Spanish-American war he led a dramatic, heroic, and arguably reckless charge up a hill to overrun the Spanish troops.

The confidence he gained by overcoming his fears, loss, and challenges as a frontiersman enabled him to dream bigger than ever before. He would become the great disruptor of American politics reforming the police force in New York as commissioner. He tackled corruption in bureaucratic organizations, made huge advancements in conservation for the country, and became known as the “trust-buster” of monopolistic companies.

So great was his ability to endure hardship and pain he survived an assassination attempt when a bullet was lodged in his chest. Scheduled to give a speech for his return campaign as president, his advisors begged him to go to the hospital. He declined their wishes. He would finally go to the hospital after delivering a ninety-minute speech.

Abraham Lincoln

“I must die or be better.”

Abraham Lincoln was born into abject poverty and a highly dysfunctional family life.

After his mother died when he was only nine years old, Lincoln’s father left Abraham and his sister alone to fend for themselves while he went in search of a new wife. Returning with a new wife, Lincoln’s step-mother was appalled at the squalid condition in which Abraham and his sister lived. They lived in a tiny shack with a dirt floor on an unfavorable plot of land to farm in Indiana.

WIth an illiterate father, schooling was infrequent and sparse growing up for Abraham. At the age of nine, his father pulled him out of school to work the farm. Despite this, Lincoln set out to educate himself, but it wasn’t without consequence.

If his father caught him reading rather than working the farm he would beat him for disobeying his orders. Determined to learn, he would walk miles to retrieve books to study and learn. And so his self-education began.

Slowly but surely, Lincoln taught himself by reading and writing whatever he could. He learned the importance of storytelling and how to captivate a crowd. Two skills that would be crucial and unmatched by peers in his career as a politician.

From the get-go life was hard. Loss was a constant in Lincoln’s life. His mother, his sister, and eventually some of his children.

Bouts of severe depression would forever mark his life. At one particularly difficult time in his life, his friends and family were so worried for him they removed all sharp objects and knives from his house, afraid he would turn them on himself.

Despite showing a natural proclivity for politics and the ability to lead men, his rise through the political world was no cakewalk either.

After a short stint as a congressman, Lincoln was dejected and depressed. The two things he worked on as a congressman and desperately wanted were denied: a promotion as a commissioner in the new president’s cabinet and a proposal he crafted to deal with slavery. He had little to show for his time in Congress.

Years later Lincoln looked back at these two failures as the most painful experience in his life.

In his own words, “I hardly ever felt so bad about any failure in my life.”

However, with the sting of failure freshly in his mind, he resolved to change. He decided he “must die or be better.”

What followed was an intense period of self-examination, learning, research, and growth personally and professionally.

Lincoln took a cold hard look at his current skills and determined he was “not an accomplished lawyer.”

He threw himself fully into improving all aspects of his life.

He consumed every subject possible pertaining to the law. He devoured knowledge at an unprecedented rate studying philosophy, astronomy, science, economics, history, literature, and drama. He grappled with highly complex mathematical problems.

He worked from sunup to sundown. On both ends, he was the first up and last to go to bed.

This intense self-assessment and improvement changed his life forever. Without the searing sting of failure as a congressman, he may have never decided to overhaul his life. Without the experience gained overcoming the hardship of his upbringing he never would have been strong enough to confront himself.

These experiences built the man that made Lincoln uniquely qualified to lead the country through the bloodiest war in American history. They provided him with the strength and determination to confront and overcome the horrors of slavery. He forever changed America and the country it has become.

Franklin Roosevelt

“Once you spend two years trying to wiggle one toe, everything is in proportion.”

Similar to his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin was born into a prosperous New York family and was the only child of James and Sara Roosevelt. They doted on him constantly and were extremely close. Today, his mother would be known as a “helicopter parent”.

His childhood was mostly carefree until his father became nearly invalid due to heart problems. From then on, Franklin and his mother made it a point to never distress or show worry around the elder Roosevelt. Franklin would put on a cheery face no matter the occasion. It was a practice that would be a hallmark of Franklin and potentially his greatest skill in later years.

Throughout his upbringing and schooling, he was not known for any remarkable talent in academics or athletics yet he had ambition and one great advantage, the Roosevelt name.

Where he lacked stature in sports or schooling, in the political arena he excelled.

He was smart, affable, energetic, and innovative. He was one of the first politicians ever to run a campaign traveling by car when he ran for senator. The bright red car he traveled in was a standout few would forget.

With high political aspirations, he rose swiftly through the ranks. His future was bright and he seemed all but destined for the White House. But in the summer of 1921, while vacationing, Franklin suddenly fell ill. What first felt like the flu slowly seized control of his body and legs. He had contracted polio.

At the age of 39, just as he was set to take off in politics, he was paralyzed. It was a grim outlook.

Doctors warned his family he may never recover and there was little hope for much of a life after his illness.

Franklin refused to hear it.

Employing his trademark cheery nature, he showcased an optimistic disposition. Whether it was for the sake of those around him or for himself, the effect was noticeable. By acting happy, he became happy. It’s hard to know what exactly he was thinking or feeling at the time, but in all likelihood, he tricked himself into being happy.

Without it, he would never have undertaken the greater challenge ahead. To reclaim ownership over his paralyzed body.

Roosevelt worked tirelessly to build strength in his arms and legs. He fought back the paralysis and regained strength, motion, and ability in his upper body. It was grueling therapy. His son noted how he worked to regain the use of his arms by crawling around the floor and up stairs with only the power of his upper body. He would be left with sweat pouring down his face after these sessions.

Slowly but surely he regained his strength and confidence. He was never able to walk again but he built himself back to a place where he could focus his energy and attention on his political aspirations.

Bravely in 1924, Roosevelt was tapped to speak at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of candidate Al Smith. He worked long and hard to learn to “walk” with heavy steel braces that locked his legs in place so he could prop himself up to stand. The biggest hurdle was making the walk from stage to podium. If he failed and fell, it would be an embarrassing moment in front of hundreds of thousands of onlookers. It was a moment that had the potential to make or break his future career.

His speech was a resounding success. It was a remarkable return to his life in the public eye. It was the shot of confidence he needed to forge ahead and would be the catalyst he needed to pursue the Presidency. Never before or after has there been a President of the United States confined to a wheelchair.

The optimism, mental and physical strength he built would be instrumental in overcoming two of his greatest obstacles as a president, the Great Depression, and WWII. He overcame both with his trademark smile, attitude, and a flurry of innovative and game-changing ideas. All while confined to a wheelchair Franklin Roosevelt would forever change the face of the United States.

Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Born in Austria in 1905 into a Jewish family, Frankl studied to become a psychiatrist and neurologist in the first half of the century. All was well and normal until the ’30s when anti-semitism spread with the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938.

Presented with an opportunity to flee Austria, Frankl chose to stay for fear of leaving his aging parents and family. Shortly after, his parents and wife were captured, separated, and eventually sent to concentration camps.

Frankl would spend the next three years in concentration camps including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau. He would narrowly escape death on numerous occasions. Often, the difference between life and death was as precarious as which line he was assigned to, the line for grueling labor or the line for the gas chambers. 90% of his companions in the other line would die. This theme would repeat itself often over the next three years.

Frankl was witness to and experienced firsthand the atrocities of the Holocaust. Starvation, illness, humiliation, and death were constants. Worse yet, he had no idea where his family was and whether or not they were alive.

All seemed lost for Frankl. However, it is under these conditions, the most despicable and barbaric that Frankl found meaning. This realization has since impacted millions of people.

Frankl quickly realized the difference between life and death in the concentration camp was finding purpose. Finding a purpose in all the suffering. Those that had a reason to live, had the will to live. Those that lost their reason quickly succumbed in the camps.

Three things kept Frankl alive, the thought of reuniting with his wife (unbeknownst to him at the time, she would eventually be murdered in the concentration camps), the wish to rewrite his manuscript that had been confiscated and destroyed in the camps, and the realization that this horrific circumstance was the ultimate laboratory for all that he had learned as a psychiatrist. If he could survive the holocaust he could teach others how to overcome their own personal hardship.

By identifying three reasons why he must survive, Frankl was able to withstand the worst of the concentration camps. Extreme starvation, bouts of typhoid, loss of numerous companions, and grueling labor in frozen conditions.

At his lowest points he would imagine being reunited with his wife, spending time together, and their life as one. He would help and console others in the camps. He would help them discover their meaning in life.

It wasn’t just in the concentration camps that he helped people. After his release from the camps, Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. Since its release, it has sold millions of copies worldwide and helped countless others to find meaning in their life.

As the world crumbled around him and all seemed lost, Frankl not only survived the Holocaust but found meaning in his suffering. He would go on to lead a successful career and continue to help others in Austria.

Amazingly his ability to forgive was even greater. He didn’t believe in collective guilt and knew the way of the future was through forgiveness and reunification of his country.

Frankl’s has taught millions to understand how to find meaning in their lives through work, deeds, love with others, or in hopeless situations by rising above, growing, and changing one’s condition.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161–180 AD, had unprecedented access to all the riches of Rome as emperor but because of this position, he also bore the weight of the entire empire.

One might think to be emperor of Rome that Aurelius had it easy, but his entire life was met by hardship. As emperor, he bore the full weight of responsibility of an entire empire.

The only constant in Aurelius’ life was loss, sickness, and war.

His parents at a young age, his wife, and even several children would succumb to untimely deaths. Throughout his reign, he witnessed the devastating effects of plagues and famines. War was a constant in his time as emperor, most notably with the Parthian empire to the east and the barbarians to the north.

He even dealt with a treasonous general, Avidius Cassius, proclaiming himself emperor after trying to overthrow his power.

How did he learn to overcome this constant hardship? Through philosophy. Having studied and learned from Stoic masters he would employ the three major disciplines of Stoicism to overcome any situation. He learned to control his perception of events, to direct his actions properly and responsibly, and he willingly accepted what was outside his control. By doing so, he focused on what he could control.

His ability to remain unchanged, unharmed, and act appropriately was astounding. For example, rather than seeking vengeance upon the treasonous general Cassius, Aurelius pleaded with his supporters to not overthrow and kill Cassius. He wanted to give Cassius the opportunity to come to his senses. After failing to do so, Aurelius acted calmly and gathered a team to restore order with one caveat, to not kill Cassius. He would not have the opportunity as Cassius was assassinated by a centurion.

Amazingly and thankfully for us, Marcus’ journals writings, called Meditations, have survived nearly 2,000 years and have become a must-read for many of today’s greatest minds.

In it is page upon page of life-changing wisdom. Wisdom to be better, to deal with any circumstance, and a reminder to live and live now.

It’s the line of thinking and philosophy that allowed a man that had absolute power as the emperor of Rome to not become corrupted absolutely by power. By employing this way of thinking he led Rome through some of the most challenging times while rejecting the riches and trappings of power.

Frederick Douglass

Born in Maryland in 1881 into slavery, Frederick Douglass knew from the onset the worst qualities of man.

A common practice in slavery, Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant and only met her a handful of times before she passed away at an early age.

His first two decades would be miserable. Moved from one master to the next in Maryland and Massachusetts he would witness and be victim to the worst of slavery. He witnessed barbaric whippings and would be whipped repeatedly himself. He was nearly killed after he fell ill due to heat exposure working a field when his owner beat him ruthlessly, leaving a huge gash in his head after failing to work.

He witnessed a white farmhand murder a slave in cold blood without hesitation by shooting him after he refused to return to work.

Everywhere he went, Douglass was subject to violence, bigotry, and the dehumanizing effect of slavery.

Despite that, he retained hope. He was crafty, cunning, and smart. More importantly, he had a desire to learn. As a young boy, after a new master’s wife taught him a few letters and words the floodgates opened for Douglass, there was no going back.

He did everything he could to teach himself how to read. He would cleverly play with white children in town challenging them to a spelling contest so that he could learn more letters and words from them. Whenever and wherever he could, he would try to get his hands on educational materials.

With the help of nobody, except for the few white children he could learn from through games, he managed to teach himself how to read and write. It was a miraculous feet of strength and display of determination.

He would eventually become a teacher in his own right instructing other slaves to read and write. Douglass knew that freedom was born from knowledge.

By the time he was twenty, he had enough of slavery. He determined to escape from his master and flee to the free northern states. From Maryland to his free destination of New York, he succeeded.

But that was only the start of his amazing life. To shine a light on the barbarity of slavery Douglass wrote the bestselling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Many skeptics questioned the authenticity of the work believing no former slave could ever write so eloquently. Unphased, Douglass would go on to write two more biographies.

He became an exceptional orator traveling to Ireland and England to lecture and gain support for abolitionism. His activism didn’t stop at slavery either, he became a proponent for women’s suffrage and the rights of all men and women.

Douglass was a major force behind emancipation and for the equal treatment of African-American soldiers in the Union army. Lincoln’s acceptance of African-American soldiers and the Emancipation Proclamation would be a turning point for the Union in the Civil War. Without it, the war could have ended differently and most certainly would have dragged on for longer.

Without Frederick Douglass, life in the United States would undoubtedly be much different today.

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