One look at the headlines tells you it’s pretty terrible out there, right? Unemployment among millennials is at twice the national average. Thirty-six percent of millennials still live with their parents. Jenny McCarthy is giving kids measles again. Someone just decided we should be called millennials and no one even asked us. Our planes are disappearing out of the sky. And those are just the general problems.
Look in the mirror, and your problems seem to get worse. You’re fat, you flunked a test or just got dumped, your kid is turning into a little asshole, and your dream job has become a nightmare.
These are very real obstacles. Especially when they loom over you right now, in the immediate present. But this is deceptive, because for thousands of years people have faced far worse. At least you’re not facing unemployment and the Civil War. Or divorce and polio. There are still people alive in this country who remember what it was like to regularly risk deadly infections from simple cuts on your finger or contaminated drinking water.
The point is this: Some of history’s most impressive success stories came during times of unbelievable hardship and difficulty. Many of our greatest triumphs came from people who had the shit kicked out of them, who faced seemingly unending adversity and yet, paradoxically, used their trials as opportunities. For these incredible men, the obstacle was the way.
Let’s look at seven complete badasses who turned overwhelmingly awful situations into real victory and success. Because we don’t control what happens to us; we only control how we respond. And we can choose to respond well — like they did.
#7. Demosthenes, the Greatest Orator of Athens
There was not much evidence early on that Demosthenes would become the greatest orator in the history of Athens, perhaps even in the entire history of standing up and talking very loudly. He was born sickly and frail, with a nearly debilitating speech impediment. At 7 years old, he lost his father. And things went downhill from there:
His guardians stole his inheritance and refused to send him to school. He was too weak to distinguish himself physically either. Demosthenes basically was a fatherless, effeminate, awkward child with a stutter whom everyone laughed at. He was like the Water Boy before he found football. None of it was fair, and it was pretty damn sad.
Like you’d expect, this drove the poor guy nearly insane. He literally moved underground and began plotting a horrible revenge on the people who had wronged him. He overcame his stutter by filling his mouth with rocks and shouting into the wind while running (formal speech therapy happened, uh, a bit farther down the line). He would practice by reciting entire speeches in a single breath. He shaved half his head to motivate himself to stay inside and work on his speeches and to educate himself.
Eventually he emerged from his dark cave — but it wasn’t to kill everyone in a murderous rampage. Instead, as an eloquent and masterful speaker, he challenged his guardians in court. He won, handily, and regained the last bits of his fortune. In the process, he so impressed everyone that he went on to become one of the most influential and knowledgeable lawyers and politicians in the city. He was also the only one with the marble balls big enough to stand up to Philip of Macedon, who, by the way, planned to enslave them all.
#6. Sam the Banana Man
It’s 1895. You’re a young Russian immigrant named Samuel Zemurray, and you just showed up in Mobile, Alabama. Unfortunately, you’re already in violation of one of the South’s many unwritten rules: only one prominent Jew per town. Disgruntled, you hop on the nearest train to find a new place to make your start. What do you find? A train car filled with soon-to-be-rotten bananas bound for the North. At this point you can do two things: 1) ride the train like a hobo or 2) buy the bananas at an enormous discount and hustle them for a profit until you’re the richest man in New Orleans and own United Fruit, the biggest fruit company in the world.
Excuse my use of the second person there, because we all know that’s not what you’d do. Faced with similar odds, you or I would probably have become a pathetic drifter, or worse, a politician. But not Zemurray. He was a hands-on entrepreneur who never followed the rules.
As an outsider, Zemurray was able to see the opportunities that other people missed. These bananas weren’t actually rotten; they just wouldn’t make it all the way north. If you bought and sold them locally, right there, they’d be perfectly delicious. So that’s what he did.
He applied the same philosophy later on as his banana empire grew. When he was told he couldn’t build a bridge he needed across the Utila River (because the government had been bribed by his competitors to make them illegal), Zemurray had his engineers build two long piers that reached out far into the center of the river instead. And in between them he created a temporary pontoon that could be assembled and deployed to connect the piers in a matter of hours. Railroads ran down each side of the river, going in opposite directions.
When United Fruit complained, Zemurray laughed and replied: “Why, that’s not a bridge. It’s just a couple of little old wharfs.” Like Zemurray, you have your own dream, whatever it is. With the stakes that high, you’d better be willing to bend the rules or flip the bird to the crooks trying to hold you down in order to make it happen.
And if someone tells you you can’t build a bridge, don’t look at it as an inconvenience; look at it as an opportunity to reinvent motherfucking bridges.
#5. General Dwight D. Eisenhower
As the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Eisenhower had some critics, and for most of World War II, they tended to snipe behind his back that he was more of an organizer than a leader. It made sense — at D-Day, he “organized” the largest amphibious invasion in military history. But problems arose after the invasion (believe it or not, French hedges slowed down the British and U.S. tanks and troops), which stalled the advance. It gave the Germans the chance to wage a series of counteroffensives — a final blitzkrieg of 13 divisions totaling 200,000 men. If successful, it would throw the Allies back into the sea and essentially cement the Nazi occupation of Europe.
Upon confronting the rush of German troops, the Allied commanders had an understandable reaction: They just about lost their shit. Which is exactly what the blitzkrieg strategy was designed to do — exploit the flinch of the enemy so he would collapse at the sight of what appeared to be overwhelming force and speed.
But not this guy. Striding into the conference room at headquarters in Malta, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made an announcement: “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster,” he commanded. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”
The other commanders must have thought he’d lost his mind. They could only see the blitzkrieg’s power and their own vulnerability to it. But because he didn’t flinch and get all emotional, Eisenhower was able to see the tactical solution that had been in front of the French, Belgian, British, and American troops the entire time: The Nazi strategy carried its own destruction within itself. Only then were the Allies able to see the opportunity inside the obstacle rather than simply the obstacle that threatened them. Properly seen, as long as the Allies could bend and not break, this attack would send more than 50,000 Germans rushing headfirst into a net — or a “meat grinder,” as General George S. Patton eloquently put it. In fact, this counteroffensive was a massive, fatal overreach.
By allowing a forward wedge of the German army through and then attacking from the sides, the Allies encircled the enemy completely from the rear. The supposedly invincible thrust of the German panzers wasn’t just impotent, but suicidal — a textbook example of why you never leave your flanks exposed. The Battle of the Bulge, and before that the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, were feared to be major reversals and the end of the Allies’ momentum, but in fact were their greatest triumphs. And then the Allied forces went on to win the goddamn Second World War.
#4. “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, was the son of former slaves living in the Jim Crow South. Eventually, he found his calling in boxing, but being poor and black, he had to make his way into the ring the hard way. His first fight ended up being finished on a beach (prizefighting was illegal in Texas), and he ended up winning $1.50. Because he was too poor to hire a “boxing scientist” — basically the fancy 19th century term for “coach” — he would deliberately prolong his fights to learn more in the ring. Like extend them to 20-plus rounds so he could get his “10,000 hours” or whatever you want to call it. Once again, he knew that learning from a fight was more important than winning when you’re just starting out. That’s a practice that would take tremendous amounts of self-discipline even if your hobby wasn’t “getting punched at by strangers.”
And that is how Johnson’s unique fighting style developed. He would fight defensively at first, waiting for his opponent to tire out, and then pounce in the later rounds when his opponent no longer had it in him to fight back. If this strategy sounds familiar, it should: It’s how Rocky beat Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Now you know where the writers got the idea for it. If that doesn’t already put Johnson high on the list of historical badasses, he was also apparently a pretty fun guy who liked prostitutes and fast cars.
This all came to a head when America decided they needed a Great White Hope to defeat the ascendant black champion. Jim Jeffries was called out of retirement (he had an alfalfa farm) like some deranged Cincinnatus, and Johnson, genuinely hated by Jeffries and the crowd, was taunted with basically every horrible thing you can say to a black person — or any person.
He didn’t take their abuse lying down. Instead, Johnson designed his fight plan around it. At every nasty remark from Jeffries’ corner, he’d give his opponent another lacing. At every low trick or rush from Jeffries, Johnson would quip and beat it back but never lose his cool. And when one well-placed blow opened a cut on Johnson’s lip, he kept smiling — a gory, bloody, shit-eating grin. Every round, he got happier, friendlier, as his opponent grew enraged and tired, eventually losing the will to fight. As Jack London wrote after the fight, “If ever a man won by nothing more than a fatiguing smile, Johnson won today.” That’s right: The guy who would have been more than justified with a permanent, angry scowl beat the world champion with his goddamn grin.
#3. James Stockdale, the Concierge of “Alcatraz”
A United States Navy fighter pilot named James Stockdale was shot down in North Vietnam in 1965. As he drifted back down to Earth after ejecting from his plane, he spent those few minutes contemplating what awaited him down below. Imprisonment? Certainly. Torture? Likely. Death? Possibly. Who knew how long it would all take, or if he’d ever see his family or home again.
But the second Stockdale hit the ground, he somehow stopped all that contemplation. He wouldn’t dare think about himself, because he had a mission. He actually said to himself: “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” Epictetus was a badass slave turned Stoic philosopher. It was a pretty appropriate guy to quote.
See, Stockdale was aware that he would be the highest-ranking Navy POW the North Vietnamese had ever captured and knew he couldn’t do anything about his fate. But as a commanding officer, he could provide leadership and support and direction to his fellow prisoners at the “Hanoi Hilton” (who included future senator and terrible presidential candidate John McCain). This would be his cause, and he would help his men and lead them. Which is exactly what he proceeded to do for more than seven years in a part of the prison his fellow soldiers would name “Alcatraz”; two of those years were spent wearing leg irons in solitary confinement.
How’s this for dedication? Stockdale went so far as to attempt suicide at one point, not to end his suffering, but to send a message to the prison guards. He would not disgrace the sacrifice made by those who had given their lives by allowing himself to be used as a tool against their common cause.
Stockdale’s service in the face of unimaginable stress should serve as a reminder that whatever we’re going through isn’t special or unfair. We are not the masters of our domain. That kind of attitude convinces us that we’re the center of the universe, when the reality is, using the immortal words of Walter Sobchak, “Life does not stop and start at your convenience.” And reminding ourselves of this is just another way of being a bit more selfless. There’s no doubt James Stockdale had this in mind as he repeatedly reminded his fellow POWs of two letters whenever he founds them struggling: “U.S.” — unity over self.
#2. The Great Emancipator: Abraham Lincoln
If you saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and thought Honest Abe had it rough dealing with the Civil War, unscrupulous politicians, and his unstable, histrionic wife, you don’t know the half of it. Lincoln’s life was defined by enduring and transcending an insane amount of adversity: growing up in rural poverty, losing his mother while he was still a child, teaching himself the law, losing the woman he loved as a young man, and experiencing multiple defeats at the ballot box as he made his way through politics.
But on top of all that, Lincoln wrestled with profound depression. Like Kurt Cobain “stick a shotgun in your mouth to make it stop” depression (in fact, many times his friends feared he might hurt himself). But it was wrestling with this demon — and persevering — that so uniquely suited Lincoln for the ultimate trial: the Civil War.
Even in his own time, Lincoln’s contemporaries (well, not the racists who hated him, but everyone else) marveled at the calmness, gravity, and compassion of the man. This came from his depression — people who have been through real shit don’t get caught up in petty crap like pork barrel politics. With today’s hyper-partisan politics, those qualities seem almost godlike — almost superhuman. Admiral David Porter, who was with Lincoln in his last days, described it as though Lincoln “seemed to think only that he had an unpleasant duty to perform” and set himself to “perform it as smoothly as possible.”
Lincoln understood what he could and couldn’t control in life. He knew instinctively that what we don’t control is often incomprehensible and can suck hard. All you do control is how you respond. In his case, he responded like a fucking boss, won the whole thing (despite having basically no experience in leadership), rid the country of slavery, and told a lot of ridiculous, offensive, and hilarious jokes along the way.
#1. The Titan: John D. Rockefeller
In the history of loser dads who somehow ended up with successful kids, William Rockefeller might stand head and shoulders above the rest. Not only was he literally a snake oil salesman who disappeared for months at a time and left his kids and wife to fend for themselves, but he did it so he could spend more time with his other family that he’d hidden in another town.
Yet, all things considered, John D. Rockefeller was a pretty well-adjusted teenager. He got his first job as an assistant bookkeeper at 16 (which he celebrated as Job Day for the rest of his life). He went to church, where he tithed 10 percent of his income from day one. He kept a little notebook where he recorded investments and all his savings and expenses. And then all that seemed to be for naught.
The Panic of 1857 hit and basically ruined everything. Or it did for basically everyone but the scrappy Rockefeller. He actually liked that the panic happened. “Oh, how blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and beginning in life,” he once said. “I shall never cease to be grateful for the three and a half years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all along the way.”
It was in this panic that he got a real education in the markets. He saw how, despite their mansions and fancy clothes, most investors were completely irrational and lacked control of their emotions. He saw how easily they were swayed by public opinion and current events. It was this insight that eventually led him to thrive on financial calamities and obstacles. If you looked at his bank account during the Civil War and the panics of 1873, 1907, and 1929, you’d see that it actually did better in these terrible times. In fact, within 20 years of that first crisis, Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil market. Why? In his words, he “was inclined to see the opportunity in every disaster.”
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.
He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life.