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.
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Like working in porn ... as the cleanup guy.
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.
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People used to be really Zen like that.
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:
He didn't even have a giant bronze taint to look up to.
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.
And then he remembered he'd eventually have to go outside to get food.
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.
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"Immense wealth sounds nice ... but I did already pack all my possessions in my bindle."
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.
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Inadvertently giving rise to Mobile's booming personal injury attorney industry.
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.
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Just make sure you eventually pay your damn grazing fees.
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.