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7 People Who Overcame Huge Obstacles to Become Famous

#3. James Stockdale, the Concierge of "Alcatraz"

US Navy

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.

Jesse Grant/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
And you were thinking of a Dorothy quote, weren't you?

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.

US Naval Academy
And when he found out the NVA wanted to put him on camera for propaganda, he beat the shit out of himself. Twice.

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

Wikipedia

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.

Kamil Macniak/iStock/Getty Images
To say nothing of the vampire hunting.

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."

Wikipedia
Abraham Lincoln: The Metamucil of American politics.

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

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.

Wikipedia
In some godforsaken craphole called "Canada."

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."

Wikipedia
"Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go rub hundred-dollar bills all over my naked body."

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. Based on timeless philosophical principles and the stories from history's greats, The Obstacle Is the Way reveals a formula for turning difficulty and tribulation into advantage. Ryan is also the author of Trust Me, I'm Lying and Growth Hacker Marketing and is currently an editor at large for the New York Observer.

For more on famous badasses, check out 28 Impressive Real Facts About Unimpressive Famous People.

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