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Finding strength in adversity
Harvey Mackay

April, 2009

I have never met a successful person who hasn't had to overcome a little—or a lot—of adversity.

Adversity is the prevailing theme of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which bears the name of the renowned author Horatio Alger, Jr. His tales of overcoming adversity captivated the public in the late 19th century. The association honors dedicated community leaders who demonstrate individual initiative and a commitment to excellence; as exemplified by remarkable achievements accomplished through honesty, hard work, self-reliance and perseverance over adversity.

In early April, I once again attended the 2009 Horatio Alger Awards in Washington, D.C., as I have every year since I was inducted in 2004. The association, a nonprofit educational organization that awards more than $10 million in scholarships annually, was established in 1947 to dispel the mounting belief among the nation's youth that the American Dream was no longer attainable. The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans is dedicated to the simple but powerful belief that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles.

Oprah Winfrey, a Horatio Alger member, experienced much abuse and adversity as a young child. She learned that if you want to not only stay alive, but also make something of yourself, you have to overcome obstacles. She said: "Always continue the climb. It is possible for you to do whatever you choose, if you first get to know who you are and are willing to work with a power that is greater than ourselves to do it."

Retailing magnate, J.C. Penney, another member, added: "I would never have amounted to anything were it not for adversity. I was forced to come up the hard way."

Why do some of us have what it takes to pick ourselves up off the canvas when others are ready to throw in the towel? I don't know the answer, but if I did I'd bottle it.

I do know this: It isn't all that rare. The human species comes equipped with built-in mental toughness. Some of us just don't know it's there.

Take it from an old peddler: The hardest sale you'll ever make is to yourself. But once you're convinced you can do it, you can.

Adversity is the grindstone of life. Intended to polish you up, adversity also has the ability to grind you down. The impact and ultimate result depend on what you do with the difficulties that come your way. Consider the phenomenal achievements of these people who experienced extreme cases of adversity.

  • Beethoven composed his greatest works after becoming deaf.
  • Thomas Edison had an IQ of less than 100, almost died of scarlet fever and was nearly deaf, yet he became one of the greatest inventors in history.
  • If Columbus had turned back, no one could have blamed him, considering the constant adversity he endured. Of course, no one would have remembered him either.
  • Abraham Lincoln became one of our greatest U.S. presidents, despite dropping out of grade school, going broke, having a son die at a young age and running for political office and losing four times.
  • Carol Burnett, another Horatio Alger member, was raised by her grandmother because both her parents suffered from alcoholism. She lived in an impoverished area, was divorced twice, yet went on to great success and her variety show won 23 Emmy Awards.
  • Glen Cunningham was seven years old when he was so badly burned in a schoolhouse fire that his doctor said, "I doubt if he'll be able to walk again." Yet he went on to become the outstanding miler of his time.

Nature is full of wonderful examples of how adversity fosters strength.

Botanists say that trees need the powerful March winds to flex their trunks and main branches, so that the sap is drawn up to nourish the budding leaves.

Pearls form inside the shell of certain mollusks as a defense mechanism to a potentially threatening irritant such as a parasite inside its shell. The mollusk creates a pearl to seal off the irritation.

And it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who pointed out, "When it is dark enough, you can see the stars."

I don't like adversity any more than the next guy, but I welcome it. It has made me stronger, more fearless, and ultimately, more successful. Stare down adversity and watch it blink.

Mackay's Moral: A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.

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