10 Quotes About Overcoming Adversity, From Leaders Who’ve Done It

10 Quotes About Overcoming Adversity, From Leaders Who’ve Done It

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire 


Company founders experience many challenges on their business journey. However, the best leaders are adept at embracing adversity. They learn and grow from their toughest problems, gathering skills that help them succeed in the future. 

Some of the world’s greatest leaders, both in business and beyond, have faced hard times on their way to success. Understanding strategies to deal with adversity will serve businesspeople well during the inevitable tough times.

The 10 quotes below are from leaders who faced adversity and prospered in spite of it. Use them as fuel while growing your big ideas or your business.


1. “When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.” 
-Paulo Coelho, writer

The background: Paulo Coelho dreamed of being a writer early in life, but this goal was in direct conflict with his parents’ aspirations for him. As a result, Coelho was put in a mental institution from age 17 to 20. He ultimately built a career as a songwriter, but his lyrics’ opposing Brazil’s ruling government led to his arrest and torture. In the ‘80s, Coelho began writing, and eventually published more than 30 books including “The Alchemist,” which became an international bestseller. Today, his work is published in 170 countries and 80 languages. 


2. "Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged." 
-J.K. Rowling, writer

The background: Prior to becoming the most successful British author of all time, J.K. Rowling overcame the death of her mother, a divorce and the challenges of supporting her young daughter, all while penning her “Harry Potter” book series. To date, the series has sold over 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages. Rowling is also the only author on Forbes’s list of the World’s Highest-Paid Entertainers


3. “Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really: Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure, or you can learn from it, so go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that’s where you will find success.”
-Thomas Watson Sr., former chairman and CEO of IBM

The background: Before becoming the chairman and CEO of IBM in 1914, Thomas Watson Sr. worked as a traveling salesman, selling organs and pianos for $10 a week. Then, he peddled shares for a building and loan company whose owner ultimately defrauded investors. Then, he opened a butcher shop that failed and left him completely broke. Undeterred, Watson continued learning the crafts of sales and business, eventually taking the helm of IBM and growing it to $897 million in revenue before his death in 1956.


4. "Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness." 
-Oprah Winfrey, media executive, philanthropist and producer

The background: Oprah was born to a teenage mother and into a life of poverty in rural Mississippi. She was molested as a child, ran away from home and split time between her mother and father throughout her adolescent life. As most of us know, Oprah overcame these challenges and after seeing early success as a local news anchor, she hosted the Oprah Winfrey Show from 1986 to 2011, growing it into one of the most successful talk shows of all time. Oprah eventually expanded her into acting, writing, media and philanthropy. Oprah has been called arguably the most powerful and influential women in the world by outlets such as Time.com and CNN, and holds the title of North America’s first black multi-billionaire.


5. “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me. … You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” 
-Walt Disney, co-founder of Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio

The background: Disney worked a paper route to make extra cash at the age of 9, he dropped out of high school by 16, and at 22 he was completely broke after the failure of his second company. Disney pushed through these failures to found the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio with his brother Roy. He eventually became the most well-known cartoonist in the world, created iconic characters, was the first to produce feature-length cartoons, expanded into the amusement park industry and won 22 Academy Awards.


6. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” 
-Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple

The background: Steve Jobs was a brilliant entrepreneur, a driving force behind the personal computer revolution and the iconic Apple brand. Jobs had to overcome difficulties in grade school such as struggling to pay attention and staying out of trouble -- he was suspended multiple times -- teenage years during which he was often bullied and a rocky entrepreneurial career that included multiple failed business. At one point, Apple’s board of directors ousted him after internal disagreements. Jobs regained his title as CEO a few years later and turned Apple into the most valuable company in the world.

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7. “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” 
-Malcolm X, civil rights activist

The background: Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X spent time in foster care as a child after his father was murdered and his mother was hospitalized. As a young man, he spent nearly a decade in prison. Upon his release, he grew to become one of the most influential leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement. Malcom X was a proponent of black pride, black nationalism and pan-Africanism. He co-authored an autobiography, Malcom X, along with Alex Haley, which Time voted as a must-read non-fiction book in 1998. 


8. “Do not judge me by my success. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” 
-Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, politician and philanthropist 

The background: Nelson Mandela worked as a lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa and joined the African Nation Congress with a goal of combatting racial segregation. In 1962, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his attempt to lead a campaign against the government. Mandela served 27 years in jail before being released in 1990 amid growing pressures of a Civil War in South Africa. He worked with the nation’s president to end apartheid and subsequently won the presidency in South Africa’s first multiracial general election. He received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his humanitarian efforts.


9. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” 
-Maya Angelou, writer and civil rights activist

The background: Maya Angelou grew up during the height of racial tensions in America and experienced a tumultuous youth. At age 8, Angelou was sexually abused. This event and the accused’s subsequent death led Angelou to stop talking for a period of five years. She regained her speech with the help of a teacher and friend and expanded her love for literature, which would inform the rest of her life. Angelou went on to become a prolific writer, publishing seven autobiographies, multiple books of poetry and essays and a list of plays, TV shows and movies. 


10. “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
-Francis of Assisi, Catholic saint 

The background: Francis of Assisi was a Catholic preacher, deacon and friar in the 13th century. During a military campaign, Francis was captured and enslaved for a year, which led to his search for deeper meaning in life and spiritual enlightenment. Francis disavowed a life of nobility and claims to his family’s wealth, setting out to preach (and becoming a Catholic Saint and one of history’s most revered religious figures in the process).