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Growing up, I remember hearing the term “overnight success” quite often when it came to celebrities. However, in reality, that isn't the case.
The truth is, a success story is often like an iceberg… most of the work and effort lies unseen below the surface. It's stories like these, of grit and resilience that show us what it really takes to make it big in life.
When we look at famous people, we often think of them as people who have achieved greatness with little effort. It can be incredibly inspiring to learn about how they overcame their obstacles and achieved what they have today.
In this article, we will be taking a look at 13 famous stories of success & overcoming challenges. Through these stories, we hope to inspire and motivate you to keep pushing forward, despite the roadblocks that life may throw at you.
From Oprah Winfrey's rise from poverty in rural Mississippi, to J.K. Rowling's battle with depression and financial struggles before becoming a household name, each of these successful people has unique stories of perseverance and determination.
We'll discuss some famous people that you may be very familiar with like Tom Cruise and Tina Turner, as well as one's who may not immediately come to mind. From dyslexia, physical abuse, poverty, and more… these success stories will show you the power of resilience and hard work.
13 Famous Stories About Success & Overcoming Challenges
1. Oprah Winfrey
There are very few people famous enough to be able to go by only one name. However, when you say Oprah, there is only one person that comes to mind.
Long before she made history as a billionaire media mogul, she was born to a single teenage mother in rural Mississippi.
Unfortunately, it's well known that Oprah didn't have the best relationship with her mother, Vernita. She was sent to live with her father who, at the time, was a farmer and later became a coal miner in Tennessee.
Oprah would often focus on the topic of molestation on her famous talk show as it was a topic she knew all too well. At the age of 14, she gave birth to a baby boy after she was sexually abused by relatives and a family friend, something she kept hidden until a decade later.
Despite problems at home, Oprah excelled academically and was accepted into Tennessee State University at the age of 16. It was here that she first got a chance to be on television when she joined the local station WTVF-TV. After a couple of years in Tennessee, she moved to Baltimore and quickly rose up the ranks to become a news anchor.
After her move to Chicago, she got her big break with the Oprah Winfrey Show and continued to amass success in both the media and business industry. While Oprah has managed to maintain a healthy weight over the past number of years, it's no secret that she has been battling with her own weight issues since childhood. At one time she weighed more than 200 pounds and she used to hide her weight by wearing baggy clothes.
With that said, those extra pounds didn't stop the groundbreaking Winfrey from getting into acting. She made her debut in the 1985 drama “The Color Purple” as the pivotal character, Sophia. This role earned her an Oscar nomination. Oprah also found everlasting love with her partner, Stedman Graham, and even though they have never married, their relationship is still going strong today.
2. J.K. Rowling
Who would have thought that one day, there would be a series of books that would equally capture the heart and minds of children and adults alike? J.K. Rowling is the mastermind behind this magical world of Harry Potter and while her books may have made her a household name, there was a time when she needed some magic herself.
She lost her beloved mother to multiple sclerosis at the very young age of 25. After her mother's passing, she briefly moved to Portugal and married there, only for her marriage to end in divorce.
Not only was she dealing with the pain of losing her mother, but she had also become a single mother. She wasn't making enough money to support herself and was struggling with depression as well. Things got so bad, that suicide almost became a final solution for her.
Despite her financial struggles, she kept writing and managed to come up with the Harry Potter series. While the magical world of Potter changed the literary ( and film) world, publishers initially were not willing to take a chance on her manuscript. After twelve rejections, Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rowling has since gone on to become a billionaire and continues to reach success with her other books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In honor of her late mother, she also started a charity for multiple sclerosis.
3. Tom Cruise
When you think of movie star power, Tom Cruise is one of the first names that come to mind. He has had a career spanning over three decades and he continues to take on hits like Mission Impossible and Top Gun. However, this wasn't always the case.
Cruise was born into a Catholic family in Syracuse, New York and while he showed talent and potential at a young age, his dyslexia often got in the way of him achieving success. He was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 7 and it took him longer to finish his schoolwork than others. This led to some kids making fun of him and his poor grades.
Matters got worse after his parents' divorce and he watched his mother struggle to make ends meet. However, he didn't let his dyslexia or the problems at home stop him from dreaming big and supporting the women in his family.
Tom was determined to prove himself and he began to act in high school plays, which eventually lead to him moving to New York. He eventually landed small roles which eventually led him to the big time such as his breakthrough role in Risky Business.
Despite not being a tall man, Tom Cruise has managed to become a leading man and action star known for doing his own daring stunts. He is proof that determination, hard work and taking risks can pay off in the end.
4. Tyler Perry
Tyler Perry went from homeless to billionaire in a relatively short amount of time. As the creator and star of several successful films, Tyler Perry has become an icon in the entertainment industry. But, it wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for him.
Tyler was born in New Orleans and had a troubled childhood. His father abused him, both mentally and physically, which led to him having suicidal thoughts. He managed to get away from his abusive home by working odd jobs and eventually, he found his way to Atlanta. Although he had a place to stay in Atlanta, he was still far from being able to call it home.
He had to sleep in his car and only ate one meal a day. He also had to do odd jobs here and there to make ends meet. However, Tyler refused to give up despite the odds and he kept writing plays. Eventually, he was able to get one of his plays produced and it was a hit thanks to the standout character Medea.
The success of his plays launched Tyler's career into the stratosphere and he went on to become a successful actor, author, producer, and director. He also went on to create the first African-American-owned movie studio and was named one of Forbes’ most influential people in 2010.
5. Tina Turner
We know her as Tina or as radio jocks once declared, “Turner the Burner” for her energetic performances in the ’80s. Long before she broke records with her stadium shows and had her legs insured for a million dollars, Tina had to endure abuse and hardship that nearly broke her spirit. Unfortunately, that hardship began in childhood.
She was born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee. As a child, her mother had to leave to find work, leaving her and her sister with relatives. Tina often spoke of the pain of being separated from her mother and the verbal abuse she endured at the hands of her grandmother.
At the age of 18, while visiting friends in St. Louis, she was introduced to Ike Turner and began singing with him. The two got married in 1958 and she changed her name to Tina Turner. While things started out well with the two, Ike's abuse and addiction to drugs would eventually get the best of him. The film, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” chronicles their troubled marriage that ends one night in Dallas when she made the brave move to leave with the clothes on her back.
She struggled financially for years after the breakup and faced further hardship trying to get a record deal as a middle-aged, African-American woman. She was finally able to get a big break when she signed with Capitol Records in 1983 and released her album, “Private Dancer”. The album was a huge success and she became the first female artist to ever have four top-ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
After turning down his proposal a couple of times, Tina married her longtime love, Erwin Bach in 2013. She now lives a happy and quiet life as a Swiss citizen.
6. Helen Keller
Helen Keller was a remarkable woman who overcame the obstacles of being both deaf and blind. She became an author, lecturer and advocate for people with disabilities and was an inspiration to many.
She was born in 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At the age of 19 months, Helen contracted a severe illness that left her both deaf and blind. It was thought that she would never be able to communicate or learn how to read and write.
Fortunately, she was allowed to work with Anne Sullivan, a teacher dedicated to helping her learn how to communicate. Through their hard work and strong will, Helen was eventually able to read, write and speak with her hands in sign language.
Her success led to her becoming a world-renowned author, lecturer and advocate for people with disabilities. She wrote books such as “The Story of My Life” and “The Open Door”. She even became the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College.
7. Gloria Estefan
The energetic, Cuban-American singer and songwriter, Gloria Estefan, has been a household name since the early ‘80s. She began her career in Miami and has since become one of the most successful Latin-American singers, selling over 100 million albums.
Gloria was born in Havana, Cuba and her family immigrated to the US in 1959. She and her mother worked as backup singers for a small Latin-American band in Miami. This is where she met her husband, Emilio Estefan.
In 1990, Gloria was involved in a near-fatal tour bus accident that left her with broken vertebrae and extensive damage to her legs. She was forced to take a break from performing and while she eventually recovered, it took months of physical therapy before she could walk again. Despite her injury, Gloria persevered and returned to the music scene with renewed vigor.
8. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is an iconic figure in the world of music, having won 17 Grammy Awards and sold over 10 million albums. He was born into a poor family in 1930 and began to lose his sight at the age of five due to glaucoma.
Despite being legally blind, he taught himself to play the piano, saxophone, and clarinet. He began his career as a gospel singer in church choirs but soon transitioned to playing R&B and jazz. His musical style was a unique blend of genres that many critics labeled as “soul music”.
Ray faced many challenges throughout his career, including being denied a Grammy due to racism. He was also arrested in 1962 for possession of marijuana and served three years in jail. Despite these obstacles, Ray continued to make music and became one of the most influential musicians in history. His songs still remain popular in the world of music today. His dynamic life story was made into a feature film in 2004 starring Jamie Foxx.
9. Frida Kahlo
The art world doesn't recognize many women, but Frida Kahlo is an exception. She has become a renowned Mexican artist, having achieved worldwide success with her vibrant and colorful paintings. The art of the self-portrait has been her forte.
Frida was born in 1907 to a wealthy family and grew up with a passion for art. A horrific bus accident changed her life when she was 18. The rail punctured her abdomen, destroying her reproductive organs. Her right leg was broken in 11 spots and her spine was broken in 3 areas. Yet despite these injuries, which led to a lifetime of constant pain, Frida managed to transform her pain into art. She even painted the casts that she wore after the accident.
Her artwork was soon recognized by influential people and she became a successful artist. Frida's work gained international acclaim and she was even featured in the first-ever solo exhibition of a Latin American woman. There is a museum dedicated to her art in Mexico City and her works remain popular today.
10. Vincent Van Gogh
It doesn't take much to recognize the work of Van Gogh. The bold colors, the swirling brush strokes, and of course – those sunflowers. – instantly scream Van Gogh. His paintings are beloved all over the world, and yet Van Gogh's life was not so easy.
Whenever you hear the value of a Van Gogh work, the numbers are in the millions. But in his lifetime, he only sold a single painting.
Vincent was born in 1853 and lived a poor childhood. He struggled to make ends meet, even though he worked hard as an artist. He was rejected by the leading art institutions of his time and often felt lonely. Despite many obstacles, Van Gogh continued to paint and his work has now become iconic.
While his work wasn't understood in his lifetime, Vincent stayed true to his calling. His mental illness didn't stop him from capturing some of the most beautiful moments in nature and in life. Over 900 paintings have been attributed to him and the value of these works continues to rise. The majority of his work was completed during the last two years of his life, before he died in 1890 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The challenges of poverty, mental illness, and mainstream art rejection didn't stop Vincent from achieving everlasting success that he may not have imagined. He was a genius ahead of his time.
11. Stephen King
I still get chills when I watch the TV adaption of the book, “Salem's Lot” and “It” certainly made me second guess clowns. These books are just two of the 62 books (and 200 short stories) written by Stephen King, one of the greatest horror writers of our time.
Before Sissy Spacek earned her Oscar for Carrie and before Stephen King was hailed as the master of horror, he was a high school English teacher struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, he was writing stories and submitting them to magazines.
His first novel, “Carrie” was published in 1974 and it became an instant bestseller. However, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before it was published. The book was saved when his wife got it out of the trash.
Today, Stephen King is one of the most successful authors in history. His books have sold over 350 million copies and his work has been adapted into numerous feature films and TV series.
12. Whoopi Goldberg
Whoopi Goldberg is a living legend. She has won an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony award and been honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She started her career as a stand-up comedian and then moved on to acting.
However, before she became famous, she was a struggling single mother on welfare. At one time, she worked as a bricklayer but she always knew that she had a knack for making people laugh.
After struggling to find her place in the world, she moved out of home at 17 and started performing stand up comedy. She worked multiple jobs to make ends meet while she honed her craft.
Her career finally took off after she landed a role in the Broadway production of “The Spook Show” which she wrote. From there, her career skyrocketed from minor appearances on TV shows to feature films. She was the first female comic to host the Academy Awards and she won an Oscar for her role in Ghost.
Despite not being the typical leading lady that Hollywood casts, Whoopi made history with several roles that proved that a person’s race or gender should not stop them from achieving success. Her paycheck for “Sister Act 2” made her the highest-paid actress at the time. With a fortune of over $60 million, she's come a long way from being nearly homeless in San Diego in her youth.
13. Christopher Reeves
Christopher Reeve was born in 1952 and is best known for his portrayal of Superman. He was an accomplished actor, producer, and director who was nominated for several awards. In an ironic twist of fate, the actor would show superman's qualities in his real life after a freak accident.
Reeves was an accomplished equestrian and was taking part in an equestrian competition when he fell off a horse. The accident left him paralyzed from the shoulder down and the media dubbed him the “superman of courage”. Instead of letting the accident define him, he continued to pursue his goals.
Less than a year after his accident, he bravely made an appearance at the Academy Awards. He continues to make numerous public appearances, wrote a book and directed three films.
He continued to advocate for those with disabilities and created the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 52 but remains a symbol of courage and overcoming adversity.
What Does Success Mean?
When we think of success, we often think of fame and fortune. However, success is not only about money or status. It's about having the courage to persevere, even when faced with difficult odds. It's about believing in yourself and not letting fear hold you back from achieving your goals.
For example, maybe you once failed a test, but you still kept studying and eventually passed. This is success too! Success isn't about being perfect or never making mistakes; it's about learning from your mistakes and coming out stronger in the end.
Success means different things to different people, but these 13 stories of success are inspiring reminders that no matter who you are or where you come from, with determination and hard work… anything is possible.
How Challenges Build Character
Challenges can serve as reminders that you are capable of more than what you think. They can help build your character, pushing you to be the best version of yourself. When you come out on the other side, you have a better understanding of your worth and capabilities.
In the military, for example, recruits are put through intense training so that they can handle the toughest situations. Experiences such as these teach them to push their limits and become a well-oiled team.
Taking the time to learn a foreign language – especially one very different from your native one can be intimidating at first. However, once you get over the barrier of one foreign language, it makes it easier to learn another one. Plus, it can open you up to a new culture and a different way of thinking.
Final Thoughts About Success & Overcoming Challenges
These 13 stories are merely a small sample of the number of inspirational stories about success and overcoming challenges out there. People like Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Whoopi Goldberg and Christopher Reeve have shown that anything is possible regardless of race, gender or disability.
Although success may take time, dedication, and hard work… it can eventually lead to a better life. Throughout your journey, remember that it's okay to have bad days and failures… because it’s not the bad days that define you, but rather how you choose to respond.
One of my favorite quotes from Batman Begins is, ” Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up”.
We can learn a lot from these stories and use them as a source of motivation. With enough tenacity, anyone can overcome any challenge and achieve success. All it takes is a bit of courage and motivation.
The sky's the limit! Test your ability to some challenges with the article 129 30-Day Challenge Ideas to Create a Better Life.
Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)