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Does Adversity Breed Success?

Tree coming our of water; mountains in the background.

The link between adversity and success is much discussed. In fact, if you scour the internet, you’ll find plenty of quotes suggesting that a determination to overcome adversity is what drives people to achieve extraordinary things.

Here’s one such quote from American positive psychology expert Shawn Achor: "The most successful people see adversity not as a stumbling block, but as a stepping-stone to greatness". And another from the late motivational speaker Zig Ziglar: “Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.”

So, do Achor and Ziglar have a point? Certainly, the research I undertook for my book, 21st Century Business Icons, suggests that they do. Many of the world’s most successful leaders have faced significant adversity in their lives, particularly in their early years. Overcoming this may have helped them to develop the critical strength of character that is necessary to perform at the highest levels of business.

Personal loss

Sadly, experiencing bereavement at an early age is a common theme among the business leaders who feature in my book. British inventor, Sir James Dyson was just nine years old when he lost his father to cancer. In his autobiography Invention, he described the death of his father as a “devastating loss” and admitted: “I feared for a future without him”.

He also revealed that, after reading a book by journalist Virginia Ironside, he had discovered that 85% of British prime ministers, from Robert Walpole to John Major, and 12 US presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, had lost their fathers as children. “It would be wrong to say the loss of a father is some sort of macabre ticket to success,” Sir James wrote, but he added: “Perhaps early loss can sometimes inspire people to great achievements?”.

Sir James is renowned for his willingness to embrace failure. Famously, he built more than 5,000 prototypes of his revolutionary bag-less vacuum cleaner before he finally produced one that worked. Certainly, his resilience in the face of knockbacks may be linked to him losing his father when he was still a child. “Perhaps I had to learn quickly to make decisions for myself, to be self-reliant and be willing to take risks,” he wrote in Invention. “Little could be worse than my father dying when he did”.

Another business leader who suffered bereavement at a young age is Rosalind Brewer, CEO of the US-based retail pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance. She grew up in Detroit, as the youngest of five children, to parents who worked in the automotive industry. Brewer lost her father to cancer when she was in her last year of university, six weeks before graduation. Today, she is one of the very few black women to have led a Fortune 500 company.

Then there is Sara Blakely, the founder of the shapewear brand Spanx, who suffered tragedy as a teenager. Her best friend was run over by a car, right in front of her. Soon after, both her prom dates died. She told Forbes that witnessing death at the age of 16 had given her a sense of urgency about life. “The thought of my mortality – I think about it a lot,” she said. “I find it motivating. It can be any time that your number’s up”.


He might regularly top rankings of the world’s richest people, but life has not always been easy for the legendary serial entrepreneur Elon Musk. As a child, he was introverted and suffered bullying at school. Once he ended up in hospital after being pushed down a flight of stairs.

Musk’s struggles to relate to children his own age were probably related to the fact he has an autism spectrum condition (ASC). People with ASC, which is a neurodevelopmental condition, can find it hard to communicate and interact with other people and understand how they might think or feel.

American entrepreneur, Whitney Wolfe Herd was inspired to launch the positive dating app Bumble after she suffered online abuse, including rape and murder threats. In fact, she has dedicated her life to addressing online toxicity. “I am a firm believer that you cannot start a business just to start a business,” she has said. “You have to start a business to solve a personal pain point. You have to wait till your life hands you that struggle and innovate from there”.

Financial struggles

Raising the funds to launch and scale a company is no easy business – as most entrepreneurs will know. Melanie Perkins, founder of the graphic design platform Canva, was rejected over 100 times by investors during her quest to raise funding for the business. But she made a point of learning from rejection. When an investor asked a difficult question or gave a reason for refusing to invest in her business, she would revise her pitch deck to answer the question or fix the reason for rejection. Perkins’ persistence paid off and she attracted the funding she needed. In 2018, Canva acquired the status of a unicorn (a privately held start-up company with a valuation of over $1 billion).

Another female entrepreneur who battled to get funding is Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of Indian biopharmaceutical giant Biocon. She started her business in the 1970s and quickly found that her gender, youth and lack of business experience counted against her. Writing in her blog, she recalled that “entrepreneurship was a new phenomenon that was only for daring men and certainly not a ‘career’ choice for women”. She continued: “Banks were unwilling to lend to me because I was considered ‘high risk’ in the business world”. Thanks to her persistence, she finally found financial backers who believed in her. In 2020, Mazumdar-Shaw was named EY World Entrepreneur of the Year.

Rising from defeat

While there are many examples of leaders who overcame adversity to get where they are today, adversity is by no means a shortcut to overwhelming business success. Other factors also come into play. The reality is that we must all confront some level of adversity during our lives and often we have no choice but to deal with it. Still, it seems likely that if we can exhibit steely determination in the face of negative events, we are more likely to emerge from those events even stronger and more determined than before.

In the words of the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “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”.

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