Please provide some anecdotal evidence that it can, as you claim, get better...
July 1, 2012 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Help me find some inspiring examples of individuals who floundered and failed through their young adulthood, but ultimately obtained success and/or happiness (either by their own or society's definition).

deathpanel's question from earlier today sent me spiraling down a rabbit hole of related posts and introspection, wondering (yet again) why I obsessively compare myself to others, and how it is that I sometimes, momentarily, find relief. I tend to agree with the suggestion that one should not simply shift the focus of comparison from those who are doing better to those who are doing worse, but I do believe that it can be very helpful to compare oneself to (or simply find inspiration in the stories of) others who were also clearly lost and wandering but who ultimately found their passion, happiness, and became whole. Can the hive mind suggest any examples of such lucky souls, either from history or personal experience?
posted by lordcorvid to Human Relations (18 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Ivor Cutler was apparently a hopeless dreamer with illegible handwriting who took up writing songs and poems at the age of 40. This started a 30+ year career of confusing people on the radio with his odd humour.
posted by scruss at 5:57 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was molested and raped as a kid. I spent my twenties raising kids and doing therapy instead of pursuing the serious career everyone expected me to have. I have a life threatening genetic disorder that was not diagnosed until I was nearly thirty six and I had to nearly die to get the duliagnosis. I have spent the last eleven years getting well when doctors claim it can't be done. I am currently deeply in debt, jobless, homeless and trying to declare bankryptcy. But I am a success in my own eyes based on the following criteria:

I didn't commit suicide.

I didn't end up mysteriously dead at a young age and listed in the papers as one of those young people who seemed to have such a bright future ahead of them and has died tragically young.

My divorce was amicable and didn't involve attempted murder (both my siblings had divorces that included attempts on their lives -- my family has Issues).

I like men and I like sex.

I can breathe, without pain and without drugs. There are no holes in my lungs.

Acquiring the privilege of breathing without pain and without drugs cost some miniscule fraction of what it is supposed to cost me to be dying a slow torturous death.

My kids did not end up being the next Columbine because I homeschooled them.

I expect the next fifteen years to be the best years of my life.
posted by Michele in California at 6:12 PM on July 1, 2012 [24 favorites]

General Grant. Fell so low he was working underneath his younger brother in his father's tannery in 1861. Within 2 1/2 years he was commanding the largest army ever fielded. By 1868 he was President.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:40 PM on July 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't have anecdotes to share nonetheless I hope you will find something useful below.

but who ultimately found their passion, happiness, and became whole.

I am not sure we ever become "whole" or perfect, or even close to it. Not all of us find our passion either. But we can all, and most certainly should, strive for happiness.

The thing is, happiness does not have to depend on passion or becoming "whole". I think the best we can do is to give anything, no matter how insignificant, our best effort and leave the rest to the universe. We cannot control anything. We can only control our own efforts. It is futile to compare yourself to others who may have been dealt more promising cards. Ultimately, one has to be one's own yardstick. And every effort is a slow, small, baby-step. You cannot look at yourself from Day 1 and compare yourself to Day3-you. You have to wait months if not years to see positive change, assuming you work hard at it.

Sometimes the best of us fall in a downward spiral. I have seen that happen to a loved one. What I can tell you about it as of now is that there is no worse blind than the one who does not want to see. You have already taken a BIG step. I don't know if you realise it or not. You already want to go down the path of betterment. The part where you are tripping is where you compare yourself to others. You have to compare yourself to YOU from Day 1. Make a list of the hardships YOU have faced in life. Let's say that you want to become a black-belt in karate. There is you from whatever age you are at. Let's say you are a complete novice. Compare yourself to someone of your age who went to karate class when they were as young as 4yrs old. Is that really a sensible comparison? Even if you pick a person who starts learning at the same age and date as you do, you still have to remember that we are all differentially capable. The good news is that hard work can overcome a lot. More good news for average people like me is that the things that some of the really talented folks trip onin life are things that "average" people like myself learn early on. Your attitude is something that will take you far... "The last of human freedoms- the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances".

You also have to remember that we all go through ups and downs in our happiness and contentment levels. That is not an individual failure or shortcoming. It is the nature of life. you have to recognize it and accept your feelings rather than try to avoid them or worse, ignore or fight them. A lot of buddhist writings address this very problem of being disenchanted and disappointed. All of us go through this. There is no alternative to trying to stand up again, and again.
posted by xm at 6:41 PM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Previously: From Awful to Awesome.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:43 PM on July 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Augustine by some regards.
posted by SollosQ at 6:53 PM on July 1, 2012

I like the story of Kathy Martin, who took up running in her late 40s and became a world-class distance runner who holds several world records in the master's divisions of various distances.

Cheryl Strayed left college a few credits short of a degree to nurse her dying mother in her mom's last months, then got a divorce and developed a drug problem. She's now a successful writer- her book Wild is the first selection in Oprah's new book club, and she just released an anthology of the Dear Sugar advice columns she's written for The Rumpus.

Dani Shapiro is another writer who talks about her troubled young adulthood in her memoir Slow Motion. Instead of starting a career after college, she becomes the mistress of her college roommate's father- who turns out to be basically a gangster- and develops a drinking problem. The memoir is about how she matures, in her late 20s, after her parents are in a serious car crash and she becomes responsible for their care.

Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was in her 70s!!!

Josh Hamilton was the top MLB draft pick in 1999 and looked poised for an amazing major league career, before he developed a serious drug addiction and washed out of baseball. From 2002 to 2006, he made several attempts at rehab and getting back into the game, while also spending every dime of his four million dollar signing bonus on drugs. FOUR. MILLION. DOLLARS. Spent ALL. OF. IT. He got sober permanently in 2007 and made it back into baseball, and he's since been selected as an All-Star several times, gave a record-setting performance in the home run derby in 2008, and had a four home-run game. He was named the AL MVP in 2010. (He has also had several well-publicized relapses and was involved in a tragic accident that resulted in a fan's death during a game.) nb: Hamilton is very religious and very vocal about his belief that his religious faith is the reason he has achieved sobriety and been successful in baseball. If that's not your bag, Hamilton might not move you very much.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:14 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ann Richards was an alcoholic housewife who went through a painful divorce and went on to become the second female governor of Texas. She was a democrat. A divorced, recovering alcoholic, democratic woman who became governor of a very conservative state. I love her.

This is a great article about her triumph over alcohol:

And here's a review of the amazing one-woman play by Holland Taylor:

I wish you luck!
posted by PuddleWonderful at 10:42 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I'm bad at linking...

Article on her alcoholism

Review of biographical play
posted by PuddleWonderful at 10:44 PM on July 1, 2012

George W. Bush?
posted by iviken at 3:26 AM on July 2, 2012

Colonel Sanders.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on July 2, 2012

I like the books of David Sedaris. Inspirational and hysterically funny. He went through all kinds of stuff as a young man, but kept his sense of humor and came out on top.
posted by PJMoore at 7:39 AM on July 2, 2012

Buckminster Fuller was a failed nobody at 27. you can read all about it in his awesome autobiographical-esque Critical Path
posted by supermedusa at 8:42 AM on July 2, 2012

A failed soldier, farmer and a real estate agent. At 38 years old, he went to work to his father as a handy-man - Ulysses S. Grant

His fiance died, he failed in business twice, he had a nervous breakdown, and he was defeated in 8 elections - Abraham Lincoln

more here
posted by egor83 at 9:23 AM on July 2, 2012

Anna Schwartz was an economist who worked with Friedman - but didn't get her PhD until she was 48.

Morton Feldman, now considered a great American composer, worked at his father's textile factory until he was 47. Hell, as far as great American composers go, The Charles Ives worked as an insurance salesman most of his life.

Harrison Ford was in his mid-thirties when he was installing cabinets for George Lucas and got hired for American Graffiti.

The great American yodeler Don Walser was a mechanic and wasn't 'discovered' until he was in his 60s.

He was pretty young, but before David Byrne became David Byrne, he worked at a hot dog stand.

I mean, history is just chock full of these examples. Zillions. "Overnight success" is usually the result of years toiling in "failure" and obscurity. A lot of people who are successful in their young lives - late teens and early twenties - are manufactured that way, are successful largely because of other people's doing (not always of course, but frequently). It generally takes a bit longer than most people think to realize themselves as something 'self-made.'
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:49 PM on July 2, 2012

J.K. Rowling.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:54 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Something I posted in an earlier thread about turning one's life around:

... this guy who couldn't get into the college he'd always dreamed of so he tried business school, but he only managed one semester. He started his own business when he was 35, but it went bankrupt. It took him 13 years to pay off the debts. He tried taking night classes in law when he was 40, but he dropped out. But around the same time, he got an administrative job with the courts. That led to other jobs with the county, and then with the state. When he was 50, he was elected to the US Senate, and when he was 61, he became President.
posted by kristi at 10:25 AM on July 3, 2012

Oliver Sacks- Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

Oliver Sacks is someone who was lost and found themselves in their passion. He had an extremely traumatic childhood- everything from being beaten until he bled in boarding school, starving during the wartime in the London bombings, being locked in a room with a naked cadaver and told to dissect it by his doctor parents, his brother went crazy, a unexploded bomb fell in his backyard... and so on.

In the back of one of the editions of Uncle Tungsten there's a brief commentary by one of his friends that talks about Sacks struggling with life and depression and finding purpose in his life after getting his degree. I guess you could say he discovered his passion twice, both which were a sort of salvation. First in Chemistry, as detailed in his autobiography and then later as told in his first book, Awakenings.

And now he's a successful author, of course.
posted by Aliera at 9:58 AM on July 4, 2012

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