We tend to think they walk a golden road where doors swing open for them — revealing glamorous opportunities, rich with acclaim, praise, and notoriety. What we often overlook is that many famous people started from nowhere. Many even started from the bottom. But what was once adversity was reworked – what I call “leveraged” – into unique, and quite profitable skills.
Here are three famous people who have “leveraged adversity”. (This is an excerpt from my new book, LEVERAGE: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards).
While many easily recognize Carrey as the hysterical star of many Hollywood blockbusters, few know that things were not always so easy for him. From the time he was very young, Carrey’s family struggled to make ends meet, and when his father, an unemployed musician, could no longer support the family, Carrey had to drop out of school to help out. Eventually the family found themselves living in a van, yet even then, Carrey had a vision. In the beginning it was his dad driving him to comedy clubs in the Toronto area, but when his first act bombed, he questioned his ability. But Carrey worked on his craft and soon returned to the stage, polished and prepared. When Rodney Dangerfield noticed Carrey and signed him as an opening act for his tour, that’s when his career got a needed boost. Carrey went on to perform at The Comedy Store, An Evening at the Improv, and The Tonight Show.
Yet when Carrey turned his focus toward acting, he hit roadblocks again. In his first audition for Saturday Night Live, he was passed over. Carrey did land roles in several low-budget films and a recurring role on the NBC sitcom The Duck Factory, which was canceled after just one season. Carrey persevered, however, eventually meeting Damon and Keenan Wayans and landing a recurring role in their sketch comedy, In Living Color. Carrey stuck it out for three years and was one of the few remaining actors when he finally got his first big break: a starring role in the major motion picture Ace Ventura Pet Detective.
What We Can Learn
Setbacks cause critical reconsideration. Carrey’s first act didn’t make it. And while he had a choice to give up, instead he chose to look at what didn’t work, make the needed changes, and keep at it.
Considered by some to be the most influential woman in the world, Oprah was not handed anything. Born to a teenage mother and raised in poverty, Winfrey was also reportedly molested from the age of nine by an uncle, cousin, and family friend. When at age fourteen she became pregnant, she ran away from home. After her son died in infancy, Oprah moved in with the man she calls her father in Tennessee. After being transferred from the local high school to a more affluent one, Winfrey was subjected to teasing because of her obvious poverty. Yet after winning a teen beauty pageant and catching the eye of a producer, Winfrey was hired to coanchor the evening news—at just nineteen. During this time, Winfrey, who had graduated from high school with honors, won an oratory contest, which resulted in a full college scholarship. Soon recognized for her heartfelt and endearing delivery, Winfrey was moved to the daytime talk-show arena, where the then-third-rated Chicago talk show quickly rose to first place. Winfrey then launched her own production company, which became internationally syndicated. Winfrey has long been credited with being genuine and attuned to her audience and for having a more empathic approach to daytime television. For this reason, Oprah has often landed exclusive prime-time interviews that set viewing records.
What We Can Learn
Vulnerability is a strength. Oprah uses her vulnerability—she confessed the history of her molestations during a 1986 episode of her TV show discussing sexual abuse—to connect with her guests, who often find themselves revealing much more than they had previously. Winfrey’s openhearted approach shows just how the courage to be vulnerable draws people in.
One of the most successful hip-hop artists in America, Forbes estimated Jay Z’s net worth at $520 million. He has sold over one hundred million records and won more than nineteen Grammy awards. Yet Jay Z was raised in a housing project in Brooklyn, New York, he didn’t graduate high school, and he has been shot at three times in his life. Although music was his love, and he had made appearances with Big L and Mic Geronimo, Jay Z couldn’t get a deal of his own. No major record label would sign him.
So Jay Z created his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, with Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs. When Jay Z released his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt, it reached twenty-three on the Billboard 200, was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and eventually hit platinum status. Since then, Jay Z has had multiple platinum albums and pioneered many successful businesses—he reportedly sold the rights to his clothing line, RocaWear, to Iconix Brand Group for $204 million. He also co-owns the 40/40 Sports Bar chain, is cobrand director for Budweiser, and is part owner of the Brooklyn Nets NBA team. Most recently, in 2013, Jay Z launched his own sports agency, Roc Nation Sports.
Now in retirement, Jay Z has turned his focus toward philanthropic pursuits, founding The Shawn Carter Foundation, which provides funding for those facing socioeconomic hardships to attend college. The rapper also reportedly donated one million dollars to the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina.
As one of Jay Z’s songs states, “the greatest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous.” Jay Z’s full story can be read in his 2010 memoir, Decoded, published by Speigel and Grau. Jay Z’s story is also told by Zack O’Malley Greenberg in his book, Empire State of Mind: How Jay Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, released in 2011 by Penguin.
What We Can Learn
Success depends on adapting. While Jay Z’s story is undoubtedly a rags-to-riches tale, and his presence in the hip-hop world nothing if not prolific, his best—if often unrecognized—acumen is his ability to see important industry trends, recognize what works and what doesn’t, make modifications, and ultimately always stay one step ahead.
So often we forget the other side of adversity — that is the opportunity to use it to grow stronger.
More information on learning to leverage adversity, and my new book, LEVERAGE: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards, can be found at www.leverageadversity.net