How the Most Successful People Pushed Through Devastating Times

To most people, success doesn't come easy. See how these well-known businesspeople overcame major obstacles on their path to the top.
Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications
July 07, 2014

If you didn’t already know this, you will after reading this article: Age has nothing to do with success.

Some people get a taste of success early on, but then struggle to stay at that level throughout their careers. Others may work hard but not see the fruits of their labor until much later in life.

Either way, these two scenarios offer proof that doing what you love—and succeeding in it for the long haul—isn't easy. In fact, it's often a constant struggle, but it's one that the most successful businesspeople are willing to commit to in order to achieve their business dreams.

Below are a few key examples of how some very successful businesspeople, despite struggling during different decades in their lives, persevered and ended up enjoying the fruits of their determination and perseverance.

Childhood Is Not the Simplest of Times

Experiencing setbacks early in life can have a profound effect on the way you think and perform later down the road. That's exactly what happened to Maria Das Gracas Silva Foster.

Foster, the current head of the Brazilian Oil Giant Petrobras, didn't have the easiest childhood, as she was forced to collect aluminum cans and paper on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that she could recycle to help pay for school.

Petrobras state-owned oil company CEO M

The experience made her appreciate the value of hard work, and it may be the basis for her nickname today: "caveirao," a slang word used to describe the armored police trucks used in Brazil's crime-ridden neighborhoods. As Petrobras' first female chief executive, a recent Bloomberg article points out, Foster "is used to plowing through roadblocks."

Learning to trust your own instincts can also begin in childhood. If Thomas Edison had listened to what his teachers told him when he was younger, for instance, he may have never become a renowned inventor and businessman. During his early school years, at least one of Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything” and he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. But he went on to invent life-changing devices, including the electric lamp and the movie camera, and he held more than 1,000 patents.

The Stressful 20s

People looking back on their 20s will often tell you it was a confusing time in their lives—you’re young enough to be unsure about your future, but you may also have friends who are already experiencing career success.

At the age of 25, businessman Mark Cuban was working as a bartender and living in a three-bedroom apartment with six other guys. In his book, How to Win at the Sport of Business, Cuban describes his struggle during this period: “I used to drive around, look at the big houses, and imagine what it would be like to live there and use that as motivation.”

Cuban later got a job as a salesperson for a PC software retailer, which paid him $18,000 annually plus commission, but he lost that job when he skipped work at the store one day (he asked a co-worker to fill in) to go close a big deal with a client. The next day, he was fired. Cuban used that experience as motivation to never work for anyone else again.

Dominos’ Pizza founder Thomas S. Monaghan was a survivor from the beginning. Growing up poor, Monaghan was sent to live in a foster home for more than six years because his mother couldn’t afford to care for him and his brother after their father died. But by the time he was 23, he had started Domino's Pizza and things were looking up.

Dominos Pizza Founder Establishes Catholic Community In Florida

Just five years later, however, the business nearly went under due to a bad partnership, and two years after that, a fire, which destroyed the company's offices as well as a key store in the the pizza chain, ended up costing Monaghan $150,000 because most of the damage wasn't covered by insurance. Shortly after that, Domino’s too-quick expansion had the company $1.5 million in debt, and Monaghan was forced to turn the company over to a bank creditor to avoid bankruptcy. Within a year, however, he'd regained control of his business.

Monaghan’s story is one of endless determination. Had he let the numerous setbacks from his 20s discourage his dream, he would have never had the opportunity to sell Domino’s for $1 billion in 1998.

Financier Suze Orman is another entrepreneur who could have quit during her 20s after she had lost everything. After working in a bakery for seven years after college, Orman decided to open her own restaurant. To help her get started, many of her longtime customers pooled together funds—for a total of $50,000—with which she could start her new venture.

But Orman didn't know much about money management, so she sought help from a Merrill Lynch broker who ended up investing all her money in risky options. Within three months, she'd lost everything. This experience led to her interest in becoming a broker, and Orman was eventually hired at the same Merrill Lynch office where she'd lost her original investment. It was during her training there that Orman realized her broker had violated company policies, and she sued Merrill Lynch (the company settled with her out of court). In 1983, Orman left Merrill Lynch to join another company as a vice president, and four years later, she started her own firm.

It Doesn’t Get Any Easier in Your 30s

Vera Wang may be one of the most sought-after clothing designers today, but she didn’t start designing wedding gowns until the age of 40. Before that, she experienced many years of struggle in the world of fashion.

On The Business of Fashion website, Wang says, “People have done far better than me in far shorter periods of time, but that wasn’t my story. It was brick by brick, client by client, store by store. It’s been a trip of passion, but it has not been a quick trip. Nor has it been easy. And that is the truth.”

2010 NYC & Company Foundation Leadership Awards Gala - Red Carpet

In fact, Wang’s trip was a very long one. She started out as a professional figure skater but failed to make the U.S. Olympic figure-skating team at the age of 19. She then turned her attention to fashion and got a job as a temporary assistant at Vogue before becoming a fashion editor. She spent the next 15 years at the magazine until she was passed over for the editor-in-chief position and decided it was time to leave. She was 38 years old. She ended up taking a job at Ralph Lauren as a design director.

Two years later, at the age of 40, Wang began designing wedding gowns; her empire is worth more than $1 billion today. Wang once said, "I try to keep my feet on the ground"—if you do that, then you can keep moving forward.

Starting Over in Your 40s

As hard as it is to get started on the road to success in your 20s and 30s, it takes tremendous perseverance to begin again in your 40s. After World War II, Mary Kay Ash, the woman behind Mary Kay Cosmetics, worked for Stanley Home Products for many years before deciding to retire in 1963 when she was passed over for a promotion by a man she had once trained.

Ash's plan was to write a book that would assist other business-minded women, but in the midst of writing her book, she decided to turn the outline into a business plan for her own company. Sadly, in 1963, just one month before the company was set to launch—and only a month after she'd married him—Ash's second husband, George Arthur Hallenbeck, died of a heart attack. Despite her grief, Ash proceeded to open the first Mary Kay Cosmetics location in Dallas with a $5,000 investment from her oldest son, Ben. She was 45.

When Ash passed away 38 years later, Mary Kay Cosmetics was earning annual sales of more than $200 million.

While her perseverance is admirable, Ash isn't the only person who's had to push past their 40s to see their career dreams come true. Colonel Harland David Sanders was 62 years old when he sold his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and within a few years, KFC had became one of the largest restaurant chains in the world. Twice-elected British prime minister Winston Churchill was defeated in every election until the age of 62. Now the Nobel Prize winner is known for his extraordinary leadership during times of turmoil.

The bottom line here? If you want something bad enough, go for it. There is no timeline or map to success. The examples cited above just go to show that every business story is different, but there's one thing that remains the same: Sticking it out through the tough times will eventually lead to something that just might change your life.

Read more articles on business success.

Photos: Getty Images

Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications