All Greatness Comes from Suffering

That’s a quotation from Naval Ravikant.

I read it while going through the hardest period of life I’ve been through. My relationship with my best friend had collapsed and I just woke up to feel worthless and hopeless every day. 😶

But when I read that quotation, the hopelessness faded to curiosity. I thought: “If he’s right, there’s a chance I could find meaning in this darkness.”

So I got out my torch and started peering into the shadows.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve researched the childhoods of 27 of the world’s most impactful people. Both superheroes and supervillains at a time when they were ordinary kids like me. What follows are categorised stories of the challenges these people faced in their childhood.

I find solace in seeing my own life stories amidst these categories. An acceptance that life’s hardship might lead to greater strength. I hope you will too :-)

Struggle 1: Silently Heartbroken 💔

This isn’t something that many people talk about. It shocked me to see such influential humans in such a vulnerable position. Not the heros or monsters they’re made out to be.

For example, Mao Zedong was married to a girl 4 years older than him at age 13. The marriage benefited his father by acquiring more land. However, Mao refused to acknowledge his wife and moved away from her. 😕 When he became the Chairman of the Communist Party of China as an adult, he criticised arrianged marriage. (pg. 25–8)

Right: Mao Zedong — future Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CC0)

Or take Albert Einstein. When he was 16, he fell in love with his teacher’s daughter. She moved away two years later, so he couldn’t pursue their relationship. But Einstein still wrote love letters to her 14 years later, while his actual wife was having their second child. 👀 (Source)

Speaking of physicists, Richard Feynman had a rocky start to love too. He fell in love with his high school crush, Arline. But in university, Arline contracted tuberculosis. The disease was uncurable back in the 1940s, so Arline only had a few years left to live. Nevertheless, Feynman married Arline at age 24, dipped into his savings to pay for her healthcare, and visited her at the hospital until she died three years later. 😢(Source, pg. 99)

And to switch things up, let’s consider a woman’s perspective. Marie Curie was born in Poland at a time where her family struggled severely financially. To pay for university, she started tutoring at age 17. Soon, she fell in love with the son of her employer. But since her family was poor, her employer forbade their son from marrying Marie Curie. 😧 Both were hurt by this and Marie was more lonely than ever (Source)

Marie Curie — first woman to win a Nobel Prize and only woman to win it twice (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Struggle 2: Crazy Families 😵

In popular movies, family is a magical word that brings warm, cosy feelings. Yet many of the influential people I learned about had 1+ nightmarish relatives. Some of these stories will remind us to be grateful our families aren’t as bad.

First off, many of the historical figures had abusive fathers. Martin Luther King, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong all had fathers who beat them (pg. 8, Source, pg. 12, pg. 13). Often, their mothers would try to protect them. Joseph Stalin and his mother ran away from Stalin’s alcoholic father. (pg. 12).

And even without abusive fathers, many influential people had strained relationships with their fathers. 😞The author J.K. Rowling hasn’t talked to her father in years (Source). The swimmer Michael Phelps was severely impacted by his parents’ divorce and grew distant from his father (Source). And the businessperson Elon Musk became estranged from his father after his parents divorced. He says this about his father:

“You have no idea about how bad. Almost every crime you can possibly think of, he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.” (Source)

Elon Musk — the richest person in the world in 2021 (Steve Jurvetson, CC-BY-2.0)

On the other hand, not having a father also brings problems. Let’s consider Genghis Khan. His father was assassinated when Genghis Khan was 12.

The creator of history’s second largest empire started off with a single mother and six siblings (pg. 3)

Between the ages of 12 and 15, Genghis Khan and a brother killed their step-brother. 😮 Because the step-brother was trying to marry Genghis Khan’s mother / his step-mother (pg. 23)

In modern times, single parenting is still difficult… though less fatal. The investor Naval Ravikant spent much of his childhood without his mother. His single mother immigrated to the US with her kids and needed to work and study. So Naval often spent time reading in libraries while waiting for his mother. He often reminisced about money, wishing he could do what he saw everyone around him doing. (Source)

And finally, the hardship that TV host Oprah Winfrey has faced astounds me. 😢 Oprah was born to a single mother who was a maid. (Source) Since her mother couldn’t take care of Oprah, she was sent to live in rural poverty with her grandmother.

Oprah had to wear dresses made of potato sacks in this poverty. (pg. 9)

By age six, Oprah moved back to her mother. (Source)

Starting at age 9, Oprah was sexually abused by a cousin, uncle, and family friend. (Source) Alongside her other struggles, this made her run away from home at 13. (Source) She then got pregnant at 14, but her baby died at birth. (Source) In highschool, Oprah went back to live with her alleged father. As she reached adulthood, she faced many all-too-public challenges, like siblings dying from cocaine overdoses and AIDS. (pg. 20) Also, another man claiming he was Oprah’s real father. (Source)

Oprah Winfrey — Actress, TV show host, author, and philathropist. (Newhouse, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

The famous entrepreneur Steve Jobs also struggled with ‘alleged’ parents. Steve Jobs was put up for adoption after an accidental pregnancy. As he grew up, he gradually realised that his adoptive family wasn’t his real family. His biological mother and adoptive parents often conflicted. His biological mother wasn’t happy that the adoptive parents had never graduated from high school. All these issues formed a big mess in Jobs’ childhood. (pg. 3–4)

As a reminder, these extreme stories are not meant to be gossip. These are testaments to just how much struggle humans can endure. 😤 And against all odds, find the courage to still carry on.

Struggle 3: Young and Broke 💸

If we’re lucky enough to read this article, we probably have no clue how much poverty some of these influential historical figures endured.

For starters, consider the Mongol leader Genghis Khan again. When Genghis Khan was 12, his father was assassinated. Without his father, Genghis Khan’s tribe refused to support his family. This meant they had to fend for themselves as nomads.

Genghis Khan literally foraged for fruits and carcasses to avoid starvation (pg. 19–23)

Two other historical supervillains also moved a lot as children. By the age of 11, Adolf Hitler had moved over a dozen times due to schooling and his father’s changing careers. (pg. 20) And Joseph Stalin’s mother fled from her abusive and alcoholic husband when Stalin was 5. (pg. 30–1) So Stalin and his mother lived in poverty in 9 different rented rooms (not apartments) over the next decade. (pg. 30–1)

Joseph Stalin (left) — Leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC0)

And for one last political figure, consider Napoleon Bonaparte. One of history’s most famous Frenchpeople actually had a rebellious family who wanted independence from France. 😕 This harmed his previously well-off family. When Napoleon’s father died, Napoleon had to finish his schooling in one year at age 15 and join the army to earn money. (pg. 42)

Political leaders aside, the business world also has plenty of examples of people who came from humble origins.

  • For example, Sakichi Toyoda was the founder of the enormous car manufacturer, Toyota. But the founder of Toyota started as a carpenter in a poor village, trying to make ends meet. From age 18 onwards, he tried many inventions that could help people around him and failed for 6 years. It was only after all that toil that he started the company that would go on to be Toyota. (Source)
  • Similaly, take Henry Ford. He had simple origins before starting Ford, one of the world’s largest car makers. Henry Ford was born on a small farm where he toiled away at everyday repairs. 💪 He didn’t like the lifestyle. Due to hardships like regularly walking 6.5 km to church. (pg. 308)
Henry Ford — The founder of one of the world’s largest car manufacturers (CC0)
  • Or in more modern times, how about Richard Branson? These days, he’s known as the billionaire owner of airlines, radio companies, and even a space tourism company! But he didn’t start off successful.

The man who has literally been to space started his career ‘squatting’ in a basement with 20 others. (Source)

Amidst all this gloom, I’d hate to miss the positive note — Back in Genghis Khan’s time in the 1160s, being young and broke meant foraging to avoid starvation. In Richard Branson’s time 800 years later, being young and broke means having less than the people around us, but being MUCH more likely to survive. 😊

Struggle 4: The Inevitable Fall 💀

The past 800 years have raised the quality of life of our historical figures a lot. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the pain of death. Every human must face this challenge at some point in their lives.

Some younger than others.

For example, the author J.K. Rowling had an early warning of this pain at age 15. Her mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. (Source) Alongside her other struggles, this left Rowling very unhappy as a teenager. (Source) After a 10-year struggle, her mother died and strongly affected Rowling. She diverted her negative emotions into the first Harry Potter novel, discussing death a lot. 😢 (Source)

J.K. Rowling — Author of the famous Harry Potter book series (Tracy Lee Carroll, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

For another influential woman, how about Marie Curie? The great scientist started off as a poor Polish girl. Marie’s poor family housed tenants to make ends meet. Sadly, Marie Curie’s sister caught Typhus from a tenant and died when Marie was 8. Three years later, Marie’s mother died from tuberculosis. (Source) These deaths strongly impacted Marie, leading her to abandon religion. (pg. 6)

In the land of politics, many influential figures had their fathers die young.

  • As mentioned earlier, Genghis Khan’s father died when Genghis Khan was 12. This led to his family being outcast from his tribe. (pg. 19–23)
  • The famed Roman General and Dictator Julius Caesar had his father die when Caesar was 16. This forced him to suddenly start working in the Roman state. But that would soon go awry due to a civil war. (Source)
  • The first black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, lost his father when he was 9. Mandela felt “adrift” and “rebellious” due to this. Also, he was soon sent to live away from his mother for years. (pg. 8, 20–5)
  • The Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler had his father die when Hitler was 14. Still, Adolf was never close to his father. But his brother, Edmund, died of measles when Adolf was 9. (pg. 8) This impacted him a lot, turning him antisocial and ill-tempered. 😠 (pg. 22)

What about civil rights?

The Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi lost his father and his first baby in the same year. He was just 16. (pg. 13) And in the west, there was the African-American Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King tried to commit suicide twice before the age of 13.

Once when his grandmother almost died and once when she actually did die. (pg. 9, 13)

Martin Luther King Jr. — the symbol of the American civil rights movement (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

And in the end, these are just the historical figures who saw death early in life. Every historical figure saw death at some point in their life, just like each of us will.

Struggle 5: Discrimination 😠

It can be surprising to hear that some of the most powerful people in history faced discrimination in their childhood. But every powerful person started as a vulnerable child.

Let’s continue the story of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. As he grew up, he saw racial discrimination more and more. At age 6, King was barred from playing with a white childhood friend. The parents of his friend explained to him “we are white, and you are colored.” (pg. 10) King also saw his father repeatedly face discrimination. Like being told he was only allowed to shop at the back of a store. 😞(pg. 10)

Next the Mongol leader Genghis Khan reminds us that most of human history wasn’t very pleasant. This is the man whose actions led to the death and enslavement of millions. Yet Genghis Khan, himself, started off a slave. He was captured by an enemy tribe at age 15. He eventually escaped with the help of a sympathetic guard. (pg. 530)

A statue of Genghis Khan—founder of the Mongol Empire (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Let’s take an even older figure: the Roman General and Dictator Julius Caesar. At age 16, his uncle was involved in the losing side of a civil war. When the enemy won, Caesar had to go into hiding with his wife. His family avoided death but was stripped of most of their status and wealth. (Source)

In contrast, several later figures faced less severe discrimination: bullying.

  • French leader Napoleon Bonaparte was bullied in school due to his short height, Corsican accent, and Corsican origin. (Source)

Two-time-Nobel-Prize-winner Marie Curie had to attend an illegal school because women weren’t allowed in universities. (Source)

  • The famed entrepreneur Elon Musk was the youngest in his class. And socially awkward. Musk was beaten up so often, he had to learn martial arts to defend himself at age 15. 👊 (Source)
  • Similarly, the Chinese-American actor and martial arts fighter Bruce Lee had to defend himself. Bruce Lee was involved in several street fights by age 13. (pg. 14) So he tried to learn martial arts. But he was mixed race. So many refused to teach him or picked fights with him. (pg. 14)
Bruce Lee — Actor and martial arts fighter. (Left: CC0, Right: CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

All these historical figures show one important principle. The odds can be stacked against us unfairly. But those outside pressures don’t fully constrict our path. Some of us will still claw our way from slavery to success. 😤

Struggle 6… School 😱

Finally, let’s end with something that suits childhood problems: School trouble! We often treat this as a joke today. But a surprising number of historical figures had life-changing challenges in school! Here’s a quick list:

  • Let’s continue with the actor and martial arts fighter Bruce Lee. He only got through school by “coercing” other students to do his work 😁 When Bruce Lee ended up in jail after a fight one day, his parents pulled him out of school in Hong Kong and sent him to the US. (pg. 28)
  • The great scientist Marie Curie had to take a year off in high school at age 15 due to a collapse. It may have been due to depression. (Source)
  • The entrepreneur Steve Jobs isn’t known for agreeing with people. Turns out that was also true in his childhood 😀 He was a trouble-maker in school. Steve Jobs was often suspended for bad behaviour and pranks. Like the time he set off an explosive under his teacher’s chair 😮 Still, he was intellectually bright so he skipped a grade. But he had a very tough time making friends with older kids. (pg. 10–3)
Steve Jobs — founder of Apple. (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
  • Speaking of entrepreneurs, consider the founder of the Virgin Group: Richard Branson. Branson had dyslexia, which made him struggle in school. He dropped out at age 16. That’s when his headmaster told him that he’d either end up in prison or become a millionaire. 👀 Well, he took option three (becoming a billionaire)! (Source)
  • And to continue the long list of drop outs, take the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin was expelled from priest school after he joined a forbidden book club and read Marx’s ideas. (pg. 18–20) That’s what led him to the Communist movement 😮
  • Similarly, take the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

Hitler dropped out of high school at age 16 with no plans for the future. (pg. 20) His single mother died of cancer two years later. This left him homeless. He made money selling paintings and doing odd labour. (pg. 30–33)

  • Other politicians passed school… but barely just. British prime minister Winston Churchill was never academically gifted. He barely passed his exams in childhood. (pg. 17–9) Churchill needed 3 attempts to pass the military entrance test, where he’d make his career. (pg. 32–3, 37)
  • And finally, let’s not think politicians are just bad at school. The world’s most iconic scientist, Albert Einstein, hated school! He couldn’t stand wrote learning in high school. Einstein even faked a mental illness so he could get out of school to go to Italy 😂 (pg. 30–1)

Don’t forget the outliers

For transparency, I couldn’t find evidence of childhood suffering for 4 historical figures. Out of 27 that I researched.

  • That doesn’t mean these historical figures didn’t suffer later in their life.
  • It could be that their childhood suffering is unknown to the public.
  • And I may not have looked at the right resources about their childhood.

Also, I showed how surprisingly many influential people suffered in their childhood. But it’s likely that many non-influential people endured suffering. We just don’t have autobiographies written about them.

Ie. Suffering is not some secret ingredient for success.

Though it may contribute to success in ways that we don’t often talk about. I find it incredible to see how much humans can achieve despite the challenges each of us may face. 😊 I hope that you keep these stories in mind. And recall them when you’re facing your own challenges in life!

Remember that broken people just like yourself have reached unbelievable greatness.

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/