To understand adversity, take two acorns from the same tree, as nearly alike as possible – and plant them in two separate locations.  Plant one on a hill by itself and the other in a dense forest.  The oak standing alone is exposed to every storm.  Its roots grow deep in every direction, grasping every rock to support itself from the threatening elements.

The acorn planted in the dense forest grows up a weak, willowy sapling.  Since it was shielded by its neighboring oak trees, it feels no need to spread its roots far and wide for support.

Don’t be afraid of adversity.  Welcome it!  Adversity makes you stronger.  It helps you grow.

I recently returned from the annual Horatio Alger Awards in Washington, DC.   These awards are named after Horatio Alger Jr., whose tales of overcoming adversity through unyielding perseverance and basic moral principles captivated the public in the late 19th century.

Each year the Horatio Alger Association selects and honors approximately 10 individuals who have triumphed over adversity with the virtues of hard work, honesty, individual initiative, adherence to goals and community leadership.  I am honored to have been inducted into this prestigious organization in 2004.

The mission of the association is about promoting success and extending a helping hand to others.  This year we awarded scholarships to 106 students, who, in the face of great adversity, have exhibited an admirable commitment to continuing their education and serving their communities.

Horatio AlgerI am proud that the Horatio Alger Association has become one of the nation’s largest providers of privately-funded, need-based scholarships. 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the scholarship program, which has awarded more than $100 million to more than 21,000 students.

My good friend Lou Holtz, Hall of Fame college football coach, always says, “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”

Adversity is a fact of life.  It can’t be controlled.  Problems and people can’t stop you.  The only thing that can stop you is YOU.  Only you can control how you react to adversity.  When faced with adversity, do you buckle beneath the weight of it all?  Ask “Why me?”

Dolly Parton said, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

Here is a sampling of Horatio Alger Award recipients who turned adversity into an advantage.

  • Author and poet Maya Angelou was three years old when her parents separated.  She was raped at the tender age of seven and as a result became a mute for nearly six years.  She has published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, plus many plays, movies and television shows.
  • Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his family were forced to leave Germany in the 1930s due to the Nazi movement.  He ended up in New York City and couldn’t speak English.  He entered the U.S. Army and returned to earn his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D from Harvard.
  • Carol Burnett, actress, comedian, singer, and writer, had a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents and was raised by her grandmother in an impoverished area of Hollywood.
  • Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s “unbreakable” Major League Baseball homerun record, grew up in a poor family, picking cotton.  His family couldn’t afford baseball equipment, so he practiced by hitting bottle caps with sticks.
  • TV business commentator Lou Dobbs started working in the potato fields of Idaho when he was nine years old.  His mother taught him to read before he even started school and his parents taught him to keep up on current events, which led to his news career.
  • Mark Victor Hansen along with his writing partner Jack Canfield was rejected 140 times before they hit it big with their “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series of books.  There are now more than 200 titles, and 500 million books sold internationally in 37 different languages.
  • Actor James Earl Jones stuttered so badly as an elementary student that he communicated with friends and teachers using written notes.  Today he is known for the richness and power of his voice.
  • It’s hard to find a bigger celebrity today than Oprah Winfrey.  Yet she was born into poverty and raised by a single teen mom.  She was repeatedly molested by a cousin, uncle and family.


Mackay’s Moral:  A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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