By every conventional measure, J. K. Rowling was mired in her darkest hour. Her exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded. She had been sacked and was as poor as it was possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. “By every usual standard,” she admits, “I was the biggest failure I knew.”
Against all odds, the spunky single mother poured her energies into finishing the only work that mattered to her—a book about a boy wizard. However, the publishing world hadn’t caught up with her genius. Twelve publishers rejected her manuscript before a small London house picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And the rest is history.
Like Rowling, in our small businesses we are all confronted with our own dark hours: equally traumatic, life-altering events. Some of us are unshakable in our belief that anything is possible if we find the courage to forge ahead. Others, however, can’t seem to escape the jaws of defeat.
For the past several years, I have been scrutinizing dozens of dark hours—precarious situations, as well as individual lives, spiraling out of control—and how talented people like Rowling refused to be trapped by them. Because personal stories are a lively and effective way to illustrate important points, I chose to examine a wide range of extraordinary individuals from history and contemporary life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
My heroes are as different as chalk and cheese. Chancellor Joel Klein took on the monumental challenge of trying to overhaul New York City’s long-embattled public schools. Coach Bill Snyder descended on another Manhattan—Kansas—to turn around college football’s losingest team. Spunky Joanne Boyle not only survived a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage, but elevated her California women’s basketball team from oblivion to national prominence.
Similarly, world-renowned scientist and trailblazer Shirley Ann Jackson broke down racial barriers as the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. and to lead a major research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Former Hewlett-Packard chair and cancer patient Pattie Dunn beat the odds to restore her reputation—and her health. Legendary Marine Gen. Chesty Puller, surrounded by overwhelming hoards of Red Chinese regulars, escaped the deadly fog of war at Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, so his troops could fight another day.
Sacagawea was the lone Indian, the lone teenager, the lone mother on the Lewis and Clark expedition, one of the most foreboding journeys ever undertaken. Equally adventurous, Gary Guller became the first one-armed man to scale Mount Everest, while also leading the largest cross-disability group to its base camp, at 17,500 feet. Retired Navy Commander Scott Waddle fought to remove the stain of the USS Greeneville, which accidentally sank the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru, killing nine people. Tarnished Time Warner ex-chairman Steve Case plotted his own miraculous comeback through an eclectic array of New Age businesses.
Whatever their route to success, these courageous and inspiring men and women prove that taking on a truly hellish situation is not necessarily a death sentence. Bright Triumphs From Dark Hours celebrates those who are able to face adversity—and transform near-defeat into a bright triumph. And let’s face it, during this economy small business and sole proprietors are facing some very difficult times. So, what I did learn from these relentless bravehearts? Here are six lessons, exemplified by the individuals profiled in my book.