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Humble Beginnings: How Top Celebrities Endured Challenges on the Path to Success

Rags-to-riches is an enduring mythos in the American (and global) psyche. But not everyone who starts from humble beginnings and becomes successful is necessarily a celebrity. And some who’ve amassed great wealth remain humble and shy away from the spotlight. Consider Warren Buffet, one of the world’s wealthiest men, who at age 92 still lives in the same modest house he bought in Omaha, Nebraska, when he was just 27. That’s frugality! And while Buffet has met with presidents and other world leaders, he doesn’t seek the spotlight.

Then there’s Chris Gardner, hardly a household name, who overcame homelessness and other trials and went on to establish his own brokerage firm. Today, he’s a multimillionaire.

The same is true for David Hoffmann, an entrepreneur whose diverse portfolio spans 10 business sectors. Like Gardner and many others before and since, Hoffmann grew up in challenging circumstances. His home, just across the river from Augusta, Missouri, didn’t have indoor running hot water until he was in high school. These roots grew a deep appreciation for the underdog, and he has funded numerous philanthropic ventures designed to help others succeed.

Who are some of the better-known people that started from poverty or endured extreme hardship along the way?

Walt Disney

Although Disneyland and Disneyworld are destinations today, Walt’s early career included being fired for a lack of creativity and declaring bankruptcy. Then, difficult as it might be to believe now, Mickey Mouse was rejected as being “too scary for women.” The cultural icon is now one of the most recognizable and beloved characters on screen and at Disney’s eponymous venues—and a frequent Halloween costume choice.

J.K. Rowling

The author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series grew up with a mother who was seriously ill, and developed OCD as a coping strategy. She wrote the first Harry Potter novel while working temp jobs, and also gave birth to a daughter during this time. A dozen publishing houses rejected the first Harry Potter book, doubtless to their chagrin in hindsight. By 2004, Rowling had become a billionaire.

Oprah Winfrey

Ranked as the wealthiest African-American of the 20th century, Winfrey grew up in poverty, gave birth at age 14, and was raised by a single mother in the inner city. Her 25-year run of The Oprah Winfrey Show became the highest-rated program of its kind in television history, and she is well known for her extensive philanthropic efforts, especially on behalf of African girls’ education. She is recognized the world over as a trailblazer and humanitarian.

Elvis Presley

The man who initiated rock ‘n’ roll in the U.S., “Elvis the Pelvis” grew up feeling like a misfit, did poorly in school (even in music class!) and started his work life as a truck driver. After his first performance, he was told, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son,” and promptly fired. Then in 1956, his debut album changed the course of music history.

Thomas Edison

He’s a household name today with more than 1000 patents to his credit, but we might not have any of these innovations if Edison had believed his teachers, who told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Thankfully he didn’t listen to them, or we may still be reading by kerosene lanterns and listening to music around a campfire, but never in our own homes. (He invented the phonograph and the first functional electric lamp.)

Michael Jordan

His high school basketball coach cut Jordan from the team, but, undeterred, Jordan didn’t quit. After six championships and five MVPs, his coach might have thought he’d made a mistake. Perseverance is the key. Jordan said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, and on 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I have fail