I love biographies. You get a window into the lives of great men and woman in history. Or maybe I’m just nosey. But I believe it’s something in all of us—not the nosiness—the desire to live a meaningful life. Call it destiny, fate, whatever; there’s a calling deep in the soul.
And history is full of people who have responded to the calling in inspiring ways. Looking into their lives can be a great catalyst to fully live out ours.
Here are 7 powerful traits from 7 unforgettable people:
1. Persistence: Walt Disney
Not long after Disney launched his first animation business, he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
His second attempt and success was cut short with a distributor stealing all the rights to his work.
He pressed on, and on his third attempt developed a new character by the name of Mickey Mouse—an instant sensation that snowballed.
To throw in the towel would’ve been justifiable—even sensible at each setback. Indeed Disney’s massive success was equal to his relentless pursuit. And should cause us to think about our levels of persistence.
2. Optimism: Anne Frank
The tragedy of the holocaust will always be difficult to comprehend. The confined, suffocating space that Anne and her family went into hiding would be the last place anyone would expect to find optimism.
But with a maturity far beyond her 13 years she writes,
“It’s difficult in times like these;
ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us,
only to be crushed by grim reality.
It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals,
they seem so absurd and impractical.
Yet I cling to them because I believe, in spite of everything,
that people are truly good at heart.”
Her “grim reality” was the gas chamber. Our grim reality pales in comparison. Her ability not to abandon ideals more than an encouragement to cling to our own in the worst of circumstances.
3. Integrity: Abraham Lincoln
Long before politics, in his mid-20s, Lincoln partnered with William Berry in a grocery business, when Berry died and left behind debts, Lincoln worked to pay off not only his own share, but also that of Berry’s.
Realizing he’d short-changed someone, Lincoln would close the store and walk however many miles to deliver the correct change. The traits cultivated behind the counter and in those miles would revolutionize the nation.
Often, our actions are dependent on outcomes, we do in order to receive, and live by the carrot and stick. Lincoln reminds us of the inherent value of integrity, to adhere to goodness, for goodness sake—without an audience, without any praise. Paradoxically, letting go of any reward brings a reward in itself.
4. Forgiveness: Nelson Mandela
27 years in prison for standing against racial injustice would leave many with resentment; just the thought of coming across a former prison guard evokes bitterness. Which makes the reality of Mandela inviting prosecutors to lunches, dinners, and official ceremonies all the more astonishing.
To scoff at those actions as foolish would be normal, but that’s exactly why Mandela was extraordinary. Forgiveness may well be the most difficult of human expressions, but it’s certainly the most powerful. And the reward as liberating for ourselves as for our offenders—Mandela reflects, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Forgiveness also frees us.
5. Unorthodoxy: Muhammad Ali
1974. George Foreman. Rumble in the Jungle.
If Ali stood any chance against Foreman’s raw punching power, he’d have to rely on his speed, technical skills, and attempt to dance around Foreman. But Ali didn’t dance.
Defying logic and reason, he leaned on the ropes and covered up, letting Foreman unload. Foreman was sapped of his energy, and Ali stunned the world—knocking him out in the 8th round.
Whenever something is labelled unusual or unconventional, we dismiss it as ineffective. But sometimes the most unorthodox strategies are the most effective. Our own uniqueness notwithstanding, yet far too often it’s dissolved in conformity. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain.
6. Resilience: Helen Keller
At 19 months old, Keller was struck with an illness that left her deaf and blind. Developing unique learning strategies, Keller became the first deaf and blind person in history to graduate with a bachelors degree.
Character cannot be developed in ease and comfort. Trial and suffering can certainly create frustration, but that frustration can be a catalyst for resilience and change. We can be overcome by our problems, or seek out ways to overcome them. Choose the latter.
7. Faith: Martin Luther King Jr.
To change the course of history took a level of confidence beyond King’s ability—that’s faith—believing that something greater than yourself, also believes in you.
You don’t need to be religious to have faith. There’s enough randomness in life to warrant a hope for things to fall in our favor. And the relationship between mind and matter has baffled science enough to validate the power of belief.
As King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
The unknown is crippling; but believing in a benevolence that inhabits that unknown, is fuel for moving forward.