There was little evidence that Demosthenes was destined to become the greatest orator of
Athens, let alone all of history. He was born sickly and frail with a nearly debilitating speech
impediment. At seven years old, he lost his father. And then things got worse.
The large inheritance left to him—intended to pay for tutors and the best schools—was stolen by
the guardians entrusted to protect him. They refused to pay his tutors, depriving him of the
education he was entitled to. Still weak and sick, Demosthenes was also unable to distinguish
himself in the other critical sphere of Greek life: the floor of the gymnasia.
Here was this fatherless, effeminate, awkward child who no one understood, who everyone
laughed at. Not exactly the boy you’d expect would soon hold the power to mobilize a nation to war
by his voice alone.
Disadvantaged by nature, abandoned by the people he depended on, nearly every wrong that can
be inflicted on a child befell Demosthenes. None of it was fair, none of it was right. Most of us, were
we in his position, would have given up right then and there. But Demosthenes did not.
Stuck in his young mind was the image of a great orator, a man he’d once witnessed speaking at
the court at Athens. This lone individual, so skilled and powerful, had held the admiration of the
crowd, who hung on his every word for hours—subduing all opposition with no more than the sound
of his voice and the strength of his ideas. It inspired and challenged Demosthenes, weak, beaten on,
powerless, and ignored; for in many ways, this strong, confident speaker was the opposite of him.
So he did something about it.
To conquer his speech impediment, he devised his own strange exercises. He would fill his mouth
with pebbles and practice speaking. He rehearsed full speeches into the wind or while running up
steep inclines. He learned to give entire speeches with a single breath. And soon, his quiet, weak
voice erupted with booming, powerful clarity.
Demosthenes locked himself away underground—literally—in a dugout he’d had built in which to
study and educate himself. To ensure he wouldn’t indulge in outside distractions, he shaved half his
head so he’d be too embarrassed to go outside. And from that point forward, he dutifully descended
each day into his study to work with his voice, his facial expressions, and his arguments.
When he did venture out, it was to learn even more. Every moment, every conversation, every
transaction, was an opportunity for him to improve his art. All of it aimed at one goal: to face his
enemies in court and win back what had been taken from him. Which he did.
When he came of age, he finally filed suits against the negligent guardians who had wronged
him. They evaded his efforts and hired their own lawyers, but he refused to be stopped. Flexible and
creative, he matched them suit for suit and delivered countless speeches. Confident in his new
strengths, driven on by his own toil, they were no match. Demosthenes eventually won.
Only a fraction of the original inheritance remained, but the money had become secondary.
Demosthenes’s reputation as an orator, ability to command a crowd and his peerless knowledge of
the intricacies of the law, was worth more than whatever remained of a once-great fortune.
Every speech he delivered made him stronger, every day that he stuck with it made him more
determined. He could see through bullies and stare down fear. In struggling with his unfortunate
fate, Demosthenes found his true calling: He would be the voice of Athens, its great speaker and
conscience. He would be successful precisely because of what he’d been through and how he’d
reacted to it. He had channeled his rage and pain into his training, and then later into his speeches,
fueling it all with a kind of fierceness and power that could be neither matched nor resisted.
Some academic once asked Demosthenes what the three most important traits of speechmaking
were. His reply says it all: “Action, Action, Action!”
Sure, Demosthenes lost the inheritance he’d been born with, and that was unfortunate. But in the
process of dealing with this reality, he created a far better one—one that could never be taken from
But you, when you’re dealt a bad hand. What’s your response? Do you fold? Or do you play it for
all you’ve got? There’s an explosion, metaphoric or otherwise. Are you the guy running toward it?
Or running away from it? Or worse, are you paralyzed and do nothing?
This little test of character says everything about us.
And it’s sad that so many of us fail—opting away from action. Because action is natural, innate.
You trip and fall right now, your body’s instincts protect you. You extend your hands to break your
fall, so you don’t break your face. In a vicious accident, you go into shock but still manage to get
your arms up around your face. That’s where the term defensive wounds comes from. We don’t
think, we don’t complain, we don’t argue. We act. We have real strength—more strength than we
But in our lives, when our worst instincts are in control, we dally. We don’t act like Demosthenes,
we act frail and are powerless to make ourselves better. We may be able to articulate a problem,
even potential solutions, but then weeks, months, or sometimes years later, the problem is still
there. Or it’s gotten worse. As though we expect someone else to handle it, as though we honestly
believe that there is a chance of obstacles unobstacle-ing themselves.
We’ve all done it. Said: “I am so [overwhelmed, tired, stressed, busy, blocked, outmatched].”
And then what do we do about it? Go out and party. Or treat ourselves. Or sleep in. Or wait.
It feels better to ignore or pretend. But you know deep down that that isn’t going to truly make it
any better. You’ve got to act. And you’ve got to start now.
We forget: In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what
you do with what happens and what you’ve been given. And the only way you’ll do something
spectacular is by using it all to your advantage.
People turn shit into sugar all the time—shit that’s a lot worse than whatever we’re dealing with.
I’m talking physical disabilities, racial discrimination, battles against overwhelmingly superior
armies. But those people didn’t quit. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They didn’t delude
themselves with fantasies about easy solutions. They focused on the one thing that mattered:
applying themselves with gusto and creativity.
Born with nothing, into poverty, strife, or the chaos of decades past, certain types of people were
freed from modern notions of fairness or good or bad. Because none of it applied to them. What was
in front of them was all they knew—all they had. And instead of complaining, they worked with it.
They made the best of it. Because they had to, because they didn’t have a choice.
No one wants to be born weak or to be victimized. No one wants to be down to their last dollar.
No one wants to be stuck behind an obstacle, blocked from where they need to go. Such
circumstances are not impressed by perception, but they are not indifferent—or rather immune—
from action. In fact, that’s the only thing these situations will respond to.
No one is saying you can’t take a minute to think, Dammit, this sucks. By all means, vent. Exhale.
Take stock. Just don’t take too long. Because you have to get back to work. Because each obstacle
we overcome makes us stronger for the next one.
But . . .
No. No excuses. No exceptions. No way around it: It’s on you.
We don’t have the luxury of running away. Of hiding. Because we have something very specific
we’re trying to do. We have an obstacle we have to lean into and transform.
No one is coming to save you. And if we’d like to go where we claim we want to go—to
accomplish what we claim are our goals—there is only one way. And that’s to meet our problems
with the right action.
Therefore, we can always (and only) greet our obstacles
melia Earhart wanted to be a great aviator. But it was the 1920s, and people still thought that
women were frail and weak and didn’t have the stuff. Woman suffrage was not even a decade
old.She couldn’t make her living as a pilot, so she took a job as a social worker. Then one day the
phone rang. The man on the line had a pretty offensive proposition, along the lines of: We have
someone willing to fund the first female transatlantic flight. Our first choice has already backed out.
You won’t get to actually fly the plane, and we’re going to send two men along as chaperones and
guess what, we’ll pay them a lot of money and you won’t get anything. Oh, and you very well might
die while doing it.
You know what she said to that offer? She said yes.
Because that’s what people who defy the odds do. That’s how people who become great at things
—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow.
They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. Because they know that
once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work.
As it went for Amelia Earhart. Less than five years later she was the first woman to fly solo
nonstop across the Atlantic and became, rightly, one of the most famous and respected people in the
But none of that would have happened had she turned up her nose at that offensive offer or sat
around feeling sorry for herself. None of it could have happened if she’d stopped after that first
accomplishment either. What mattered was that she took the opening and then pressed ahead. That
was the reason for her success.
Life can be frustrating. Oftentimes we know what our problems are. We may even know what to
do about them. But we fear that taking action is too risky, that we don’t have the experience or that
it’s not how we pictured it or because it’s too expensive, because it’s too soon, because we think
something better might come along, because it might not work.
And you know what happens as a result? Nothing. We do nothing.
Tell yourself: The time for that has passed. The wind is rising. The bell’s been rung. Get started,
We often assume that the world moves at our leisure. We delay when we should initiate. We jog
when we should be running or, better yet, sprinting. And then we’re shocked—shocked!—when
nothing big ever happens, when opportunities never show up, when new obstacles begin to pile up,
or the enemies finally get their act together.
Of course they did, we gave them room to breathe. We gave them the chance.
So the first step is: Take the bat off your shoulder and give it a swing. You’ve got to start, to go
Now let’s say you’ve already done that. Fantastic. You’re already ahead of most people. But let’s
ask an honest question: Could you be doing more? You probably could—there’s always more. At
minimum, you could be trying harder. You might have gotten started, but your full effort isn’t in it—
and that shows.
Is that going to affect your results? No question.
In the first years of World War II, there was no worse assignment for British troops than being
sent to the North African front. Methodical and orderly, the British hated the grueling weather and
terrain that wreaked havoc on their machines and their plans. They acted how they felt: slow, timid,
German Field Marshal General Erwin Rommel, on the other hand, loved it. He saw war as a
game. A dangerous, reckless, untidy, fast-paced game. And, most important, he took to this game
with incredible energy and was perennially pushing his troops forward.
The German troops had a saying about him: Where Rommel is, there is the front.
That’s the next step: ramming your feet into the stirrups and really going for it.
That’s definitely not what they say about most leaders today. While overpaid CEOs take long
vacations and hide behind e-mail autoresponders, some programmer is working eighteen-hour days
coding the start-up that will destroy that CEO’s business. And if we were honest, we’re probably
closer to the former than the latter when it comes to the problems we face (or don’t face).
While you’re sleeping, traveling, attending meetings, or messing around online, the same thing is
happening to you. You’re going soft. You’re not aggressive enough. You’re not pressing ahead.
You’ve got a million reasons why you can’t move at a faster pace. This all makes the obstacles in
your life loom very large.
For some reason, these days we tend to downplay the importance of aggression, of taking risks,
of barreling forward. It’s probably because it’s been negatively associated with certain notions of
violence or masculinity.
But of course Earhart shows that that isn’t true. In fact, on the side of her plane she painted the
words, “Always think with your stick forward.” That is: You can’t ever let up your flying speed—if
you do, you crash. Be deliberate, of course, but you always need to be moving forward.
And that’s the final part: Stay moving, always.
Like Earhart, Rommel knew from history that those who attack problems and life with the most
initiative and energy usually win. He was always pushing ahead, keeping the stampede on the more
cautious British forces to devastating effect.
His string of offensives at Cyrenaica, Tobruk, and Tunisia led to some of the most astonishing
victories in the history of warfare. He got started early, while the British were still trying to get
comfortable, and as a result, Rommel was able to seize what appeared to be an unstoppable
advantage in some of the most uninhabitable terrain on the planet. He blew right through the bleak
battlefields of North Africa, with its enormous distances, blinding sandstorms, scorching heat, and
lack of water, because he never, ever stopped moving.
It surprised even his commanding officers, who time and time again attempted to slow Rommel
down. They preferred deliberation and discourse to advancement. It had a devastating effect on the
momentum that Rommel had built with his troops—just as it does in our own lives.
So when you’re frustrated in pursuit of your own goals, don’t sit there and complain that you
don’t have what you want or that this obstacle won’t budge. If you haven’t even tried yet, then of
course you will still be in the exact same place. You haven’t actually pursued anything.
We talk a lot about courage as a society, but we forget that at its most basic level it’s really just
taking action—whether that’s approaching someone you’re intimidated by or deciding to finally
crack a book on a subject you need to learn. Just as Earhart did, all the greats you admire started
by saying, Yes, let’s go. And they usually did it in less desirable circumstances than we’ll ever suffer.
Just because the conditions aren’t exactly to your liking, or you don’t feel ready yet, doesn’t mean
you get a pass. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and