Do not despise the day of small beginnings
A while back I began reading William Manchester’s The Last Lion, a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. I figured I would learn a bit more about one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.
I expected to find that as a boy, he was a prodigy and a towering intellect—the type voted “most likely to succeed” by his classmates. I found no such thing. The reality was quite different.
He attended Harrow, but that was only on the strength of his father’s reputation as a former member of parliament. Though he studied very hard, he flunked the entrance exam. When he arrived, he found that his grades were third from the bottom until two boys dropped out and he secured the dubious honor of last in his class.
He would make it into Sandhurst (the British equivalent of West Point) on his own after working with a tutor, but barely, and on his last allowable attempt.
As a child, young Winston particularly struggled with math. Years later, Churchill recalled his view of mathematics in comparison to grammar:
“Letters after all had only got to be known, and when they stood together in a certain way, one recognized their formation and that it meant a certain sound. But the figures were tied into all sorts of tangles and did things to one another which it was extremely difficult to forecast with complete accuracy. You had to say what they did each time they were tied up together. It was not any use being ‘nearly right.’ In some cases these figures got into debt with one another: you had to borrow one or carry one, and afterwards you had to pay back the one you borrowed.”
To complicate matters, Churchill was smaller than the other boys, mistaken by others as being a few forms (what the English call grades in school) below them because of his size. This younger appearance was magnified when he spoke. He had developed a bit of a stammer.
Even worse, his parents neglected him. They sent him to boarding school and then lived their lives as if he did not exist. In spite of numerous pitiful letters, begging his mother for a letter, or for a visit, or for permission to come home during breaks, his requests often went unanswered. He would battle the black dog of depression for much of his life.
At school he was not well-received by his peers, and he was constantly in trouble with the administration. It appears that part of this was due to a stubborn streak. As Manchester recorded, “Churchillian stubbornness, which would become the bane of Britain’s enemies, was the despair of his teachers.”
From such inauspicious beginnings grew the man that defied Hitler. While his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, was trying to appease Hitler, Churchill was sounding the alarm and when Chamberlain resigned, it was Churchill’s hour.
He became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, as Hitler was conquering Western Europe. On May 13, he greeted his cabinet with the words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” It was a phrase he repeated later that day in his first speech before the House of Commons as Prime Minister.
By early June, the Germans had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands, and much of France, leading to the evacuation of Dunkirk. In Europe, a beleaguered Britain stood alone against Hitler’s war machine. Churchill’s resolve again stiffened the British spine. On June 4, Churchill rose in the House of Commons and said,
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Weeks later, he again addressed Parliament with what is now, perhaps, his most famous utterance:
The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.” (Emphasis added).
Churchill became the British backbone necessary to win World War II. The same stubbornness that got him in so much trouble in school was the same stubbornness that helped him overcome the crippling disadvantages of his childhood. And that same stubbornness would be echoed in his speeches.
A year later, Churchill returned to his alma mater, Harrow, where he offered these words of encouragement:
Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.
Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.”
Greatness is Often Born of Adversity.
Too often we think that we have to be good at everything in order to succeed. Sometimes we undervalue our ability to contribute because we know our own weaknesses. Maybe we even want to hide it, but the reality is that we need to play to our strengths in order to be successful. Churchill did. You can too.
I recently read that 41 percent of prison inmates have learning disabilities. It would seem that the disabilities cause these people to be unsuccessful. What other explanation could their be? But I also read something that made me think differently about the problem. It turns out that 35 percent of all entrepreneurs are also dyslexic. One person fights the system; another creates his own system. The former become statistics; the latter overcome the odds.
Great leaders become great when they overcome the odds. We remember Washington, Lincoln, and FDR because of the trying times in which they led. Who remembers Millard Filmore? (13th President) or Benjamin Harrison (23rd President). Greatness, it appears, is correlated with the size of the adversity.
What Is Your Excuse?
What about you? Do you have challenges that have held you back? Did you have to overcome just to get to this point? Is it possible that you have been worried that God didn’t give you as many gifts and talents as you would have liked, but that he gave you all that you need?
What have you overcome in your past that will open doors in your future?
 Manchester, W. (2013). The last lion, Winston Spencer Churchill. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks. (pp. 122-123).
 Manchester, W. (2013). The last lion, Winston Spencer Churchill. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks. (p. 157).
 1940: The finest hours. (n.d.). Winstonchurchill.org. Retrieved from https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/page/2
 We Shall Fight on the Beaches (n.d.) Winstonchurchill.org. Retrieved from https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches
 Their finest hour. (n.d.) Winstonchurchill.org. Retrieved from https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/their-finest-hour
 Strauss, V. (2012, May 19). The best commencement speeches never given. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/best-commencement-speeches-never-given/2012/05/18/gIQAvaRQZU_blog.html?utm_term=.3a42db912056
 Foss, B. (2016). The dyslexia empowerment plan: A blueprint for renewing your child’s confidence and love of learning. New York: Ballantine Books.