A past full of pain doesn't guarantee future failure. Most entrepreneurs know the story of Richard Branson's poor academic performance. His dyslexia contributed to a headmaster's prediction that Branson would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.

The founder of Virgin Group used his difficult early life and his failures as motivation to succeed in a business that has taken him--and millions of others--to new heights. His negative life experiences were a launching pad for everything that followed.

Branson's story is one of thousands of inspirational tales of business leaders overcoming great odds, and I'd like to tell you two stories that have had a major impact on me.

A Victory Against Insurmountable Odds

John Nagatsuka's life was intertwined with disaster from the start. His mother was a survivor of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki, Japan, and when his parents came to the U.S., they found themselves in deep poverty as they worked long hours on a farm.

When John graduated from college, he began what seemed like a promising career as an IT engineer until disaster struck again. He was laid off after 9/11, and with his savings dried up, his marriage and life began to fall apart. John considered giving up, but those long hours of working on the farm helped him persevere.

On the way back from a trip to Tokyo to visit his in-laws, he serendipitously took a two-week course on Thai massage that transformed his life. He paired up with two other partners and applied for a $60,000 loan to launch a successful physical therapy business.

John failed as an engineer, but he never lost hope. Failure is sometimes a necessary step on the path to success. If John hadn't failed, then he never would've solidified his life and his marriage through his true calling as a physical therapist.

A Story That Transcends the Prison Cell

Like many 20-somethings, Crystal Chen thought she had her life figured out. But her plan came to a screeching halt when the Chinese police arrested her and her mother and tortured them for practicing a banned spiritual practice called Falun Gong. After Crystal's mother was executed, locals helped Crystal escape a similar fate.

Crystal trekked through dense jungles along borders and traveled from China to Burma to Thailand as a stowaway on a cargo ship before arriving in the U.S. Safe at last, Crystal could've embraced her freedom and turned a blind eye to her former cellmates' suffering. Instead, she stuck to her beliefs.

Crystal made a documentary about her life in prison and used her stories to advocate for human rights in China. She later became the director of strategic partnerships for a Chinese-American TV station. Crystal's new life is drastically different than the one she had before her imprisonment, but she anticipated and faced her fear of the unknown to become significantly stronger.

You are not your circumstances. Overcoming obstacles can make you a stronger business leader. Expect failure, stick to your beliefs, and, above all, persevere. Negative experiences don't hold you back--they simply give you more room to grow.

Published on: Apr 13, 2015
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