Overcoming Obstacles: How Winston Churchill’s Struggles Fueled Success

This is one in a series of profiles on famous people who overcame incredible obstacles, failed many times or defied grim odds in order to succeed.

Voted the Greatest Briton by the people of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, two-time British Prime Minister who led his country to victory in WWII, was considered anything but great as a young student. But his strength in working through those early struggles and other difficulties throughout his life may have actually played a valuable role in his success.

At age 10, while attending boarding school in Brighton, instructors found him intelligent with an exceptional memory but also “negligent, slovenly … perpetually late,” and easily distracted. He suffered from a lisp, pronouncing the letter “s” as “sh.” And he was very lonely; he often wrote to his mother requesting that she visit, but she seldom did. By age 14, at the Harrow School, the housemaster reported to his father, “His forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality, and irregularity in every way, have really been so serious … he ought to be at the top of his form, whereas he is at the bottom.”

Describing himself, Churchill said, “I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel … so completely outclassed and left behind.”

People have concluded that Churchill had dyslexia, a learning disability that affects language skills, particularly reading and spelling. But The Churchill Centre disputes this: “In his autobiography he played up his low grades at Harrow, undoubtedly to convince readers, and possibly himself, how much he had overcome; but in this he exaggerated. He was actually quite good at subjects he enjoyed and in fact won several school prizes.”

What some consider now, however, is that Churchill may have shown signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is characterized by excessive physical energy, impulsiveness, forgetfulness, as well as difficulty focusing on subjects one finds boring but the ability to concentrate on enjoyable ones.

If Churchill did indeed have ADHD, he would have found school extremely challenging. Yet, by persevering and making difficulties work for him, some of the ADHD-like traits he struggled with in his youth became the very strengths he needed to effectively lead his nation.

He Focused on His Interests

Churchill exceled at what he enjoyed. As The Churchill Centre described his school years, he was “mediocre at what bored him, and very good at what interested him …. At Sandhurst, which emphasized [English and history] … along with military tactics and strategy … he finished near the top of his class.” Churchill’s interest in these subjects helped him understand world events and enabled him to communicate to the British people and other nations his vision of what was needed to win the war.

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He Channeled His Boundless, Fearless Energy

As a child, Churchill’s mother found his impulsive energy difficult to manage, especially because he enjoyed situations with an element of danger.

In 1899, during the Second Boer War in South Africa, Churchill’s fearlessness came to his aid as a war correspondent for The Morning Post. When his train was ambushed, soldiers captured and imprisoned him in a prisoner of war camp. Seizing an opportunity, Churchill escaped. When the news reached England, he became a minor national hero.

And as Prime Minister, Churchill usually slept no more than five hours a night, plus a mid-day nap. His strong constitution allowed him to attend to matters of state well into the evening and early morning hours.

Hounded by the Black Dog

Perhaps Churchill’s greatest challenge, however, was recurring depression, which he called the “Black Dog.” Members of the Churchill family suffered from it and, like his father, Churchill had severe mood swings. Churchill’s friend Lord Beaverbrook said he was, ” always at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” Churchill’s neurologist thought he had cyclothymia, a mood disorder similar to bipolar disorder but not as severe.

Could even depression have worked to Churchill’s advantage? Some think so. And the way he found relief from erratic emotions can still offer help to those who suffer:

He Saw Human Nature with Clear-eyed Realism

The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests Churchill’s struggle with depression helped him see more clearly the growing threat of Nazi Germany at a time when England’s leaders were trying to appease Hitler and avoid conflict. Taking a realistic view of the darker side of human nature and being convinced of Hitler’s destructive intentions, Churchill prepared England to actively resist Germany’s forces when he took office as Prime Minister in 1940.

He Found Comfort in Creativity

When contending with depression or at low points in his life, Churchill turned to painting and writing for comfort. With the encouragement of his friend Paul Maze, he began painting during World War I. Over his lifetime, working in oils on canvas, he created mostly landscapes and some interior scenes and portraits that total more than 500 paintings. And as a writer, Churchill left behind an even larger body of work, which includes letters, speeches, numerous memoirs, and volumes of history books. According to London Mayor Boris Johnson in Smithsonian Magazine, his published works contain an “estimated 15 million words, ‘more than Shakespeare and Dickens combined.'” Churchill also bears the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1953.

One of His Greatest Gifts

Whether enduring disappointing years in school, leading his nation through the hardships of war, or struggling with his own unpredictable emotions, Winston Churchill persevered. One of his greatest gifts to humankind was his ability to inspire others who faced obstacles they feared they couldn’t overcome.

On a visit to the Harrow School during the war, Churchill said to the young men: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

These days we talk a lot about having “grit,” the resolve to see challenges through to their end. Certainly Churchill exhibited this character trait throughout his life and continues to serve as an example to us today.

Image Credit – SmithonianMag.com


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