From depths to heights


The greatness of a nation is the sum total of the greatness of its men and women. Learning about how some people have left an impact on the history of their country or the world is a fruitful intellectual exercise. A country without achievers in any field is bound to be stagnant economically, socially and what have you.

Were great people born great or did they make themselves great? A great study of some of the great people in this article will reveal that though they were born with some gifts, their success was due mostly to effort. Some of the greatest people in the world started with great disadvantages deep down.

One of the greatest scientists of all the time was Isaac Newton, a student and later a tutor at Cambridge University. Of him, the great American Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Poor Richards Almanac “God said let there be Isaac Newton and then there was light.”


Newton’s name is linked with the theory of gravity. He got a pass degree, not the Cambridge Tripos or honours. A pass degree suggests that someone has only average ability. But Newton made up for that by unusual dedication to research.

After he had made astonishing scientist discoveries some people asked him how he had managed to do so. He answered that by always or all the time thinking about them until they yielded an answer. His power of concentration was amazing. After spending hours in the laboratory he would assume he had his lunch when in fact he had not.

Samuel Smiles in hi s classic motivating book Self-help tells us that Newton’s hobby consisted of a change of subjects. He was humble with his achievements and acknowledged that if he had seen much more than others it was because he was standing on the shoulders of the giants.


The great inventor Thomas Alva Edison was a primary school dropout. Some biographers say he was in school for only three years. His teachers despaired with what appeared to be his dullness and were grateful that his mother took him out. She had confidence in her son and had not noticed that he was more interested in handling mechanical things. She assumed correctly that his interest was in science subjects and she made such books available including the discoveries of the English scientist Michael Farady.

From the scientific discoveries made by others, Edison went on to make numerous invention such as gramophone and the electric lamp. When he was asked about his genius he said “genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” In other words he had made his invention by working extra hard.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, English people were asked to vote on who was the greatest Englishman or woman of the millennium. Winston Churchill came second after William Shakespeare the playwright.

The beginnings of Churchill were anything but promising. While attending the public school called Harrow, he found the classic very difficult. He concentrated on mastering the study of English. Still he was unable to pass well enough to be admitted to Oxford. His education was therefore like that of Shakespeare just about equivalent to the General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level.

While he was in military service in India he wrote a letter to his American mother to send him great classics of education — the history books by Edward Gibbon, Babington Macaulay, the writings of Adam Smith the economist. He delved into them. Despite lacking university degrees he set about writing histories and biographies of high quality.

Disraeli, the 19th Century British Prime Minister, said the secret of success is to master your subject. Churchill mastered the speaking and writing of English. When Britain was in danger of being overrun by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, King George VI and his people turned to Churchill for rescue. Through his oratory Churchill inspired the British people and their empire to resist Hitler relentlessly. The rest is history.

One of the several leaders of history was Abraham Lincoln, the American President whose name it linked with the emancipation of black slaves in America and the saving of the union from impending collapse. But what was Lincoln’s beginning?

The late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote of him: “In one of my sermon I condensed the life of such man (who could persist despite defeat). This man has failed in business in 1831. He was defeated in politics in 1832. He failed once again in business in 1834. He had a nervous breakdown in 1841. In 1842, he hoped to receive his party’s nomination for Congress but did not. He ran for the senate in 1855, he lost. He was defeated again in 1858. A hopeless loser, some people said. But Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860.”

You will find this quotation in ‘What the achievers teach about success.’ We also read Napoleon Hill’s in it an epigram: “Winners never quit, quitters never win.”

One of the greatest economist of all times was John Maynard Keynes of Cambridge University (1883-1946). He passed his BA degree in maths as a 12th wrangler which I believe means he was not top of the class. Later when he sat for a civil service exam in economics he was awarded a second class grade. Some writers say Keynes never took a second degree, yet these days no economics textbook worth its name forget to make reference to Keynes.

The book that inspired the 1789 French Revolution was titled Social Contract by Jean- Jacques Rousseau. It begins with the lapidary statement: “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.”

Biographers of Rousseau say he left school at the age of 12. Evidently he did not go through all those milestones of education that we do go through these days.

How is it that people who were at the bottom of intellectual or academic life achieved so much that they left indelible marks on history? In a brief essay like this we cannot give all the possible reasons. Suffice to say that they had confidence in themselves and worked zealously to realise their ambitions. Do not allow inferiority complexes to deter you from aspiration.

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