Nearly all successful people have had the experience of coming to a turning point in their lives. Faced with a difficult decision, and at serious risk of failure, they must make a choice. Will they give up and fail, letting circumstances get the best of them? Or will they set goals that will lead them to success in spite of adversity? At the moment when you or I are facing our greatest challenges, it may seem almost impossible to rise above them and work toward success. But it can be done—as many have demonstrated!
From Homeless to Harvard
Liz Murray grew up in the Bronx, New York, reared by parents who were drug addicts. As a toddler still in a stroller, she would park herself outside the door while Mom and Dad busied themselves with preparations to shoot up with heroin or snort cocaine at the kitchen table. Because of their parents' addiction, Murray and her older sister were often neglected, and would routinely go hungry. Once, they were so hungry that they shared a tube of lip balm and a tube of toothpaste to eat!
When she was 15 years old, Murray left home. Her parents had separated, and she did not feel welcome at her mother's boyfriend's apartment. At first, she stayed with friends, but she eventually found herself homeless—sleeping in stairwells, on trains and in Central Park. During this time, she felt worthless. "For me, I remember a distinct feeling of sitting outside in the park, and I thought: How long would it take for somebody to realize I was gone and that I had sort of fell off the grid and been invisible, swallowed up into the ground, and the ground had shut over me? Like, my existence really didn't even matter" ("One Woman's Journey from Homeless to Harvard," NPR.org, September 9, 2010).
When her mother died the following year, Murray had a realization that by being homeless in New York City at age 16, she was repeating the same pattern as her mother. Murray also recalled how her mother had shared her dreams for a better life, "'Lizzie, one day, I'll get sober. Lizzie, one day, our lives will be better.' One day. It was always about 'later' and 'one day'" (ibid.).
The sobering parallel—between a mother's unfulfilled life and the path her daughter's life was taking —is what brought Murray to her turning point.
While she was still homeless, Murray enrolled in an alternative high school where the teachers were supportive and encouraging. She thrived so well that she won a full scholarship to Harvard University. Now she is an author and motivational speaker, and is the founder and director of Manifest Living, a company that helps motivate adults to achieve their dreams.
Even though Murray's transfor-mation was triggered by an event, the real change occurred in her mind. Because she did not want to end up like her mother, Murray understood that she had to change her outlook. As she told an interviewer, circumstances "taught me that life can change, that in one way, life is really a blank slate. Like, we get so invested in this is the way my life is, and I'm sure of it, but actually, every single day was a new chance. And I realized that I had the ability to carve out a life for myself, that it was in no way limited by what had already occurred in my past" (ibid.).
The same is true for anyone.
While not nearly as dramatic, I was once challenged when facing what I believed to be an insurmountable obstacle—passing college math. I had struggled with math all through school, which led me to believe that I simply could not understand it. Because I had avoided any higher math courses in high school, the prospect of taking algebra and calculus in college terrified me.
The first test score of 30—followed by scores of 72, 32 and 31—confirmed to me that I was mathematically challenged. I will never forget the devastating feeling I had when I received my first mid-term report card showing that I was failing. I had visions of having to leave college in shame because of my grades. My parents' dream of their only college-attending child being a college success would be shattered. That thought greatly sobered me.
I had reached my turning point.
Quickly determining that it was my deeply rooted attitude that was preventing me from doing well in math, I resolved to change. I thought, "Phil, you are not too stupid to understand this—it's not that hard. You can do it!"
From that point on, I started to work hard to understand math. I averaged at least 3 hours a night doing math—every night of the school week. I attended every tutoring session. My friends would trade off helping me. For the first time I understood math, and something even more amazing happened—math began to be fun!
I surprised my friends, my instructor and especially myself by earning a score of 92 on my next test. The ultimate experience, though, came next. The incredible sense of accomplishment I felt at receiving a 100 on the next test is still one of the most rewarding memories of my life.
I knew at that point that I had turned around. I was on ﬁre with a newborn love to learn, which ignited a better, more positive attitude in every aspect of my life. Instead of thinking, "I can't do it," I had proved to myself that I could. My work in all my classes improved, my grade point average went up considerably by the end of the semester, and I did graduate.
As I look back, I see that I learned many valuable lessons from the whole experience. One was that once I changed my attitude toward math, the results changed. Instead of torturing myself by holding on to a negative attitude, being positive made success so much easier.
Another lesson was that it took the help of some caring people to help me out of my difficulties. This made a tremendous difference in my success, not only in math but also in every area of my life. By surrounding myself with positive, helpful influences, I was able to overcome a challenge that I never thought I could. Also, they made the battle much more enjoyable!
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that true success only comes after diligent and continued effort. It took plain old work to break through my mathematical fog. I had to fight to catch up to where my friends already were, but I finally did it. The hard work paid off in the end.
The Bible says, "For as he thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7). Do you see yourself as a success or as a failure? Do you believe that who you are is already determined, and that there is nothing you can do about it? Perhaps your circumstances look bleak now, but that does not mean that they need to stay that way. We each determine much of the success of our own lives—and it starts in the mind.
One fact is sure: we all need to face turning points. The success of our lives can depend upon how we face them. As so many who have overcome their obstacles have shown, it is our choice.