July 11, 2022

No Excuses: Four Short Stories of People’s Determination and Education Despite Unconventional Upbringings

By: David Collins

With victimhood and self-pity on the rise, multitudes of people are allowing tough circumstances to dictate their future — letting their unconventional and understandably hard upbringings stunt their creativity, determination, and persistence.

The following stories are four examples of people who defied the odds, and implicitly rejected the victimhood mentality. Each of them had unique setbacks particular to their families and communities, but all of them decided to unleash their potential and unlock what made them flourish.

Dr. Ben Carson

Dr. Ben Carson was born to a single, illiterate mother. When Carson was in school, his mother made him read two books per week and write reports on them.

Carson went from the bottom of his fifth grade class to the top of his sixth grade class because his mom pushed him to read and write more, and this quest for knowledge lit a flame under Carson.

He went from disengaged at school to earning a scholarship at Yale. Carson then went on to practice neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins where he became the well-known surgeon we all know today. Without his mother pushing him to excel, it’s safe to say many people would not have benefited from his skill and society would be much worse off.

Shaquille O’Neil

Shaquille “Shaq” O’neil also had a rough childhood. His biological father suffered from drug addiction and was imprisoned when he was an infant. He was raised by his stepfather.

Shaq claims to have been bullied when he was growing up. He said, “I’m not a kid that was a valedictorian. I’m not the kid that was the smartest. I was the kid who had to wear the same pair of jeans three times in a week, had raggedy sneakers, got picked on and had to fight, and got bullied.”

Despite this, Shaq grew physically and mentally to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Although Shaq left LSU to enter the NBA and ultimately win four NBA championships, he returned to LSU to finish his undergraduate degree, later obtained his MBA, and afterwards, obtained his Ed.D in Human Resource Development. He’s a testament to the fact that being gifted in sports does not exclude one from being educated.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a famous classical liberal economist, so it’s not surprising that his upbringing was unconventional.

Sowell’s father died shortly before he was born, and his mother died several years later. They grew up in a very impoverished home in North Carolina without electricity.

Sowell was the first in his family to be educated past the sixth grade level, but he was unable to finish high school due to family dilemmas and financial hardships. Consequently, the Sowell’s moved up to New York for more opportunity and potential for upward mobility.

In college, Sowell was an avowed Marxist and even wrote his thesis on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. He’s now one of the most famous economists and authors in the classical liberal tradition, known for his clear and poignant writing style. More recently, Sowell has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Helen Keller

Everyone and their mother knows about Helen Keller, but it is a truly inspiring story when one stops to think about how difficult it is to overcome a physical adversity, let alone being deaf and blind at the same time.

Many would have taken this terrible hand and used it as a justified reason to minimally exist, but this was not the way stubborn Keller wanted to live her life.

Through the help of many individuals, Helen learned to write and speak, authoring books and going on speaking tours across the world. She met presidents and prominent celebrities.

Her resilience and passion for learning led her to defy seemingly impossible physical limitations to become one of the most famous icons for those with physical disabilities.


There will always be excuses not to aim high and achieve the best life that leads to human flourishing. One common thread throughout these stories is each of their individual perseverance and grit, and not accepting anything less than maximum potential — a sense of magnanimity.

Students in schools need to hear these types of stories to combat the growing trend of psychological victimhood and dependency, artificial barriers propped up in the minds of kids. These bad ideas do not lead to human flourishing, so stories like these can plant more seeds in the minds of students to excel behind the veil of difficulty.