5 Amazing People Who Have Used Adversity to Spark Creativity

We all struggle with adversity in one way or another. That’s one of those fundamental facts that binds us all together. Why else would we resonate so deeply with stories of perseverance and victory like The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, or Slumdog Millionaire?


In their book—Wired to Create—Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire explain how adversity breeds creativity. In part, human beings have a remarkable capacity for deriving meaning from suffering.


It may be paradoxical, but it’s true. Our best creative light shines out of darkness.


Today, we want to share the stories of five individuals who’ve learned to respond creatively to adversity. The stories can seem a bit dark at times but trust us—each one ends on a positive note with valuable insight.


Each one shows how adversity helps us tap into our deep well of creativity.


Creativity Can Lead Us into and Through Adversity

Guy Laliberté is the creator of Cirque du Soleil. So far, over 90 million people have watched in wonder as the show’s performers stretch the limits of human capacity beyond imagination.


Laliberté’s lifelong passion for performance began with a childhood visit to the circus. Over the course of his life, he tried to pursue “honest” work but could never keep a job. Taking this as a sign from God, Laliberté vowed to follow his passion even if it ruined him.


Eventually, this stilt-walking, fire-breathing visionary found himself broke and homeless on the streets of Quebec City.


Laliberté’s break didn’t come until 1983 when he and a partner received a $1.5 million art grant from the Quebec government. They won the prize by walking 56 miles from Baie-Saint-Paul to Quebec City… on stilts! Clearly, they were motivated.


Creativity manifests itself uniquely in each one of us. Laliberté has a gift for designing spectacles that defy the human imagination. Your unique gift may involve writing novels, painting portraits, or creatively solving problems in your community.


Pursuing a creative calling will often cost you something. Following your passion can lead you down the occasional dark road. What we’ve learned from Guy, however, is that those dark roads inevitably open up to breathtaking vistas.


We’re sure you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil. But here’s a visual reminder of how Guy’s work has come to life. Amazing.



Adversity Can Inspire us to Creatively Shatter the Status Quo

At the age of 8, Hugh Herr climbed the 11,627 foot Mt. Temple in the Canadian Rockies. At 17, he was already one of the most famous climbers in the United States.


Herr’s march to dominance was suddenly halted when he and a fellow climber encountered a blizzard on Mt. Washington. Trapped in a ravine, Herr and his companion spent 4 days in blistering subzero temperatures.


When the two men were rescued, Herr had suffered such extensive frostbite that he would ultimately lose both of his legs. Much worse, he learned that a rescue worker had died while trying to save him. Moved by this man’s sacrifice, Herr decided to devote the rest of his life to making a positive impact in the world.


Herr now leads the way in prosthetic innovation. He does more than replace lost arms and legs. He creates prosthetics that actually work better than their organic counterparts. His own prosthetics legs have allowed him to continue climbing at higher levels than ever before.


We all experience setbacks in life. Each one gives us the opportunity to discover new ways to move forward. Like Herr, we can use the obstacles in our path to propel us to even greater heights.




Creativity Helps Us Invent New Ways to Cope with the World Around Us

Chuck Close is a world-renowned artist. As a pioneer in photorealism, he creates paintings that capture reality as vividly as any photograph. He’s particularly well known for his large-scale portraiture.


Close suffers from various neurological disorders—including a rare condition known as prosopagnosia (face blindness). He simply can’t remember faces no matter how hard he tries.


Of all the coping mechanisms Close has developed along the way, portrait painting has been the most useful. By flattening faces into paintings, he can memorize them more reliably. As a result, everyone who matters most in his life ends up in a portrait.


Creativity helps us cope with the world. It gives us ways to deal with the complex problems that confront us each day. Close found an ingenious way to use his artistic talent to address his set of challenges.


What aspects of your world are you having trouble coping with? Think deeply about the creative resources you have available to you. How can you apply them to your situation?

Chuck Close Self Portrait 1968

Chuck Close Self Portrait 1968



The Adversity of Others Inspires Our Own Creative Drive

Jeremy Cowart is an artist, photographer, and social entrepreneur. When he’s not taking photographs of superstars like Carrie Underwood, he spends his time doing ‘boring’ things like building the Purpose Hotel  hotels that let you change the world in your sleep.


Cowart found his creative calling, not in his own struggle, but in narrating the adversity of others. Through his non-profit Help Portrait, for example, he provides homeless individuals with the dignity of being seen, known, and loved. Most recently, Cowart has used his artistic resources to tell the stories of wildfire victims in Gatlinburg, TN.


In considering the struggles of people around us, there’s a deep and hidden beauty to be found there. Consider creative ways to bring it into view. What stories could you tell? What songs could you write? You have an immense store of creativity within you just waiting to be tapped.



Shared Adversity Sparks Shared Creativity

Becca Stevens is the founder and president of Thistle Farms, a social enterprise founded to help women find healing from prostitution, sex trafficking, and addiction.


Stevens began serving women in 1994 when an innocent question from her son helped her realize the unseen struggles of women in all aspects of the sex trade. Having been abused as a child, Stevens felt a deep connection with the women she served.


Before she knew it, what had begun as a residential program blossomed into a full-scale social enterprise. Employing 50 survivors domestically and over 1,500 worldwide, Thistle Farms now supplies bath & body, apparel, and jewelry items to specialty stores across the country.


Stevens looked into these women’s eyes and saw not only their struggle but her own. She knew they longed to be restored as valued members of the community. By creating a space in which they could exercise their own creativity, Stevens set them free to regain their humanity.


Adversity gives us the profound capability of empathizing with others. Empathy is a bedrock emotion that allows us to understand and connect with others in creative ways.


In that others-focused place, we’ll discover a cache of creative energy that far exceeds anything we could ever come up with on our own.




As We Wrap Up

To be sure, there are tensions in life that’ll try to hold you back. Even so, each of these stories reminds us that adversity is never ultimate. Hardship can be the crucible where we discover our truest and deepest set of creative resources.


Next time you find yourself up against the wall, don’t despair. Pause, reflect, and put your creative mind to work as you press ahead. New paths will appear in time alongside higher levels of creativity than you’ve ever dreamed.


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