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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Grobman

Three Inspiring Memoirs About Achieving Success Despite All Odds

Educated, Uncensored, Hillbilly Elegy, Memoirs

We tend to seek wisdom from the stories of older people, oftentimes those who’ve reached the peaks of their careers - figures like Einstein, Thatcher, Jobs. I'd like to share with you instead three memoirs of young and extraordinary individuals, who have overcome extreme circumstances and have a lot to teach us about resilience, courage, and access to opportunities. But first, let’s start with a quiz: what do a Cambridge PhD, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal columnist and a Yale graduate venture capitalist have in common? Answer: They are all intelligent people who were unlucky to be born in very dysfunctional families with issues like parental mental illness and drug abuse, violence, and poverty and ended up thriving despite all odds. In Educated, Tara Westover tells an incredible story about growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in the Idaho mountains. Her family didn’t believe in formal schooling, birth certificates, or traditional medicine. Being homeschooled, she had gotten only about a second-grade level education. Her father had a junkyard and he and her six siblings would often get injured. The family mistrusted doctors and would take care of severe injuries and burns with homemade solutions. Tara’s reality would turn more and more abusive as her father’s fundamentalism worsened and one of her brothers became very controlling and violent with her. With the help of an older brother who had left, she learns about the possibility of college and eventually gets into Brigham Young University and leaves home. She then has to learn how to live in a world completely foreign to her while managing the relationships back home. Educated is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Zachary Wood was born on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. In Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America he tells about his experience of taking the bus across DC to his elite and mostly white, school. He constantly has to code switch to fit in among his wealthy classmates and the tough hood crowds. At home, Zach is walking on eggshells because his mother is bipolar and explosive. On the other hand, she has a good education and pushes him constantly to study and excel and prove himself to his classmates. Zach becomes obsessed with excellence, at the expense of his own health sometimes (this is a theme in the other two books as well). He ends up going to an elite college (after overcoming many hurdles) where he starts bringing controversial speakers to campus (despite much backlash) in order to stimulate political debate. J.D.Vance’s, Hillbilly Elegy is a very relevant account for trying to understand the poor white working class in Middle America. He details the culture and family relations in the depressed rust belt. His mother is a drug addict who constantly changes husbands so he spends most of his time with his grandparents who had had a rough life themselves. J.D. details the despair of his community and the destructive paths many of them take while blaming others for their misfortunes. Thanks to the constant support of his fierce grandmother, J.D. avoids the destiny of many of his classmates, joins the Marines and graduates from college. He is later admitted to Yale Law School, where although he looks like most of his classmates, he is a complete foreigner to their social class norms. He constantly compares and contrasts those two parallel realities and contemplates the meaning of the American dream. There are many interesting insights and numerous life lessons in all three books but here are a few I took with me:

  1. We’re all products of our choices, but we’re also products of the circumstances we were born into and the families we were raised in

  2. Nobody gets there on his or her own. Guides and role models make a huge difference. For wealthy and middle-class individuals, those resources are readily available. For the poor, they are almost little miracles In Tara's case, it was her older brother who gave her books, a pastor at her university who helped her pay her rent, and later college professors who believed in her. In Zach’s, a teacher helped him get out of his abusive home, his father took custody and worked double shifts to afford his private school and later literary mentors inspired him and helped him think bigger. For JD, his loving grandparents offered him the stability of their home, the marines training gave him life skills and later his mentor and girlfriend helped him navigate social norms around Yale and the elite law careers

  3. We have the power to open doors to someone who would have never thought they could be part of our world

What about you, have you been inspired by any memoirs recently?

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