“We are all worms, but I intend to be a glowworm.”
The pages of history are filled with people who achieved greatness by prevailing over disadvantage and deformity. In the now familiar stories, stutterers became great orators, cripples became mighty athletes, men born to squalor ascended to great wealth, and women without education served mankind with genius. Touching and inspiring, these legends are retold whenever the fires of determination require stoking. In each of these stories, though, a critical decision had to be made: men can change their circumstances. Biology and sociology need not be destiny. Through will, concentration, sacrifice, and patience, adversity can be mastered. In fact, so many esteemed men and women have achieved their success by conquering obstacles that one wonders if real greatness is possible apart from staggering difficulties. The lesson of history seems clear—character hewn through struggle is the price of true greatness.
If this is true, then the magnificence of Churchill is easily explained. So numerous and crushing were his early difficulties, so understandable his opportunities for failure, that the honor he commands is only magnified when men learn of his trials. He was born a small, sickly child with a maddening lisp. Physically weak and accident prone, he was a favorite target of his schoolmates, so he coped by insulating himself in a solitary world of fantasy. The difficulty of these years coupled with his own rebelliousness robbed him of the education he should have had and left him academically far behind his peers. This marked him with an abiding sense of intellectual inferiority. His mother worried that he would never rise above mediocrity and his father never stopped talking about his own bitter disappointment over his disturbing son.
Lord Randolph’s venom nearly cursed Winston with self-hatred and failure. A crumbling political career and eroding sanity left him a broken, bitter man and Winston became the object of his poison. Even late in life, Winston remembered clearly the angry darts that once pierced his soul: “Bottom of the school! Never passed any examination, except into the cavalry. Wrote me stilted letters. I could not see how you would make your living on the little I could leave you and Jack, and that only after your mother. I once thought of the bar for you, but you were not clever enough.” Typically, when Winston’s first book met with wide acclaim, his father’s disapproval “destroyed all the pleasure that I had hoped to get from the book,” leaving only “shame that such an impertinence should be presented to the public.”
Lord Randolph concluded, “You will be a wastrel” of “slovenly, shiftless habits.” But Winston had two qualities that saved him from this fate and set him on a road of ambitious self-improvement. First, he was brutally honest in assessing his own weaknesses. He knew himself well and told his mother, for example, “Being in many ways a coward—and particularly at school—there is no ambition I cherish so keenly as to gain a reputation for personal courage.” Repeatedly, in Churchill’s writings and public pronouncements, one finds a rare humility and truthfulness in regard to his own characteristics, an almost jovial self-criticism. It is endearing, but more importantly it moved him to strive for change. The second quality that saved Winston from his father’s evil script was an astounding ability to exert himself against his own nature, to force himself to go beyond what by all accounts he was destined to be.
This volcanic determination, this almost brutal self-command, is the engine of Churchill’s greatness. Though his body-type and personality inherently gravitated toward the comfortable and unchallenging, some force within him—perhaps his overwhelming sense of destiny—enabled him to drive his whole being against nature to become the man he wanted to be. True, he lived in the Victorian era, when the ideal of mastering one’s fate, the images of the rags to riches story, and the nearly patriotic call to self-improvement together formed a cult of achievement. But there was still something more in Churchill, something titanic, that moved him to attack obstacles with a focus borne of desperation and ambition. One historian has described it well: “Acutely aware of his deficiencies, he started to re-create himself in preparation for the life he wanted. His determination was worthy of the young Napoleon himself.”
He saw that the public man he intended to be could never succeed without skill as an orator. So, he rehearsed tirelessly, and eventually melded his lisp, his stage-fright, his incredible memory, and his passion for the English language into a potent weapon. In like manner, he found himself feeling quite inferior to his university-trained fellow Army officers. It would not do. Instantly, the torrid afternoons of the Indian hot season were transformed into five hours of intense reading and research. Through this Churchill emerged as a learned man. Similarly, whenever he was in battle, though by nature a safety-seeking coward, Winston thrust himself into the thickest fighting, often placing himself in such peril that other soldiers pleaded with him to find cover. He was decorated for his bravery, but his greatest reward was unseen, for secretly he new he had driven himself against his grain to be a soldier worthy of his vision.
Other weakness and deficiencies were also conquered, but it almost does not matter which ones they were. Having declared war on anything in him that resisted his vision, he knew his drive could overcome even his own personality and biology. In recent decades, many have spoken of Churchill’s “indomitable will,” but this force was first summoned in the greatest of all his battles—the battle for mastery over himself.
Taken from “The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill: Hero in a Time of Crisis” by Stephen Mansfield.