There are many paths to success, and some are more straightforward than others. To quote the great Bard of Avon, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Let’s focus on the latter two paths, shall we?

Despite the circumstance of one’s birth, it’s possible to overcome obstacles and reach heights one never thought imaginable. Even born into depths of poverty, a person can accumulate immense wealth. Abandoned and lonely, someone can find community. From anonymity, one can achieve fame and notoriety. No matter what hand life has dealt you, you have the power to change your fate and claim the life you desire through hard work, talent, intellect and savvy.

Gathered here are six stories, some true and others fictional, that exemplify the idea that even the humblest beginnings and the most terrible of circumstances cannot prevent a person from achieving success.

The Queen’s Gambit
by Walter Tevis

Orphaned at the young age of eight, Beth Harmon is sent to live in a strict orphanage. If the rules weren’t enough to make life difficult in this new home, her lack of friends certainly doesn’t make the situation any better. The only thing Beth has to keep her anxiety at bay are the green pills the children are all given each day alongside their vitamins. Things start to change, however, after she encounters a janitor playing chess. He teaches her the game, and they find she’s rather good at it. She quickly hones her skills, taking on the local high school chess club and winning local tournaments, and by the age of 16, she’s competing for the U.S. Open championship. Still, despite her overwhelming success, Beth has an inclination toward self-destruction.

For anyone who has already watched Netflix’s limited series by the same name, you’ll find that it stayed pretty true to Tevis’ book. As a rule, though, the book is better … even if the show is spectacular.

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Coal Miner’s Daughter
by Loretta Lynn

Nashville legend Loretta Lynn recounts her incredible journey from a life of poverty to a queen of country music. Born into a poor family in the mountains of Kentucky, she became a wife at the young age of 13 and a mother not long after that. Ten years into their marriage, her husband bought her a guitar as an anniversary present, which she taught herself to play. Before long, the twenty-something Lynn was writing songs and singing in front of small audiences. Through her years of hard work, talent and true grit, she’s able to make it to Nashville and secures her place in history at the top of the male-dominated country music industry.

The first woman to receive both a gold record in country music and a CMA for Entertainer of the Year, her memoir walks readers through her highs and lows on the road to success and stardom. Country music lover or not, Coal Miner’s Daughter is an unforgettable story of a remarkable woman.

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by Philip Warren

1378, Poland. Irina Kwasniewska, a farmer’s daughter and servant girl to a wealthy merchant family, has been cast out by her family after they learn she’s pregnant by her benefactor’s son. She turns to her employers, hoping her news will be better received, only to find them dead — killed because of their Jewish faith. Utterly alone, facing both destitution and an advancing tide of plague, Irina must fend for herself and her unborn child. In her late employer’s manor, she manages to collect enough clothing and coin, with a servant to boot, to aid her in impersonating a noblewoman.

As Lady Irina of Gniezno, a bereaved widow, she seeks safe passage out of her hometown of Poznan, and armed with this new identity, she endeavors to free herself from her past. Traveling from Poland through Germany, she arrives in Paris and learns about God in addition to politics and strategy along the way. She makes powerful friends amongst nobility and royalty, but should her secret fall into the wrong hands, it could be her undoing. Read our review here.

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On the Road Less Traveled
by Ed Hajim

At the age of three, Ed Hajim was kidnapped by his father, driven cross-country, and told that his mother was dead. He was then abandoned and moved from one crowded orphanage to an unfamiliar foster home. Despite everything, Hajim manages not only to survive but to flourish. Through grit and determination, he is able to achieve success in the corporate world, reaching the executive ranks and eventually becoming a chairman and CEO living the American dream.

His memoir is more than just another rags-to-riches tale. It’s the culmination of several threads: the tale of overcoming the rough hand dealt to him in childhood and his steep climb up the corporate ladder, but it’s also a study in the drive, principles, philosophy and character of a man chasing after the personal and professional life he desires while offering a roadmap for those with similar ambitions. The story itself is, without question, impressive, and the message Hajim leaves his reader is one of hope and inspiration. Read our review here.

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The Good Earth
by Pearl S. Buck

At the turn of the twentieth century, a poor young farmer in rural China named Wang Lung can only afford to marry a slave girl, O-lan, who works for the wealthy Hwang family. Although she’s not the most attractive bride, she’s a hard worker. Together they produce a bountiful harvest, allowing them to purchase land one plot at a time from the Hwangs, whose decadent lifestyle has overextended their means. After several good years, hard times find Wang Lung’s own family. In the face of famine, they are left with little money once again. So, they leave and travel to the city, hoping to keep everyone fed and earn enough to return to their land and begin anew. Then, by means not so honest, Wang Lung helps his family turn their lives around and achieve immense wealth. This change in fortune, however, will alter the family for better … and for worse.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Good Earth follows one family through a rapidly changing Chinese landscape as they experience the terrors, passions, ambitions and rewards of life.

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Sarana and the Dark King
by Ivy Keating

In the kingdom of Bounten, the queen gives birth to a girl with white hair and pale blue eyes. King Edmund VI, known as the Dark King, is holding onto his empire by a thread, and the birth of such a child would weaken his power even more. He is left alone with the infant for only a few minutes, but when the queen’s midwife returns the child is dead. Was it an accident or murder? Edmund orders the immediate cremation of the child’s body, but Meriden, the midwife, discovers that the child is still alive. Risking everything, Meriden rescues the child, whom she names Sarana, and returns with her to the humble farmhouse where she lives with her sister and husband in a neighboring kingdom.

As the years progress, Edmund, armed with a mystical wolf-like creature known as a Valomere, continues his fearsome rule. Only one thing can stop his reign of terror — a commoner with a secret past and a powerful Valomere of her own. Read our review here.

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