Everyone loves an underdog, right? These are the people who manage to make something out of nothing by transforming themselves, and the world, along the way. From 10th century Japanese courtesans to 20th century chess sensations, it’s the underdogs and their uncompromising internal will that we remember in the history books, not the people who gave up or left the work to someone else. With all of history to choose from, we had some trouble coming up with our favorites while compiling this list; delve into the comments to tell us about your favorite underdog! Author: s.e. smith
10. JK ROWLING
In 1995, J.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother writing in coffeehouses because pushing her daughter around town in a pram was the only way to get her to sleep. 13 publishing houses later, she had a publishing contract for what would turn into an international sensation. When the Harry Potter phenomenon was born, even Rowling didn’t know how big it would get, or that she’d become one of the wealthiest women in the world as a result of a story about a boy who overcame some tremendous odds to become the most famous wizard of all time. Rowling refused to let go of her publishing dream even when the times were tough, and she’s enjoying a pretty sweet payoff!
9. BOBBY FISCHER
Most 12-year-old boys are busy thinking up new ways to harass 12-year-old girls, but not Bobby Fischer in 1955, when he joined the Manhattan Chess Club. A year later, he was beating the pants off Donald Byrne in what came to be known as the “Game of the Century,” and he kept blazing a trail through the chess community. By 1972, he had the attention of the whole world when he played against Boris Spassky in Iceland for the world championship. In a match that mirrored the tense game of real-life chess being played between US and Russia at the time, Bobby Fischer played out his own Cold War for the coveted title and catapulted himself into international stardom.
7. JOAN OF ARC
What’s a devout French girl to do when she’s seeing visions in 1429? If you’re Joan of Arc, the obvious answer is “become a military leader.” She may have come from peasant roots, but she earned the respect of jaded generals when she led French forces to a series of decisive victories against the English, putting Charles VII back on the throne. This bold campaigner put the French on the offensive, taking the battle directly to the English. Her strategizing turned out to be a little too good; after being captured on the field of battle, she was tried for heresy and burned at the stake by her rivals. She got her own in 1920 when she was canonized as a saint, though!
8. ERIN BROCKOVICH
Erin Brockovich was just a legal clerk when she went head to head with Pacific Gas and Electric over pollution in Southern California. It was a classic David and Goliath battle, and Brockovich came out on top to the tune of a record-setting $333 million settlement. Not content to stop there, Brockovich went on the offensive throughout the United States, ferreting out environmental offenders and bringing them to justice. She became a household name in 2000 when her career became the subject of a feature film with Julia Roberts in the starring role, but she certainly didn’t need Hollywood to turn her into a star.
6. GABBY DOUGLAS
While the media had their eyes on highly-ranked gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney in the 2012 London Olympics, Gabby Douglas came up from the rear to lead Team USA to gold, and followed it up with individual all-round gold. In the process, she ignored comments about her hair, her family, and her commitment to the sport, focusing on that ultimate golden goal. Making history was no mean feat for this Black female gymnast, who struggled with the cost and training required to get to the Olympics. Her parents gave it their all to help Gabby get there, but in the end, it was her inner power that took her to the podium.
5. NELSON MANDELA
One of the most famous Nobel laureates in the world almost didn’t make it to Stockholm; he was the first in his family to go to school, spent 27 years in prison, and had to take down apartheid in South Africa before he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Nelson Mandela was born into a racially divided South Africa and knew that the best way to change the system is to be the change. When nonviolent campaigning didn’t work, he turned to carefully strategized military operations, and probably never dreamed that someday he’d be South Africa’s first truly democratically elected elected President.
4. MURASAKI SHIKIBU
By the time Murasaki Shikibu was born, her family had lost power among the ranks of the Heian aristocracy of 10th century Japan. She might have lived out her life married early and far from court, but instead she became one of the most celebrated writers of all time, even though her contemporaries thought women were less capable than men when it came to intellectual tasks. She most certainly showed them! The Pillow Book of Lady Murasaki and The Tale of Genji continue to be widely read and discussed 1,000 years later.
3. AURORA GUERRERO
The best thing an underdog can do is pass it on, and that’s what this Xicana filmmaker did when she entered production on Mosquita y Mari, the film that almost wasn’t. Guerrero drew upon her own life to tell this story of young love, but she didn’t have the backing and the funding that other filmmakers did. It took her five years of struggling to get the movie off its feet, and when she did, she turned to the people of color living and working in her shooting site, Huntington Beach, to form her crew. She inspired a new generation of filmmakers, and took her dream all the way to Sundance.
2. FRIDA KAHLO
Growing up in early 20th century Mexico was tough. Frida Kahlo was struck by polio at age six and a car accident in her teens, leaving her with lifelong disabilities that included chronic pain and the need for multiple surgeries. With beginnings like that, any young woman would have struggled, but she found the strength within herself to pursue her art, becoming one of the most noted surrealist painters of the 20th century. Today her work is everywhere from postcards to national museums, conveying the spirit of an era as well as the bold vision of Frida herself.
1. WARREN BUFFETT
When you think of underdogs, this multimillionaire might not immediately come to mind, but Warren Buffet was an entrepreneur from the ground up and he worked hard to get where he ended up. As a kid, he worked paper routes, sold magazines door-to-door, and reported for duty in his grandfather’s grocery store to earn money. No surprise that he became a millionaire by age 32 and ended up heading one of the most powerful investment firms in the world. Buffet didn’t stop there; he’s paid it forward with promotion of progressive social policy, including the so-called “Buffet Rule,” a tax proposal for his fellow millionaires.