Profiles in Perseverance

What do Leon Fleisher and J.K. Rowling have in common? Perseverance. A persistent nature may lead you to greatness.

By Carlin Flora, published November 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Barbara Corcoran: Cornering creativity

"My entire career has been one long attempt to prove to the world once and for all that I am not stupid," says Barbara Corcoran, who turned a $1,000 loan into an eponymous real-estate empire she sold 25 years later (in 2001) for $70 million. "As pleased as I am for my success in the moment, I'm still thinking I've got to prove something." Her childhood home was happy, if chaotic—10 children sharing two bedrooms—but school was a disaster. Dyslexic, Corcoran couldn't read until seventh grade. "I don't think you ever heal the wounds of your deficits as a kid," she confides—then swiftly adds: "But it's been my greatest advantage."

Real estate, especially in New York, is a volatile business; Corcoran has repeatedly pulled off creative schemes in desperate moments. Two years after the stock market crash of 1987, she sat writing a good-bye speech to her employees. "I owed 300-some-odd thousand dollars. I was in such bad shape," she recalls, "and I felt ashamed." Then she remembered one particular trip to her grandfather's house in New Jersey. Corcoran and her siblings watched excitedly as his neighbor, whom they called the "Chicken Lady," sold Jack Russell puppies to a clamoring crowd of city slickers. Corcoran's mother told her brood, "You know, the Chicken Lady was smart enough to invite all those people at the same time. When there's four puppies and 10 buyers, every one's the pick of the litter!"

Corcoran seized on the lesson. She took 88 apartments from seven buildings, all of different sizes and in varying condition, added up the net value, divided it by 88 and priced the places equally—and ran an ad heralding the one-time opportunity. Hundreds formed a frenzied line to see the apartments, convinced each one was a gem, just like the puppies. She netted over $1 million in one weekend. "I was able to open up two more offices in the depths of the recession. The worst hours became the best hours, simply because of persistence."

Leon Fleisher: A "comeback" at 76

Leon Fleisher considered himself incredibly lucky. He happened to be prodigiously talented at the one thing his mother pushed him to pursue since he was 4 years old—playing the piano. By 1965, Fleisher, at 35, was traveling the world, recording and performing with its top orchestras. But that year, two of the fingers on his right hand suddenly started curling involuntarily into his palm. Within months the neurological disorder focal dystonia took full hold, leaving his hand permanently clenched and unusable. Fleisher's career, for which he was perfectly groomed, was over.

"The two years after the onset of dystonia were a period of extraordinary depression and despair," Fleisher recalls. But one morning, a stark realization rose through the gloom: His life's passion was not merely piano playing but music. He could still have a life in music if he committed himself to it in new ways. "The artistic satisfactions that I experienced in other manifestations of music—as a conductor of orchestras, as a teacher who had become far more precise and specific—were so great that I'm not sure that I would give those up, just to have been able to continue to play two-handed piano."

Yet Fleisher never stopped searching for a cure. "I'm not quite sure whether it was perseverance, or I'm an obsessive-compulsive or just purely stubborn." He tried remedies ranging from the pharmaceutical (the anti-Parkinson drug L-dopa) to the sensual (aromatherapy). He underwent a physical therapy called Rolfing, which increased muscle pliability. After, of all things, Botox shots in his hands, Fleisher was finally able to play normally again. In September 2004, he released Two Hands, a critically acclaimed "comeback" album that showcases the unique sensibility il Maestro developed during those years of doggedly working around his disability—sweet testimony to a man making his own "luck."

J.K. Rowling: A wizard of odds

If you're barely able to put food on the table, pursuing an artistic passion is recklessly indulgent, right? And taking on a complex project is the last thing you should consider while slogging through difficult times. But that is exactly what writer J.K. Rowling did during the most onerous chapter of her life. As a newly single mother struggling to support her daughter and new to Edinburgh after the breakup of her marriage to a Portuguese journalist, Rowling committed herself to her dream of becoming a published novelist. "I was very low, and I had to achieve something. Without the challenge, I would have gone stark raving mad."

It was 1994, and when baby Jessica would fall asleep, Rowling would stroll her to the nearest cafe and seize the moments of peace to furiously scribble out tales of Harry Potter, boy-wizard. The rest is literary history. As she writes the seventh and final installment of Harry's saga, Rowling, who once received welfare payments, is now estimated to be richer than the Queen of England.

Marla Runyan: Late start, fast finish

Marla Runyan has a habit of dashing blindly down life's most challenging paths—literally. A top middle-distance runner, Runyan, who is legally blind, has competed on two Olympic teams and was the first American woman over the finish line in the 2002 New York City Marathon.

Runyan, 36, displayed the first symptoms of retina-damaging Stargardt's disease when she was 8. As her eyesight degenerated, tenacity took hold. "What I remember feeling is that the expectation level around me just dropped," Runyan says. "I remember my mom telling me what doctors thought I would be able to do. It made me really angry, because they didn't think I was going to do anything. I became very set on proving them wrong."

In high school, Runyan fell in love with distance running, with its special blend of team camaraderie and individual triumph. But she was no track superstar. She didn't even qualify for a sports scholarship and though she made the college team, she spent most of her time on the bench. Only after graduate school (for education of the deaf) did Runyan begin training in earnest, getting a late start on the physical setbacks and the personal sacrifices required of elite athletes. But she was well used to taking the hard road. In the summer of '98 she suffered six injuries in a row. "I was 29 years old, I had no coach. I had a part-time job that paid nothing. I pretty much didn't know if I'd ever run again. But I didn't pack my bags and go home to California. I didn't just flee."

Joe Tom Easley: An aye for an eye

In March of 2004, at least 1 million New York Times readers saw a harrowing front-page photo of 13-year-old Ayad al-Sirowiy, an Iraqi child whose face was burned and shredded by an American cluster bomb. Joe Tom Easley, retired law lecturer and long-time gay rights activist, was one of them.

"Ayad's picture was the kind of thing that would stop you dead in your tracks," says Easley. "He was so small, his right eye was put out and his face was terrifically discolored by the explosion. He looked very sad." As he drank his coffee that morning, Easley's sense of moral duty swung into gear, until it locked in a conviction that he had to find the boy and bring him to the U.S. for medical treatment.

That passion enabled Easley to withstand a daunting list of human, logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to helping Ayad. Professional negotiation skills saw him through cold calls to high offices where he enlisted others in his cause. Yet Easley insists that nothing he did was rocket science. After a nine-month tangle with the Department of Homeland Security, the application to bring Ayad and his father to the U.S. was rejected. Furious but determined, Easley called the number at the bottom of the rejection notice and just happened to reach a senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense. Visas were soon approved. Meanwhile in Iraq, his liaisons to Ayad's family were killed by a car bomb. He dug up the e-mail of a major with whom he had corresponded and put him on the case. "I told him, 'You're it.'"

Sixteen months after his photo appeared, Ayad not only underwent surgery at a top American hospital, his father was at his side through the ordeal. So were round-the-clock volunteer Arabic interpreters that Easley and his spouse had recruited. "The main thing I learned," says Easley, "is that you must never take 'no' for an answer." Asked why he poured his time and resources into Ayad's cause when so many other innocent Iraqis have been injured, he says: "I don't know about other injured children but I do know about Ayad."