For the approximately 1 percent of the world’s population who suffer from stuttering, simple social situations can be a humiliating experience. There’s a constant worry that you’ll be called on in class, the terror of public speaking and, of course, the relentless bullying that comes with being a kid with a speech impediment.
On the surface, stuttering is speech disorder caused by the involuntary repetition or prolongation of certain words and consonants, but the factors that cause stuttering range from genetics, child development, neurophysiology, and family dynamics.
Moreover, stuttering can cause severe anxiety, stress and depression in people who suffer from it. As these following industry leaders and many others have proven, however, being afflicted with a stutter needn’t hold you back from chasing your dreams. In fact, as Joe Biden once wrote, “You can beat it just like I did. When you do, you will be a stronger man for having won.”
Here are a few leaders who have overcome stuttering to become highly successful in a variety of fields.
1. Tiger Woods
The 11-time PGA Player of the Year and golf superstar was born Eldrick Tont Woods. He was groomed from an early age to play golf, and was often younger than his competition, and the only person of color on the field. He also struggled with a stutter growing up.
This past May, Woods composed a letter to a high-school aged boy who was being bullied for his stutter to the point he was contemplating suicide, writing, “I know what it’s like to be different and to sometimes not fit in.” He continued, “I also stuttered as a child and I would talk to my dog and he would sit there and listen until he fell asleep."
2. Joe Biden
Joe Biden, the 47th and current Vice President of the United States, has had quite a life: at 29, he was one of the youngest Senators of all time; a month after he was elected, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. He’s run for president twice. Soon after the first attempt, he suffered an aneurysm (which he fully recovered from). Most recently, he suffered the tragic death of his oldest son, Beau Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware,
He also had a stuttering problem until his 20s, and overcame it by reading poetry aloud in front of a mirror, to smooth out cadence and forcing himself to participate in as many public speaking events as possible.
Years ago, he met a middle school student on a class tour through DC who was struggling with his stutter, and wrote him a letter: “You can beat it just like I did. When you do, you will be a stronger man for having won.” Since then, Joe Biden has been vocal about his childhood stutter, inspiring others to follow in his footsteps.
3. Samuel L. Jackson
As a young African-American child born to a single mother in Chattanooga, Tenn., during segregation, Samuel L. Jackson has had to overcome a lot to get to where he is. As a student, he was active in the Civil Rights movement and served as an usher at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.
He was encouraged by his speech therapist to pursue acting, but to this day, he still struggles day-to-day with his stuttering. Addressing the American Institute for Stuttering gala in 2013, he said, “I was the other day on the set of Captain America, and they said 'Action!" and I said, 'G-g-g-et ...' It was a G day. So I have my days. I have G days, I have P days, I have B days, I have S days, and I'm still stuttering.”
He continued his anecdote by sharing his surefire way of get over his stutter, which is to say his favorite word. (Hint: It rhymes with “mother mucker”).
4. Rowan Atkinson
The legendary British comic actor Rowan Atkinson has never been known for being loquacious -- in his most beloved role, he was the nearly silent but no less bumbling Mr. Bean -- but it was acting that truly helped Atkinson free himself from his stutter. Bullied as a young man, the only time he didn’t stutter was on stage, where he became exceptional.
He admits that his stutter still bothers him some days, but it disappears when he’s acting as someone else, possibly inspiring him to pursue acting in the first place. Another way that he manages to cope is by integrating aspects of his stammer into his acting - for example, the over articulation of certain sounds, which helps overcome difficult consonants.
5. Richard Branson
One look at Richard Branson now and it would be hard to see the 8-year-old boy that he used to be: afflicted with a stutter and dyslexia, and unable to read. When he left high school, his headmaster told him that he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.
Luckily, he succeeded in the second, several times. Now he’s the multi-billionaire owner of Virgin Group, which is composed of over 400 companies across eight different industries. He also admits that he still struggles with his stutter, but he’s become more comfortable with time.
His advice for people who have stutters and dread public speaking? “Try to talk as you would to your best friend. Whether there are one person, ten people or 1,000 people in the room, try to relax and chat as you would in your living room.”
6. Jack Welch
One of the most noteworthy entrepreneurs in the modern age, Jack Welch started his career as a junior chemical engineer for GE in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and rose to the position of CEO. He helped increase GE’s market value from $12 billion in 1981 to $280 billion, and made 600 acquisitions while shifting into emerging markets.
After he acquired RCA, he moved into an office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. He attributes his overcoming stuttering and his small-fry stature in high school as the shortest kid in every class to the support of his mother, who told him from an early age, “It’s because you’re so smart. No one’s tongue could keep up with a brain like yours.”
A stutterer well into adulthood, Jack Welch is a pristine example of someone who would not be held back by his shortcomings.
What holds you back? Whether you stutter, procrastinate, are terrible at writing, or have something else you think will always hold you back, you can take inspiration from these successful leaders.