It was the early 70s, and things were looking bad for Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone was broke, out of work, and struggling. To make ends meet, he stole his wife’s jewelry and sold it. He soon found himself sleeping at the bus terminal in New York City for three weeks.
The worst was yet to happen.
Stallone realized he didn’t have enough money to feed his dog. Out of desperation, he took his beloved dog to the local liquor store and sold it to a stranger for 25 dollars. He walked away, crying.
How did things get so low?
For as long as Sylvester Stallone could remember, he had always wanted to be a movie star. Not an actor, not a screenwriter, not a producer. A star. However, the odds were stacked against him.
Due to complications at birth, the obstetricians had to use forceps on him, which accidentally severed a nerve and caused paralysis in Stallone’s lower left side of his face. This accident has caused Stallone to have a snarling expression and slurred speech.
To agents, these factors made Stallone a bad bet for casting. No matter how many times he auditioned, he was knocked down. In fact, he was rejected over a thousand times.
He later got a few minor roles here and there, playing a thug or an extra. Yet these weren’t enough to pay the bills. He had to start selling his personal possessions and those of his wife’s. Stallone hit rock bottom when he was forced to sell his dog.
An Inspirational Event
Two couple weeks later, he watched the fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Everybody was betting on Ali. Wepner, though, wouldn’t give up.
Throughout the match, Wepner kept getting back up and even managed to knock Ali down in one of the rounds. Although Ali finally won the fight in round fifteen, Stallone was inspired enough to try something new: he would write his own script.
For three days, Stallone didn’t sleep. He wrote for 20 straight hours until he finished the script for Rocky. The next step was to sell the script.
Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. Agents described the script as predictable, boring, unoriginal. But finally, someone did want his script. They offered him $125,000.
Accepting that money would solve his financial woes, but there was just one issue: Stallone wouldn’t get to play Rocky. They wanted the script, but not him. The studio wanted someone bankable, a “real star”.
Stallone, however, wanted to star in the movie. So he walked away.
A few weeks later, the studio called him back. This time, they offered him $250,000 under the same conditions.
He said no. They tried again, upping the amount to $325,000.
Surely he would accept this time? But Stallone declined once again. As long as he wasn’t the star, he would not accept the money.
Finally, the studio gave in. They would let the man star in his movie, but only pay $35,000 for the script. Stallone accepted.
Rocky was released in 1976. It went on to gross over $200 million and won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Film Editing. Stallone himself was nominated for Best Actor.
After selling the script, the first thing Stallone did was return to the liquor store to wait for the man who bought his dog. After waiting for three days, the man showed up, dog in tow. Stallone begged for his dog back.
He offered $500, then $1,000, which the man refused both times.
Stallone tried several more times to get his dog back. Finally, he made an offer that the stranger couldn’t turn down: $15,000 and a part in the next Rocky movie. The man accepted.
How to Persist in the Face of Hardship
The most common takeaway from this story is: never give up.
Sylvester Stallone went through homelessness, countless rejections, and the loss of his dog. In the face of hardship, he persisted and became a star.
While that is true, that’s not the end of it. After all, simple persistence alone doesn’t guarantee success. Here are a few takeaways you can use from the story:
1. When something isn’t working, use adaptive strategies
There’s a common saying that goes like this: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Persistence is an admirable quality. There are often times when we have to try something repeatedly before we get where we want to be. However, there’s more to success than simply persevering.
If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you shouldn’t be surprised that you get the same results. You can try doing the same strategy more than once, but if you aren’t seeing results after numerous times, it may be time to reconsider what you’re doing.
When Sylvester Stallone auditioned for movie roles, he was rejected over a thousand times. So, he revised. Instead of auditioning for roles that others created, he decided to create his own role to star in.
It pays to be persistent. But it also pays to be willing to adapt to circumstances. Instead of hitting a brick wall over and over, build a ladder.
2. Dire circumstances are the ultimate motivator
Often, you hear stories about people who reach their lowest point with nowhere to go. Yet somehow, they manage to fight their way up and excel, in spite of it all.
The person who was laid off from their job and decided to try something new. The person who was turned down after numerous interviews, but eventually went on to innovate something of their own.
These stories make it seem as though failure impedes success, when it’s actually the opposite. Hitting rock bottom can in fact be the catalyst to doing something great.
People told Stallone to give up. They told him to find something stable to pay the bills. But he knew that once he fell into a comfortable pace, it would take away his desire to do what he always wanted to do.
When you’re hungry, you do whatever it takes.
3. Long-term gains can involve incurring short-term losses
For Stallone, it must have been incredibly tempting to accept $325,000 for his script. He had never seen such a large sum of money in his life. Prior to that, he was homeless, had to sell his possessions, and even sold his dog.
And yet, he refused. He took the much smaller sum of $35,000 in return for the opportunity to play the lead role. That one decision ended up paving the road to being a star and earning much more in the long run.
Being rich or poor isn’t simply about the balance in your bank account. It’s about the mindset you carry in your everyday life.
A person born with everything might have a poor mindset, while a poor person down on their luck can have a rich mindset.
A person with a rich mindset understands that most ventures do not have immediate gains. Many things with large rewards do not have a defined path. There’s no single method to reaching success.
A person with a poor mindset, however, will take things at face value. When presented with a choice of a small reward today or a much greater reward down the road, the person will choose the former. If there’s no immediate gain, there’s no point.
Regardless of how much you have right now, developing the right mindset pays off in the long run.
Adapt Continuously to Survive
It’s interesting how we call someone we consider successful as having “made it”. It insinuates that the person has reached an end point. They’ve reached the final destination that everybody else seeks.
But there is no end point. Our lives are continually shaped by our ever-changing environment and the impact of our decisions.
After Sylvester Stallone’s success with the Rocky series, he starred in more hits, including the Rambo series and other action movies. Then, he starred in several flops for years afterward. Was his career on the down and out?
Following his flops, Stallone took a three-year hiatus from acting. Then he made his comeback in the sixth installment of the Rocky series.
When you consider that ups and downs are inevitable, it makes sense to take a long term view. That way, you have both a peace of mind and the ability to make clearer decisions.
Rocky – The first of eight films in the series, this film tells the story of a small-time boxer who gets the chance to fight in the world heavyweight championship.
First Blood – The first installment in the Rambo series, this film is about a traumatized Vietnam war veteran who must rely on his combat skills against the law enforcement in the small town of Hope, Washington.