How Ellen Degeneres Never Gave Up In Her Darkest Years and It Payed Off

How Ellen Degeneres Never Gave Up In Her Darkest Years and It Payed Off

I think this is a story for the ages. For the handful of people who I can reach with my influence and enjoy what I write, I hope to share this story with you to inspire you and motivate you to hang in there and achieve the success you want. It’s a pretty short story. Ellen Degeneres had some dark years throughout her life. Before she even got into comedy, at the age of 19, her girlfriend died in a car crash. She was actually drove past the accident not knowing it was her and was very distraught when she found out. So there she was in a very crappy apartment with little money and no college degree, sad over her friend’s death. Right there and then, she decided to write herself a dialogue with God asking him why all of this had happened to her. After writing it, she decided to get on Johnny Carson, who was the king of talk show hosts at the time, as the first women on there. A few years later she achieved that dream. (She doesn’t elaborate about this in her commencement speech where she talks about this story but I would love to hear how on earth she thought she could achieve this goal and how she went about achieving it. I guess she started thinking about stand-up from that moment on and the dialogue she wrote had humor in it.) Before and during this time, she went through a whole host of jobs including waitress, oyster shucker, vacuum cleaner salesman, house painter, hostess, bartender, and at JC Penny (some of these I can relate to for sure).



The darkest moments of her life, one could argue, were the three years after she decided to come out gay publicly as a person and as her character on her sitcom. As she explains in her 2009 commencement speech, she did it not to make a political statement, but to free herself of the burden of shame and hiding that she could no longer stand. She knew she might lose her job and she did. No one wanted to employ her for the next 3 years. And there she was, angry and sad at the world and in a bad place. And yet she kept herself from falling into a deep depression and calling it quits. She got letters from teenagers who abstained from committing suicide after seeing her come out. She knew right then and there that she had a higher purpose apart from fame or anything selfish. And then she got offered to do a talk show. Most TV stations would not take the talk show when they tried to sell it to them. But as we all know, someone thought the idea would work and the talk show aired. The rest is history.

Ellen said she would not change a thing in her past if she could. She says that it was so important for her to lose everything because it taught her what was really important which is being true to yourself. She says she will always be OK because no matter what, she knows who she is. She no longer lives in fear. She believes what she learned was very important because it taught her what real success is. She used to think it had to do with achieving fame or fortune and she emphasizes that our definition of success changes with time. If you’re a college student, your current definition of success may be to hold down 20 shots. Ellen says that the most important thing in life is to live a life of integrity and not to give into peer pressure to be a person you are not. To live as a compassionate person and contribute. Warren Buffett, a billionaire and role model for me, eerily embodies these traits as well. He is someone who embodies and lives by integrity in business in a world of all sorts unethical business practices. When asked about success, he said that he has seen a lot of wealthy people in his lifetime and he defines success as having as many people you want to love you actually love you. He knows quite a few wealthy individuals who have ceremonies and buildings named after them but not a single person actually truly loves him and that is NOT what he considers successful. I can go on and on about how Mr. Buffett is a master of living a healthy, loving, respected lifestyle but I won’t. And even he is not without haters and mistakes. For instance, he apparently spent too much time acquiring wealth when he was younger and that affected his relationship with his wife.


Ellen Degeneres is a women who could have sunk into a depression or given up completely given her circumstances in life. She did not have a fancy degree or any practical future yet she did not just give up and kill herself. She worked through it. There were moments where her future seemed bleak, where it seemed like she would never be employed, or she would not achieve much with her life. She did not give up but continued to craft her passion and skill as a comedian and it paid off. A lot of people out there may have dreams of achieving greatness with fame or fortune or success in their craft. I think when things look bleak and they give up or get depressed, their mindset is in the wrong direction. You often can forget to be thankful, appreciative, and tolerate what you have now. I can’t imagine Ellen truly that angry or depressed when she had her hostess or salesman job. She may have been confused at her direction in life or still finding out who she was, but she wasn’t constantly looking upwards and distressed she wasn’t there yet. Too many people only look up. If you travel to India or Africa and ask them, they would consider everyone living in America to be rich. Oftentimes, it is simply just a matter of what perspective you are looking from when you consider relative things like standard of living.


Don’t forget, though, it is also important to constantly work to hone a skill others say you are talented in and you are passionate about to achieve a competitive advantage in this competitive world. As Charlie Munger says, “To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want. The world is not yet a crazy enough place to reward a whole bunch of
undeserving people.”

Ellen had a long life and did a number of things before she even got her talk show. She started doing stand-up comedy at small clubs and coffee houses and over the next decade, it turned her into a well-known touring comedian. For the next several years after that, she also appeared in a number of films and TV shows, most of which you have probably never heard of but were fairly big at the time. This also included a ride at Walt Disney World’s Epcot called Ellen’s Energy Adventure, which is one of my favorite rides and if you have ever rode it, you can tell how much of a personality she had even back then despite the fashion and hairstyle being completely different. Her comedic material allowed her to have her own sitcom, which lasted a successful four years. As mentioned, she came out openly gay after the four year mark, and the show was subsequently canceled and no one wanted to touch her for three years. Then, she got another sitcom that lasted 2 years with 13 episodes (5 unaired) where her character was also gay. Then. she got her talk show, which was competing some big-hitters at the time (none of which you would now recognize except maybe Sharon Osbourne’s talk show) but she continuously got ever increasing ratings and critical praise. The rest, as you can say, is history. Her show is still going strong after running for over 11 years with almost 2000 episodes and every possible celebrity you can imagine on the show. She have evolved and transformed as a person and her talk show has also adapted over the years to get better every year. I think she even better at her job now than she was when she started it and you can just tell when you watch her how effortlessly she talks and interviews now. She has tremendous social skills if you look for it: She’s able to move conversations where she must due to time constraints and ask interesting questions that keep the interviewers engaged and wanting to respond and she adds in humor at the right moments to diffuse situations and move the conversation forward. I think her skillset is a result of her personality, her stand-up work, and her years as a talk show host.


I do think there is a survivorship bias with all these successful people like Ellen Degeneres and Warren Buffett saying in speeches to “Follow Your Passion” in that they were the people out of the possible millions who followed their passion and succeeded while the others failed and were forgotten. Unfortunately, that means that those who succeeded have their advice of following your passion amplified by media while those who didn’t fade away never to be heard from. So I think that illustrates how this topic is more nuanced and detailed than you think and requires a dose of practicality as well. I wrote in-depth articles on that you can check out here:

As you can see, Ellen achieved greatness moving through her life and learning through her struggles and pain. It is kind of weird how that works, but oftentimes the pain and dark times a person goes through in life are needed to do things like show the world it can be done or to inspire and teach others. I do think the ones who end up going through those dark times need to consider if they can keep going. Because oftentimes, if you have the fortune of living long enough, things can turn around.. the world is a huge place. And that can seem like a very far-off lovey-dovey unrealistic thing when you are at the moment of complete darkness but it can be so true if you work towards your it. You know what they say: it’s always darkest before the dawn. Also, you have to seize every moment of your life. You are not guaranteed to live for another 50 years let alone another 30 minutes. Carpe diem. The world is full of uncertain events unfortunately. You cannot depend on the fact you will not get cancer or there to be a nuclear bomb hitting your area or that you will be hit by a car (I cannot believe how many people are so lax with driving yet concerned with airplane flights and yet statistics show you are highly more likely to die from an automobile accident than from an airplane. This means be MUCH MORE careful with a car, not just to be more calm on airplanes!)

There are many successful, famous, and not-so-famous people out there who have gone through even more horrible and dark times and then have gone on to achieve great lives. If you read enough books and biographies (and Wikipedias..), I am sure they will inspire you beyond belief. I recommend you look around and find some.

As Ellen likes to say “Finally, for my conclusion to my conclusion”, I would like to end by saying that no matter what, there is always an element of luck involved and everyone successful should be appreciative of that. Ellen is homosexual and Oprah is African American. They both achieved success, like it or not, by the time period where they were born: not too early and, one could argue, not too late. Announcing publicly you are homosexual in the past lead to severe discrimination and, still in some places in the world (especially Africa), to death. Alan Turing, a British man who a recent film was based off (The Imitation Game) illustrates this by how his  life was like all the way to his death by his own hand. He was a great scientist and athlete who contributed a lot to winning the Second World War. (And the most horrible part is the film depicts him in a heterosexual romantic relationship). Being African American anytime in the past other than the recent decade lead to discrimination, segregation, racism, horrible treatment, and/or slavery. And even now, it is still like that in certain areas. To compound all of this, both of these people are women, which adds up to the fact that they would have had more discrimination, a glass ceiling, and very limited job positions had they been born anytime earlier. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In books illustrate that even in the present, the developed world is still surprisingly far from equality (but getting there) in terms of gender equality. The funny thing is, I feel like Oprah and Ellen would have had both still been pretty happy individuals just by their nature even if they had lived in earlier time periods and no one knew who they were and they died not famous. Yet I am glad they were in the right time and place and I am sure that their personal development, values, behaviors, work ethic, and everything else that they developed through their life contributed to their success. I will leave debating whether all these things they developed were due to chance or their own decision for another day (although it is a very interesting question I will probably address in the future). Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are also good examples of people who had advantages due to genetics and when they were born, especially Warren. If you have read up on him as much as I have, you will know that he was genetically born wired to allocate capital as the prodigy he was, sometimes to the point where it slightly affected things so that he was not normal. (He asked for weird Christmas presents, read every book on investing in his public library by the time he was a teenager, has a unique focus on what’s important to the point where he doesn’t remember your hair color even after many meetings, and so on… but I love him for it. That’s genetic variation and natural selection for you.)

So I hope to you take the right message from this. Do not be jealous of others for their fortunes. Be appreciative for all the things you were lucky enough to have.. a good healthy, body..arms…legs…Seriously. There is a motivational speaker without arms and legs who’s killing it in the world right now. In fact, write in the comments here what you are appreciative for NOW. (Trust me, there is science to back up that one big driver for happiness is how thankful and appreciative you are for things in your life) Work on achieving your potential. I am sure everyone reading this can do better than they’re doing right now in everything they do in life. Work on it. Come on. And live with integrity and be true to yourself.

But once again, take all my “advice” or whatever you call this with a grain of salt. Who am I but just a random dude spouting words. Good luck to you and I leave you with some valuable quotes from people I admire.

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren(Buffett) reads — at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out”.”
― Charles T. Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger

“We both (Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett) insist on a lot of time being available almost every day to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. We read and think.”
― Charles T. Munger

“Some of the most devastating things that happen to you will teach you the most.”

-Ellen Degeneres

“Life is like Mardi Gras, but instead of beads, show them your brain. And if they like what you see, you will have more beads than you know what to do with.”

-Ellen Degeneres




P.S. I want to add one last thing! I think it is quite amazing what this implies for human potential, especially now since the world has opened up and given people so many opportunities (at least in certain economies) to succeed with so many different skill-sets. What’s this all mean? It means I marvel at all the hidden potential that was never unearthed in the past. As Buffett remarked when he visited China and saw the thousands of factory workers, how many Bill Gates are in there? How about all the women, African Americans, or even Caucasian men who lived and died as ordinary workers not contributing much to society that everyone walked by or just treated as normal individuals who would have done tremendously amazing things had he been in a different situation or time period and been exposed to the right things and opportunities. I do not think our system is perfect in that we may be losing and limiting some potential by creating a much larger birth of potential, but it is probably the best at creating potential. And it is still unleashing even more potential than you can imagine every single day. And other economies out there are doing the same. As far as social media and e-sports, I am seeing it being unleashed in very unique, bizarre ways. Average teenagers that would have just gone through life fairly normally beforehand are now creating amazing content in the form of short films, entertaining videos, 6 second burst of entertainment, photos, and content that are creating hundreds of personalities and online brands that have a millions of followers – more than any company could stand to achieve or obtain themselves. That’s a lot of eyeballs. And yet I think once the rest of the world catches up, there are billions more eyeballs out there waiting. But it will be a while before we get there. (Again, I could be completely wrong)

source: Ellen’s Wikipiedia and Ellen’s 2 commencement speech videos at Tulane (2006 and 2009)

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By Will Chou

I am the the founder of this site and I am grateful you are here to be part of this awesome community. I help hard-working Asian American Millennials get rich doing work they love.

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