12 High Achievers: Advice, Quotes and How They Got to Where They are Today

No matter how hard we study and how academic we are, there are times when even the most dedicated student can start to feel stuck in a rut and lacking motivation.

In such times as these, what we need is some inspiration to remind us what we’re working towards. In this article we’re going to look at a dozen inspiring men and women and see how they got to where they are today. They were like you once: studying hard to get to a good university so that they could get the best possible start in life. And without a doubt, there were times when they struggled with essays or lacked motivation too. Look where they are now… and where you could be.

1. Rowan Atkinson

“The older you get, the more you realise how happenstance… has helped to determine your path through life.”

One of Britain’s best-loved comedy actors has a degree you might not have expected: Electrical Engineering from Newcastle University. His story illustrates the sometimes unexpected paths university can lead you down, and it’s a reminder of the fact that it may not be your degree itself that opens up the opportunities that set your life on a particular course. It wasn’t until Atkinson went to The Queen’s College, Oxford University to do his Masters, an MSc in Electrical Engineering, that he became known for his acting and comic talent; as part of the comedy group Oxford Revue he entertained audiences at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and he wrote and performed sketch shows for the Experimental Theatre Club and the Oxford University Dramatic Society. As his experience shows, you never know what future big names you’ll meet while you’re at university; for Atkinson it was screenwriter Richard Curtis and the composer Howard Goodall, both of whom he would famously work with on Blackadder. The rest, as they say, is history. How can you learn from it? Get involved in plenty of university societies and start making a name for yourself early on.

2. Baroness Susan Greenfield

“One learns from experiences, but would I have done anything differently? No, no, and no.”

Anyone who claims that science isn’t for girls should take note of Baroness Susan Greenfield’s illustrious career. The neuroscientist was the first in her family to go to university, starting out at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and completing her PhD before going on to achieve such career highlights as being the first woman to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture (eventually becoming the Institution’s director), becoming a Senior Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, and founding her own biotech company. An inspiration to aspiring female scientists of every persuasion, she also gives lectures, writes books and presents television programmes about the brain. In addition to many awards, a Life Peerage and a CBE, Baroness Greenfield has now racked up a whopping 30 honorary degrees. Don’t feel bad if you’re only on your first one: keep working hard and you too can achieve great things.

3. Sir David Attenborough

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

Sir David Attenborough’s calm, reassuring tones have been the unrivalled voice of BBC nature documentaries for 60 years, and he may not like the term, but he’s without doubt a national treasure. Having been an avid collector of fossils and other curiosities of the natural world as a child, even building up his own little museum, he read Natural Sciences at Clare College, Cambridge, specialising in zoology and geology. After university and a couple of years’ National Service in the Navy, he had a brief stint in children’s science publishing before undertaking the BBC training course that would be the start of his incredible career. Not owning a television, he’d only ever seen one television programme in his life when he joined the BBC and began a career that has seen him travel to the furthest and most extreme corners of the globe in search of natural life of every shape and size. Amazingly, Attenborough was initially discouraged from appearing on TV owing to the size of his teeth. You’d never have thought it now, and it’s a reminder that early rejections shouldn’t stand in the way of achieving your dream career.

4. Carol Vorderman

“If you’re from a poor background [as Voderman is], you have to work even harder. But that’s what makes you who you are.”
Carol famously may not have aced her Engineering degree at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (where she matriculated aged just 17), but her hard work and commitment has certainly paid dividends in her successful television career. But television wasn’t an instant calling for Carol; her first job after graduating was as a junior civil engineer at a Welsh power station, and she then became a graduate management trainee. It wasn’t until her mother spotted an advert in the newspaper that the 21-year-old Carol got her big break, utilising her Cambridge mathematics knowledge in Countdown. She’s now putting those skills to good use by training as a pilot, and she’s preparing to fly solo around the world following the route of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart. It just goes to show what you can achieve when you put your mind to it – and don’t be surprised if you too end up pursuing a career you’d never dreamed of while you were an undergraduate.

5. Richard Dawkins

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

There are few figures in the world of biology quite as controversial as Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who famously asserts that God doesn’t exist. His book The God Delusion certainly divides opinion, but he actually started out as a Christian, only being won over by evolutionary theory in his teens, deeming it both more convincing than and incompatible with religion. He went on to study zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, staying on to gain a Masters and PhD under the supervision of Nobel prize-winner Nikolaas Tinbergen. After a spell as an assistant professor at Berkeley, Dawkins took up a lectureship at Oxford, where he remains to this day. His books and television appearances have made him famous, and he was notoriously behind the Atheist bus campaign that told viewers, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, there’s no denying that Dawkins’ life has been an interesting one; one that shows those who are interested in pursuing a career in science that your undergraduate degree is only the start of the journey.

6. Nigella Lawson

“What I do is somewhat of a surprise to me. It is not a career path I consciously chose, and I would never have imagined myself in this position.”

Self-styled ‘domestic goddess’ Nigella Lawson is one of the country’s best-selling food writers, but she had a difficult educational start thanks to nine school moves between the ages of 9 and 18. Branded disruptive at school, that didn’t stop her going on to graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, with a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages. Her career began in publishing, before she became a book and then restaurant critic with The Spectator. After a stint as deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times, she fell into working as a freelance writer and published her first cookbook in 1998. She’s since sold over three million books and is now the owner of a cookware range worth £7 million – quite an achievement considering her early academic record!

7. George Alagiah

“Through my work I’ve seen the world at its worst and I often wish I could make it better.”

Sri Lankan-born BBC newsreader George Alagiah must have had a lot of work on his plate during his time reading Politics at Durham University’s Van Mildert College. On top of his studies, he somehow found time to write for and eventually edit Palatinate, the student newspaper, as well as serving in the Durham Students’ Union as a sabbatical officer. On leaving university, he worked for seven years at South Magazine before joining the BBC as a correspondent. Alagiah’s choice of degree stood him in good stead for his career in journalism, and if you aspire to a similar career, get writing for the student newspaper while you’re at university and you’ll have some valuable experience to fall back on when you’re seeking your first job.

8. Hilary Mantel

Acclaimed author Hilary Mantel is the first woman to receive the Booker Prize twice – for the first and second instalment of a trilogy covering the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell. Given that she’s best known for her historical novels, you might expect that she studied history at university. In fact she studied law, commencing her degree at the London School of Economics and transferring to and graduating from Sheffield University. Now with a long list of literary awards to her name, plus a CBE, Mantel is an inspiration to aspiring novelists everywhere.

9. Alain de Botton

“One of the best protections against disappointment is to have a lot going on.”

How many modern-day philosophers can you name? Unless you take a special interest in the subject, you’ll probably think of ancient philosophers such as Plato or Socrates, or from more recent times the likes of Rousseau or Bertrand Russell. Swiss-born Alain de Botton is a contemporary philosopher whose beautifully-written books make the subject accessible without ‘dumbing down’. His undergraduate degree was not in philosophy but in History, in which he achieved a double starred first from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. It was at Masters level that he delved deeper into the complexities of philosophy, completing an MPhil from King’s College, London before starting and abandoning a PhD in French philosophy at Harvard. Abandoning a PhD isn’t something we’d necessarily encourage, but in Alain de Botton’s case it was to write accessible, best-selling philosophy books that would encourage ordinary people (as opposed to just scholars) to take an interest in philosophy, so he’s certainly done us a great service. Indeed, his first book alone sold over two million copies (Essays in Love, published when he was just 23), and he’s since published many more. Perhaps you too will one day find your calling making your subject more widely appreciated?

10. Lily Cole

“The good actor is the one who always has a moment when they nearly fall off.”

Lily Cole is a living contradiction to the common stereotype that supermodels don’t have brains; she has them in abundance. Gaining A grades in all four of her A-levels, she was given a place at King’s College, Cambridge, where she initially deferred the start of her Social and Political Sciences course. She eventually commenced studying a different degree, History of Art, and was one of only seven people in her year to gain a First in both first and second year exams. She went on to achieve a Double First – and she did it at the same time as being an international supermodel and actress. She’s since set up a social networked gift economy site, Impossible.com, in conjunction with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and she’s an ambassador for the children’s charity Global Angels. It just goes to show that if you’re passionate, determined and organised enough, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to pursue your dream career and get a great degree – at the same time.

11. Ian Hislop

“I get paid to do what I enjoy, not that common a condition.”

Best known for his Have I Got News for You wit, Ian Hislop had a last-minute change from to Politics, Philosophy and Economics to English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. Despite this, it’s his shrewd yet highly entertaining political comments that have gained him such a following and led to his becoming editor of Private Eye magazine, which he joined immediately after graduating. He became involved in journalism while at university, reviving and editing a satirical publication called Passing Wind. Later, thanks to his antics with Private Eye, he was to become reputedly Britain’s most sued man. He’s also written and presented a number of radio and television programmes, and it’s earned him a big fan base.

12. Clare Balding

“I don’t make decisions for money or popularity. I do things because they’re right for me, and they’re interesting and challenging.”

The BBC’s much-loved sports presenter Clare Balding was President of the Cambridge Union Society during her time at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English. Becoming an amateur jockey when she graduated, she began her broadcasting career on BBC radio before getting her first presenting job for the BBC at Ascot. Since then, she’s become so familiar a face that it would be hard to imagine a sporting tournament without her. She’s won numerous awards and also writes several newspaper columns, and she’s even been named as one of the UK’s 100 most powerful women by Woman’s Hour.
The message to take away from the successes of the people in this list is that you too can achieve great things in life, if you can stay focused on doing your best and opening yourself up to new opportunities. So next time you feel that studying has become a bit of a struggle, take another look at this list and remind yourself that hard work and determination can be immensely rewarding.

From whom do you take inspiration? Let us know in the comments below!

Image credits: banner; Atkinson; Greenfield; Attenborough; Vorderman; Dawkins; Lawson; Alagiahde Botton; Cole; Hislop; Balding