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Hard times can reveal hidden talents

Though painful, this recession could give flight to your dreams.

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John James Audubon had great promise as a bird artist, but he was driven to reach his full potential because of an economic crisis much like our own.

Audubon's experience in a shrinking economy – and the way he redefined his life to meet new realities – has much to say to a new generation of Americans forced by financial hardship to abandon old dreams and create new ones.

While researching a recent book about Audubon's creative origins, I was routinely reminded of the inspiration he found in tanagers and herons, sparrows and owls, warblers and woodpeckers, ducks and storks. But I also discovered, much to my surprise, that Audubon's career had been curiously advanced by a national economic downturn that sharpened his ambitions.

By 1819, Audubon appeared to have achieved the American dream: a successful business as a Kentucky merchant, a nice house, a wife and children.

But then a dramatic reduction in business credit shook the country, and alas, there was no bailout that year from Washington. Audubon, like many other businessmen along the American frontier, found himself bankrupt almost overnight.

"Drawing birds had been something of an obsession, but only a hobby, until Audubon's businesses failed in the Panic of 1819," writes Audubon biographer Richard Rhodes.

But perhaps sensing that he had little else to lose, Audubon turned his art from an avocation to a full-time job.

The transition proved difficult, but it eventually produced the most famous bird artist in the world.


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