Famous Failures: 30 Stories of Successful People Who Once Failed
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That is a word that most people dread. Everyone wants to be a success. We want to be liked and admired.
But that dreaded “F” word always pops up. Failure. This experience is strong enough to make you want to quit and start a new life.
It is no different for any entrepreneur. Or anyone trying to make something special out of their life. Whether it is getting ahead in your career or losing weight or taking items off of your bucket list.
There, I said it…..
You may fail many times you will fail before you are successful.
Ask just about anybody who has become successful if they have ever failed at any aspect of their journey. Chances are you will get quite a few stories of missteps and blunders.
The difference between long-term success and failure is the reaction to it.
People who, as Charlie Sheen said many years ago are “winners,” find a way to overcome the obstacles and persevere after failure.
There is a need to change the view on failure.
It is not something that needs to be avoided. It is a chance to learn something that does not work!
It is not always reaching the destination that defines the man (or woman), but the journey that is taken to get there. The biggest successes have gone through the biggest failures.
If you are struggling in your life…or even if you’re looking for small business opportunities… don't be afraid to try things that are “new” “different” and perhaps even fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The worst thing that can happen is failure… which is just a chance to learn and grow.
To illustrate the point, here is a list of 30 famous people people who are/were successful, but…
…Experienced massive failure at one point in their lives.
Not only did these people fail, but they failed on a massive scale. Yet history still views these successful people who failed as great success stories because they bounced back and succeeded in the end.
So let's talk about the specific setbacks that these individuals experienced.
(Side note: One of the simplest ways to be more successful in your career to join over 1 million others and start your day with the latest news from Wall St. to Silicon Valley. This newsletter is a 5-minute read that's informative, witty and FREE!)
What You Will Learn
- 1. Thomas Edison
- 2. Elvis Presley
- 3. Michael Jordan
- 4. Vincent van Gogh
- 5. Stephen King
- 6. Fred Astaire
- 7. Abraham Lincoln
- 8. JK Rowling
- 9. Albert Einstein
- 10. Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
- 11. George Lucas
- 12. Harland David Sanders
- 13. Charles Schulz
- 14. Walt Disney
- 15. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- 16. Jack Canfield
- 17. Jack London
- 18. Sidney Poitier
- 19. Mark Cuban
- 20. Soichiro Honda
- 21. Oprah Winfrey
- 22. Vera Wang
- 23. Harrison Ford
- 24. Terri Gross
- 25. Lady Gaga
- 26. Sir James Dyson
- 27. Isaac Newton
- 28. Claude Monet
- 29. Rudyard Kipling
- 30. William and Orville Wright
- Final Thoughts on These Famous Failures
1. Thomas Edison
Chances are you have heard of Edison in relation to overcoming failure before. He was a master of trial and error. Someone who wasn't afraid to make lots of mistakes in order to succeed.
When asked about the many thousands of failures he had when trying to create the light-bulb he famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
But there is even more to it than that. As a child, he was thought to be dumb and told that he would never be a success by many of his teachers because his mind would often wander in class.
Good thing for us that the greatest inventor in history did not listen.
2. Elvis Presley
You do not need to be an Elvis fan to acknowledge the impact he has had on popular music. They don’t dub somebody the “King” of a form of music without a great amount of success.
But for Elvis success came after failure.
Elvis failed his music classes. He was a social misfit as a boy.
He was working as a truck driver while trying to get his recording career off the ground. After his first paying gig, his manager told him, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”
But Elvis persevered. His first recordings went nowhere. He tried to join a vocal quartet and was told he, “couldn’t sing”.
But finally, his music caught a groove, and after all that failure he ended up becoming one of the most popular recording artists in history.
3. Michael Jordan
It is hard to imagine it, but the Jordan, who is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, was once cut from his high school team.
From not being on able to stay on his high school team, Jordan kept working at it and kept improving.
He made the team at North Carolina and became a star college player. Then he played for the Bulls creating an armful of titles.
Then in the middle of his career, he took a few years off to try out his dream of becoming a professional baseball player. He ultimately failed in this effort to get to the major leagues but was able to have some good games in the minor league.
But even in basketball, where he is the GOAT. He got his success through hard work after failure. As Jordan puts it:
“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”[Success takes hard work. It doesn't come easy. Get inspired for some hard work by checking this collection of hard-work quotes.]
4. Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh paintings these days sell for incredible amounts of money. Four of his paintings have sold for more than 100 million dollars.
Yet, Van Gogh is a cautionary tale. In his life, he was a failure.
He slowly began to build a “reputation” while he was alive, but he also had a ton of critics. He burned and destroyed many of his paintings out of frustration and was known to only sell ONE PAINTING.
He did not work to overcome his failure and killed himself. Soon after his death, his work began to garner intense critical and financial success.
5. Stephen King
It is my opinion that Steven King is the greatest living writer.
He is incredibly prolific. Having written over 60 novels. Many of which are quite long. He is popular. And at 72, his new releases almost always land at the top of the best-seller lists.
But King wasn't born being a writer.
He wrote stories as a teenager and college student, collecting a huge backlog of rejected stories he stored in a large crate.
King was working as a teacher in rural Maine when he wrote his first novel, “Carrie”.
By this time King had some small success selling short stories previously, but nothing that anyone could build a career around.
King submitted “Carrie” 30 times. King was rejected 30 times.
Before his 31st attempt, he threw the manuscript out.
His wife rescued it from the round file and asked him to try one more time. The rest…is history.
[One of the keys to success is continuous learning. If you desire success, why not continue your learning and read the best books on success.]
6. Fred Astaire
Many people consider Fred Astaire to be the greatest male dancer of all time. (Okay, ladies, I know…. Ginger Rogers did everything Fred did, but backward and in heels.)
Fred didn't start out a success. But he did start early. He was six years old when he began working in a vaudeville act.
By the time he was in his mid-teens, he had some measure of success in vaudeville and began to work in Broadway and musicals. He wasn't an instant success there either but slowly began to build a reputation and a degree of success.
Eventually, in his mid 30's, he tried to get into the burgeoning movie industry.
During his first screen test, an RKO executive noted that Astaire, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”
Despite this initial rejection, Astaire persevered and ended up becoming one of the top actors, singers, and dancers of his generation.
Nearly 50 movies. Emmys, Grammys, an Oscar. By any measure, this balding guy, who couldn't act, sing and could dance, “a little” became a huge success in film and dance.
7. Abraham Lincoln
If Lincoln had quit when the going got tough, the world might be a very different place.
As a young man Lincoln entered military service in the Black Hawk war as a captain. Yet left as a private.
With very little formal education, Lincoln taught himself and became a lawyer and congressman.
His real rise to national prominence could also be viewed as a “failure”. In 1858 Lincoln tried for a seat in the Illinois senate. This led to a series of hotly contested debates, known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Lincoln lost the senate election, but really impressed a lot of the right people, even with his loss. So he kept at the politics thing.
Two years later he ran for president and won.
Thankfully he did not let lack of formal education, a spotty career of failures, or initial political failure rattle him, and he went on to become one of our greatest presidents.
[What ONE THING can you add to your daily routine to achieve greater success? I asked this question of 43 experts. See what they had to say about the best habit for success.]
8. JK Rowling
Rowling is the perfect example that success can come to anyone at any time.
She is now doing the backstroke through a pool of Harry Potter money, but that was not always the case.
Rowling always planned on being a writer. But life interfered.
She battled depression over the untimely death of her mother. Her first marriage failed and she was left trying to provide for herself and raise a young child alone while living on welfare, going to school and trying to work on a novel in her nonexistent spare time.
Rowling herself said she was the “biggest failure I knew” and credits a lot of her success to her failure.
Before Harry Potter became a success she was a divorced mother, living on welfare, going to school and trying to write a novel in her spare time.
At a Harvard commencement speech, Rowling had this to say about failure:
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
9. Albert Einstein
If asked to name a genius, most people would come up with the name Albert Einstein. Yet even for Einstein genius did not come easy. He had speech difficulties as a child and was once even thought to be mentally handicapped.
As a teen he rebelled against his school's reliance on rote learning and failed.
He tried to test into Zurich Polytechnic, but failed again (although he did very well in the math and physics section…as you might expect).
Einstein buckled down, received the requisite training and applied to Zurich Polytechnic again, and of course, was accepted.
A few years later he had a Ph.D. and was recognized as a leading theorist. A few years after that he had a Nobel prize for physics and began to be recognized as the genius of our modern era.
10. Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
When you were a child, you probably read Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, as well as other books written by Geisel under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. To date, over 600 million copies of his books have been sold all over the world.
Many would think that this kind of success means that all sorts of doors of opportunity were opened for Dr. Seuss. However, his first book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Tree, almost did not get published.
Mulberry Street was rejected 27 times, and Dr. Seuss decided to head home to burn the book’s manuscript. However, at the last minute a break came, paving the way for publication and a glowing review that transformed his first book from a candidate for the garbage bin to an instant bestseller. This ultimately paved the way for the success of his other books.
11. George Lucas
Star Wars is one of the highest-grossing movie franchises in Hollywood. Ever since the release of Episode IV – A New Hope in 1977, the franchise has remained a box office hit.
However, Star Wars almost did not make it to the big screen. Three major studios—Disney, United Artists, and Universal—all rejected it.
Fox backed the movie, hoping that it was going to be something like American Graffiti, one of the more successful movies that George Lucas had directed.
When shooting Star Wars, nobody really got Lucas’s vision. There was a lot of tension between him and the actors, the crew, and the executives. Further, Fox had to be creative in its marketing campaign to bring the movie to theaters.
However, after its first run, Star Wars instantly became a hit. It changed how movies were made, and the franchise has become a billion-dollar industry.
12. Harland David Sanders
For many of us, experiencing two or three rejections can be disheartening. Imagine how it must have been for Harland David Sanders, whose fried chicken recipe was rejected over 1,000 times.
When Sanders was 65 years old, he found himself bankrupt after his restaurant business had failed.
He drove around in his car, pleading with diner and restaurant owners to use his fried chicken recipe. The deal was that for every piece of chicken sold, they were to give him a nickel as a commission.
He was turned down 1,009 times before a restaurant agreed to use his recipe, which he called Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Today, Colonel Sanders is an iconic figure representing one of the tastiest fried chickens in the world.
13. Charles Schulz
The well-known comic strip Peanuts has touched countless hearts for several generations.
However, for Schulz, the path to success was a challenging one.
When he was younger, his high school yearbook staff rejected every cartoon he submitted. He was lousy at sports, and flunked 8th grade.
When he was a bit older, he submitted his cartoons to several studios and publishing firms. Again, he was met with rejection.
Had he given up, we would never have known Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the rest of the gang.
14. Walt Disney
When you look at how Disney’s animated movies have become a household name, you would find it difficult to imagine that their creator once faced rejection.
When Walt Disney was 22, he worked for a newspaper firm in Missouri. Disney was fired from his job. The reason? He lacked creativity, according to the newspaper editor.
Disney disproved this, however, by winning more than 30 Academy Awards for his animated film featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The rest is history.
To learn more about him, here are 83 quotes from Walt Disney.
15. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
He was a musical prodigy, composing music by the age of 5. And during his lifetime, he wrote over 600 pieces of musical pieces. People today acknowledge Mozart as a genius composer.
However, when he was still alive, he was met with failure several times: He was dismissed as a court musician, an archduke called his piece The Marriage of Figaro “noisy,” and his last three compositions flopped massively.
16. Jack Canfield
Have you read any of the books from the Chicken Soup series? What if we were to tell you that those books were almost never published?
Chicken Soup for the Soul was the first book that Jack Canfield sent to 144 publishers. All of them rejected his pitch.
Still, he persevered, and eventually found a publisher willing to bring his book to the world.
We are glad somebody did!
If you'd like to learn about how Jack Canfield perservered when others didn't, check out his book The Success Principles, which 67 action steps you can use to be more successful in life.
17. Jack London
The Call of the Wild, written by Jack London, is considered one of the best novels ever written. This book must truly be a significant piece of literature, because it appears on the reading lists of high school English classes all over the US.
London’s storytelling is very compelling, so it might surprise you to learn that he received 600 rejections before his first story was ever published.
18. Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier changed the way African-American people were perceived in the film industry when he won an Academy Award in 1963 for his role as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field.
But when Poitier was first starting out as an actor, he auditioned for a role and ended up flubbing his lines. His Caribbean accent was so thick that the director stopped him and told him that he was better off getting a job as a dishwasher.
The rejection propelled him to work harder, and all that hard work paid off when he became the most well-paid actor of his time.
19. Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks, and has a net worth estimated at $4.1 billion in 2019.
However, Mark Cuban failed at almost every job he ever held. He couldn’t seem to get anything right.
This did not stop him from trying.
He eventually found a niche in startups. He decided to start his own company, which was eventually acquired by CompuServe. He then created another company that was acquired by Yahoo! for $5.7 billion.
20. Soichiro Honda
Soichiro Honda was the man behind Honda Motor Co.
Before establishing his multinational company, he was in the foundry business, manufacturing piston rings. But h had a difficult time securing a contract with Toyota for his innovation on these piston rings.
When he finally got the contract, WWII happened, and a bomb hit his factory. After rebuilding the factory, an earthquake hit, leveling the building.
But he never stopped innovating (including embracing the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement) , and eventually created a motorized bicycle that became the precursor of the Honda motorcycle and ultimately, the Honda car company that we know today.)
21. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah is a media executive with a net worth of $3 billion. She owns the multimedia empire Harpo, and is considered to be one of the world’s most influential women.
However, she was publicly fired from her first job as a TV news anchor.
The reason? The show’s execs said that she was too “emotionally invested” in the stories that she reported on.
22. Vera Wang
Wang is known throughout the world as the designer of iconic wedding dresses. Her current net worth is estimated at over $400 million.
However, before she became one of the world’s most sought-after fashioner designers, she had her sights on making it onto the 1986 Olympics figure-skating team. She didn’t make the cut.
She ultimately got an editorial job at Vogue, and stayed there for 17 years. She then tried another career for 15 years, but didn’t find much success there. It wasn’t until she started designing wedding dresses that things turned around for her.
23. Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford is an iconic hero, thanks in part to his portrayals of Indiana Jones and Han Solo.
So you might be surprised to learn that the film executives of the first movie he starred in told Harrison Ford that he didn’t have the “star factor.”
As it turns out, his career has spanned six decades, with yet another upcoming movie in the Indiana Jones franchise. He has definitely proved his critics wrong.
24. Terri Gross
The voice and host of the long-running NPR show Fresh Air, Terri Gross has over five million listeners around the globe.
But when Gross graduated from college, her first job was as a teacher at an inner city junior high school. She was fired after six weeks.
She eventually discovered that she was best suited for radio, and her career eventually took off.
25. Lady Gaga
Her style, persona, and talent have captured the world’s attention, and Lady Gaga is now one of the best-selling artists of her era.
She has received numerous awards and widespread recognition for her talent. Furthermore, she has been recognized as one of the most influential women in the world.
Nevertheless, when she was starting out, she had her fair share of disheartening experiences. A major record label signed her on, but after three months, she was dropped from their roster of artists.
But it’s a good thing for her that they let her go. Lady Gaga ended up experimenting and developed her style further, creating the iconic performer and artist that she is today.
26. Sir James Dyson
We have Sir James Dyson to thank for the bagless vacuum cleaner that has added more convenience in the way we do our household chores.
But just how many prototypes did he have to go through to arrive at the perfect vacuum cleaner? According to Sir James, he created 5,126 prototypes and cleaned out his savings in the process of creating the perfect cleaning machine.
27. Isaac Newton
From the get-go, it was clear that Isaac Newton was not cut out for farm work. He was more of a contemplative type than a hard worker.
But the family needed someone to handle their affairs at the farm, and convinced Isaac to do it. And he failed. Miserably.
It was this epic failure that convinced his family to let him finish his studies instead—and the whole world benefited from it, as his contributions have help us understand how the world works.
28. Claude Monet
Monet founded the French Impressionism movement, and his works fetch record-breaking prices at art auctions. Recently, one of his paintings was estimated to have received between $20 million and $30 million at an art auction.
There was a time, however, when the world was not all that excited about Monet’s work. In fact, the Paris Salon, a small but influential group of Parisian artists, completely rejected Monet’s style.
The group has long been dissolved, but Monet’s paintings continue to fascinate art collectors all over the world.
29. Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling introduced us to Mowgli in The Jungle Book, and the powerful Djinn in Just So Stories. In 1907, he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
So you may find it surprising that Kipling was fired from his role as contributor to a newspaper. The editor’s reason: Kipling “doesn’t know how to use the English language.”
Although it may have stung, Kipling didn’t let the editor’s comment affect him. He continued to write, and became one of the greatest authors of his time.
30. William and Orville Wright
The Wright brothers changed the way we travel, and their efforts and struggles serve as an inspiration and symbol for soaring to great heights.
Their main goal was to create a flying machine that stayed up in the air for a sustained period of time. They put in countless hours to create prototypes, and many of them didn’t work as intended, crashing on the sand at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Those crashes led to the creation of better versions of the brothers’ flying machine, until that day in December 1903, when Wilbur was able to sustain powered flight for more than 10 seconds.
The world would never be the same again.
Final Thoughts on These Famous Failures
Obstacles are out there, but they are meant to be overcome.
No adventure worth undertaking is easy. Everyone who achieves success faces obstacles. What makes (or breaks) a person is how they react to the obstacles and roadblocks in their life and what they do (or do not do) to overcome these setbacks.
Perhaps these famous failures have inspired you to take action in your life. Even though they are all world famous now, they once encountered challenges just like you.
If you'd like to achieve more success in your life, then you can learn how by reading some of the other blog posts on this website:
- 12 Principles to Be Successful in Life
- 51 Quotes About Success
- 20 “Must Read” Books on Achieving Success
So if you feel stuck, then I'd recommend taking time today to review this three information-packed articles.
Finally, If you'd like to learn more about the business and/or startup world, then be sure to check out this 5-minute daily newsletter that's informative, witty and FREE.