“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
Famous People that Failed
We all know the names. We’ve heard them time and time again. But what most people don’t know is just how they failed before they succeeded. The general consensus of success in the arts, entertainment, or business doesn’t take into account personal struggles. All we see are the personification of that success through whatever outlet we happen to come by it.
While you struggle day-in and day-out towards the fulfillment of your hopes and your dreams, know this: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Although Fredrick Douglas might have conveyed this statement more than 150 years ago, it’s a theme that has been evident since the dawn of time. Organisms, both small and large, have always fought for survival, struggling for progress across all spectrums of life.
Here’s a list of 12 famous people who failed before they succeeded – these were people who didn’t give up in the face of their struggles. They’re people that persevered. They pushed through their present-day limitations, had breakthroughs, and whose names have become synonymous with success in their respective fields of study and work:
#1 – Jim Carrey
We all know Jim Carrey as a laugh-out-loud zany comic who’s brought us some of the highest-grossing comedies of all time such as The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Ace Ventura. But, we don’t all know the story of Carrey’s struggle. He grew up in a lower-income family with a father who struggled to keep jobs. They were so poor that he had to drop out of high school at the age of 15 and get a job as a janitor just to help support the family.
On his first comic stand-up at a club called Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto, he was booed off stage. Later, when he auditioned for Saturday Night Live for the 1980-81 season, he failed to land the part.
However, we all know about Carrey’s later success. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Carrey talks about how he used the Law of Attraction by writing himself a check for $10,000,000 million dollars for “Acting Services Rendered,” later placing the check in his wallet for 7 years until he received a $10,000,000 million dollar payment for his work in Dumb and Dumber.
#2 – Katy Perry
Most people know the name Katy Perry, but they don’t the struggles that she went through to finally get that breakthrough she was after. Perry started her career early in her life, dropping out of high school after freshman year in 1999 to pursue singing. Originally, she was a gospel singer, taking cues from her parents who were Born Again Christians.
In 2001 Katy Perry released her first gospel album with Red Hill Records, which was commercially unsuccessful. After selling only 200 copies of her album, the record company ceased operations and subsequently went out of business. Afterward, Perry switched gears to popular music, moving to Los Angeles to record with producer Glen Ballard.
In 2003 she was signed to Island Def Jam, which was also a contract that was terminated. In 2004 she signed with Columbia Records who sought to make her the lead vocalist in a band called The Matrix. However, that deal also fell through when Columbia Records shelved the project at about 80% completion.
After being dropped from three labels, you would think that Perry would have given up. She didn’t. She continued to pursue her career, working odd jobs and doing back-up vocals until she was signed to the newly-formed Capitol Music Group in 2006. It was there that she worked on her first huge hit single, I Kissed a Girl, which started her career as a commercial success.
#3 – Oprah Winfrey
Oprah had a rocky start in life. As the daughter of a teenaged low-income mother, her start was anything but glamorous. In her early years, Oprah recounts that not only were her living conditions rough, but she was always sexually abused, starting at the age of 9, by her cousin, uncle, and a family friend. At the age of 14 Oprah got pregnant, but her son died shortly after birth.
However, at the age of 14, Oprah was sent to live with her father, Vernon, in Tennessee. He helped her focus on her schooling, and she was subsequently accepted on a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, majoring in communications. In high school, and in her first two years of college, Winfrey interned at a local radio station, helping to develop a foundation for a career in media.
But, even after Oprah was hired on to a local television station for the news, things didn’t go so easily. She was fired by the producer because she “unfit for television,” later taking a position with another station in Baltimore. Eventually, she hosted a local talk show named, People are Talking.
Later, in 1983, Winfrey re-located to Chicago, to host a station’s low-rated talk show called AM Chicago. Within a few months, the show went from last in the ratings, to higher than Donahue, which was the number one show at the time. This led to the show being renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was syndicated across the country.
#4 – Jay-Z
From an early age, Jay-Z had a knack for rhythm. But his meteoric rise to stardom didn’t happen overnight. He was faced with several roadblocks along the path to ultimate success. For example, in 1995 when Jay-Z tried tirelessly to strike a record deal, not a single label would sign him. It led him to establishing his own record company called Roc-a-fella Records with partners Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs.
After being turned down by so many labels, and eventually starting up his own record company, Jay-Z worked tirelessly to strike a distribution deal for his first album’s release. Eventually, he successfully negotiated a contract with Priority, later releasing his debut album entitled, Reasonable Doubt, which would eventually go on to hit platinum.
Jay-Z met with many failures along the road. Those failures weren’t just in the beginning of his career, but the beginning does highlight the tremendous amount of resistance he faced to achieve success. And, even at the prime of his career, Jay-Z was charged with allegedly stabbing someone at a record release party. He was tried, pleading not guilty, but later pleaded to a lesser criminal misdemeanor, resulting in three years of probation.
Considering that Jay-Z’s roots stemmed from the housing projects of Brooklyn, NY, and grew up in extreme poverty, he faced many failures and roadblocks in his life. But he never gave up. No matter what happened to him, no matter what failures he faced, he pushed through, growing as a person, and maturing to become a better individual.
#5 – J.K. Rowling
Rowling is one of the most inspirational success stories of our time. Many people simply know her as the woman who created Harry Potter. But, what most people don’t know is what she went through prior to reaching stardom. Rowling’s life was not peaches and cream. She struggled tremendously.
In 1990, Rowling first had the idea for Harry Potter. She stated that the idea came “fully formed” into her mind one day while she was on a train from Manchester to London. She began writing furiously. However, later that year, her mother died after 10 years of complications from Multiple Sclerosis.
In 1992 she moved to Portugal to teach English where she met a man, married, and had a daughter. In 1993, her marriage ended in divorce and she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to be closer to her sister. At that time, she had three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase.
Rowling saw herself as a failure at this time. She was jobless, divorced, penniless, and with a dependent child. She suffered through bouts of depression, eventually signing up for government-assisted welfare. It was a difficult time in her life, but she pushed through the failures.
In 1995 all 12 major publishers rejected the Harry Potter script. But, it was a year later when a small publishing house, Bloomsbury, accepted it and extended a very small £1500 advance. In 1997, the book was published with only 1000 copies, 500 of which were distributed to libraries.
In 1997 and 1998, the book won awards from Nestle Smarties Book Prize and the British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year. After that, it was one wild ride for Rowling. Today, Rowling has sold more than 400 million copies of her books, and is considered to be the most successful woman author in the United Kingdom.
#6 – Stephen King
Stephen King is famous for many critically-acclaimed novels, most of which have been made into movies. However, Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before it was published.
Not only that, but King actually threw the manuscript into the garbage, only later to be retrieved by his wife who wildly believed in his dream of becoming a published author.
Yet, King’s earlier years were also nothing to rave about. As a child, his family barely made ends meet, and in his later years as an English teacher, he supplemented his income by selling short stories to magazines.
Today, King has over 50 novels and has sold over 350 million copies of his work. Can you imagine what King’s life would be like had he given up? It’s difficult to imagine that such a successful author was once rejected so many times.
In his earlier years, King talks about submitting short stories to magazines beginning at the age of 16, and hanging the rejection slips on a nail until the slips were so heavy he had to change the nail to a spike.
#7 – Bill Gates
Before Microsoft was born, Bill Gates suffered failure in business. Known today to be one of the wealthiest men in the world, Bill Gates’s upper middle-class family is a stark contrast from some of the other successful failures out there that didn’t have well-off parents.
However, Bill Gates didn’t rely on his family. His business acumen was second to none. But his first business was indeed a failure. Traf-O-Data was a partnership between Gates, Paul Gilbert, and Paul Allen. The goal of the business was to create reports for roadway engineers from raw traffic data.
The company did achieve a little bit of success by processing the raw traffic data to generate some income. But the machine that they had built to process the data flopped when they tried to present it to a Seattle County traffic employee. Yet, this business helped to set Gates and his partner Paul Allen up for major success with Microsoft.
Although Gates failed at his first business, it didn’t discourage him from trying again. He didn’t want to give up because the sheer notion of business intrigued him. He was cleverly able to put together a company that revolutionized the personal computing marketplace. And we all know just how successful that was for him.
#8 – Henry Ford
Many people know Henry Ford for the Ford Motor Company, one of the most successful automotive companies of all time. However, what they don’t know is that Ford failed two times before that abruptly resulted in bankruptcies, prior to successfully launching the present incarnation of his company.
Ford is no stranger to failure, but he also didn’t give up. Yet, when we think about Ford, we don’t picture the failures because all it took was just succeeding one time. However, in 1899, at the age of 36 years old, Ford formed his first company, the Detroit Automobile Company with backing from the famed lumber baron, William H. Murphy. That company went bankrupt.
His second attempt was in 1901, when he formed the Henry Ford Company, which he ended up leaving with the rights to his name. That company was later renamed to the Cadillac Automobile Company. However, it was Ford’s third try, with the Ford Motor Company, that hit the proverbial nail on the head.
After that, we all know the story. Ford revolutionized the automobile industry, pioneering not only the Model T and the assembly line, but also the concept and notion of an automobile in every home. Driving became a “thing,” and subsequently, Ford’s Model T went on to sell over 17 million units.
#9 – Colonel Sanders
People know him because of his iconic white suit and bow tie. Colonel Sanders was the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Yet, the zany Sanders got off to a rocky start in life. In fact, it wasn’t until the age of 62 that he set out with a $105 social security check in hand to pitch his chicken recipe to restaurants. 1,009 folks told him he was crazy, but he didn’t give up.
Sanders worked many jobs including fireman, tire salesman, insurance salesman, and of course, a cook. He brewed up his secret chicken recipe between 1939-1940 when he figured out how to pressure fry the chicken in a faster and more consistent product all the time. He was at the age of 50 when that happened.
However, it wasn’t until 1952 that he hit the road and began trying to sell his franchise-model chicken restaurant. The first restaurant that he landed was based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, which became the first Kentucky Fried Chicken. The restaurant tripled its sales within a year where 75% of that revenue was from the colonel’s chicken.
The company grew and expanded faster than he could have ever imagined. In 1964, at the age of 74 years old, Sanders sold the company for $2 million dollars to a group of investors led by Jack C. Massey and John Y. Brown Jr. He retained the rights to the Canadian franchises and stayed on as a salaried goodwill ambassador to the company.
However, this just goes to show you that it doesn’t matter how old you are or just how much money you have to your name in order to accomplish something great.
#10 – Thomas Edison
We’ve all heard the name before. This famous American is attributed with failing over 10,000 times to invent a commercially viable electric lightbulb, but he didn’t give up. When asked by a newspaper reporter if he felt like a failure and if he should give up, after having gone through over 9,000 failed attempts, Edison simply stated “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric lightbulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”
This is also the same person whose teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything,” and fired from his first two employment positions for not being productive enough. However, Edison, through his failures, is also the greatest innovator of all time with 1,093 US patents to his name, along with several others in the UK, and Canada. This is someone who refused to ever give up no matter what.
It’s said that in his early days, he attributed his success to his mother, who pulled him out of school and began to teach him herself. It’s because of his mother, and how wholeheartedly she believed in him, that he didn’t want to disappoint her. His early fascination for chemical experiments and mechanical engineering paved the way for a future that was incredible bright. His company, GE, is still one of the largest publicly-traded firms in the world, continually innovating across virtually every spectrum.
#11 – Walt Disney
The man who has affected generations to come with his cartoon creations, was once considered a failure. Disney was fired by the editor in 1919 from his job at the Kansas City Star paper because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” However, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse and a slew of other characters didn’t stop failing there.
Disney’s first go at business landed in bankruptcy when he acquired an animation studio by the name of Laugh-O-Gram. The company was acquired because, at the time, Disney’s cartoon creations had gained popularity in the Kansas City area. But, when he hired on salaried employees, he was unable to manage money and the business wound up heavily in debt. Subsequently, he filed for bankruptcy and moved to Hollywood, California.
The early failures in Disney’s life didn’t dissuade him from moving forward. Of course, like anyone else, Disney’s failures were a blow to the ego. Anyone that has to suffer through the torment of failure and bankruptcy knows how this feels. However, it also laid the foundation for a successful career. When he formed the Walt Disney Company, all of his past failures helped to pave the way for a successful business.
Disney and the Walt Disney Company have touched the lives of millions across the globe. From cartoons, to theme parks, and animated movies, both children and adults now enjoy the fruits of Disney’s labor. Had he given up, things would have been far different. But he persevered, even through bankruptcy.
#12 – Sir James Dyson
The Dyson Vacuum Cleaner is known around the world as the vacuum that doesn’t lose suction. But the idea for it was born long ago. Dyson first had the idea in his early 30’s when he became frustrated with his Hoover vacuum and its loss of suction. At the time, the disposable bag replacement market for vacuums was valued somewhere around the £100 million per year.
His big idea was to use the concept of cyclonic separation to create the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. It took Dyson 5,126 failures to finally get it right. When he did, at the age of 36, he was faced with more resistance when no distributor in the UK would take on the revolutionary product. No one wanted to buck the trend.
So, Dyson hit the Japanese market in 1983, with a hot pink version of his vacuum cleaner. It won an industrial award in Japan, and in 1986, three years after its first introduction, he was awarded his first US Patent for it. However, manufacturers still didn’t want to take it on in other companies, so Dyson formed his own company, in 1993 at the age of 46, to market the product.
Today, Dyson is worth more than £3 billion all because of his refusal to give up. He struggled through times of failure, sorrow, and regret, but he persevered.