All around us is the relentless messaging that success—usually defined by outward appearances and possessions—is the most important thing in the world. And therefore, failure is the worst. Of course, that's a crock of the most odiferous crap. Very few "successful" people enjoy a smooth ride to the top.
So, if you're going to aspire to the heights of the likes of Stephen King, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey, you might as well prepare yourself for some turbulence—because it's the lessons you learn from failing that are going to prepare you for the success you seek!
Having built the world's smartest study app, we know all about that! Anyway, to inspire you along your merry way, here are 10 famous people who failed in spectacular style, only to go on to do amazing things.
[Check out our guide 'How to get motivated when you feel like procrastinating' if literally anything and everything else is getting in the way of you making progress.]
10 Famous people who failed but then recovered
There's nothing more inspiring than hearing about famous people who used to live on the street or get boo'd out of parliament, but are now so rich, they could afford to use $100 bills as Kleenex tissues. (Or have their likeness carved out of a 38,000 ton lump of Georgia marble, as is the case with our first failure-to-success story ... )
1. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln
While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the United States, Lincoln’s life had more cul-de-sacs than an affluent white suburb. In his youth, he went to war as a captain and returned a private, which is as low as you can rank in the military and literally the opposite of what you're supposed to do (i.e. get promoted). But that was just the beginning.
He started numerous failed businesses, went bankrupt twice, and was defeated in 26 of the campaigns he made for public office. And while President Lincoln's personal story didn't have a happy ending, his presidency changed the course of history for the United States and the millions of people who were forcibly brought here as slaves.
2. 'Harry Potter' author J. K. Rowling
Rowling may be rolling in a lot of Harry Potter dough today, but before she published the madly popular series of fantasy novels, she was nearly penniless, severely depressed, divorced, and trying to raise a child on her own while attending school and writing a novel. Through hard work and determination (and one heck of a great book idea), Rowling went from depending on welfare to being one of the world's most beloved authors (and richest women) in a span of only five years.
3. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven
He was a deaf musician. I mean, could there be a better metaphor for perseverance?
But there's more to Beethoven's struggles than losing his hearing. In his formative years, he was incredibly awkward on the violin and often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. Of course, being born at a time where authorities had zero empathy, even for children, his music teacher said that he was too stupid to be a music composer. What a schmuck.
Yet, in spite of the contempt and criticism—oh, and becoming deaf in his later years—Beethoven wrote sweeping and epic compositions the likes of which have become an indelible part of human history and culture.
4. Pro basketball player Michael Jordan
It’s hard to believe that the man commonly lauded as the best basketball player of all time was actually cut from his high school basketball team. (I wonder how that coach feels about that decision now?)
Anyway, luckily, Jordan didn’t let this setback stop him from playing the game, and as he once stated in a pretty well-known advert: “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.”
What a poet!
[Pssst. Need help focusing on those goals? Read Brainscape's Academy guide: 'How to build self-discipline and willpower like a warrior'.]
5. Best-selling author Stephen King
Ah, now THIS is one of my favorite success stories! Stephen King's first book, the iconic thriller Carrie, was rejected by publishers 30 times. THIRTY TIMES.
Do you know what that means? Yes, they were idiots. But also this: it means that Stephen King didn't stop submitting, even after the 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th rejection letter. With the encouragement of his wife and an insatiable calling to write, King submitted his manuscript a 31st time, and it was accepted and published.
Today, his name is practically synonymous with horror fiction; he's one of the bestselling authors of all time; and has had award-winning movies made from his stories, like The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, It, and The Green Mile.
6. Dancer, singer, and actor Fred Astaire
In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM made the following notes about Fred Astaire: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” The first time I ever read that, I literally snort laughed because, today, Astaire has become immortalized as an incredibly successful actor, singer, and dancer.
Oh, and he held on to that insulting note, apparently hanging it in his (definitely expensive) Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.
7. English naturalist Charles Darwin
He may be the founding father of the Theory of Evolution (or at least the first to publish a paper on it) but Charles Darwin's story as a naturalist and biologist is frought with obstacles bigger than the tortoises lumping about the Galápagos Islands. He was apparently chastised by his father for "being lazy" and "too dreamy"; in fact, Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect.
And then there's the fact that Darwin's research on evolution was met by ridicule from his peers (I believe they used the phrase “a fool’s experiment”) and accusations of heresy from the church. In spite of all that, he persevered and published his extraordinary findings: a keystone moment for humankind's understanding of life on Earth in all its kaleidoscopic glory.
(Looking for a powerful study tool for subjects like biology, science, and history? Check out Brainscape's Knowledge Genome for flashcards on every subject under the sun!)
8. Film director Steven Spielberg
While today Spielberg’s name is synonymous with big-budget blockbusters and critically acclaimed films—like E.T., Indiana Jones, Jurrasic Park, and basically every decent, award-winning movie to have come out in the last six decades—he was rejected from the USC’s School of Theater, Film, and Television three times.
Spielberg eventually got in to another college, only to drop out before finishing his degree so that he could pursue his chosen craft. 35 Years later, in 2002, he returned to school to complete his BA degree. Boy, his final film project must have been a masterpiece!
9. Vincent Van Gogh
During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and it was to a friend for very little money. Sadly, he never did taste success during his short life—heck, sometimes he didn't even taste food, that's how much of a literal "starving artist" he was—but what he didn't do was allow that to stop him from turning out more than 800 sublime paintings that, today, are worth millions upon millions of dollars.
10. Oprah Winfrey
Although she is now worth billions and adored by millions of fans, thanks to her popular talk show and media empire, Oprah Winfrey was actually fired from her first TV job as Baltimore’s WJZ-TV news anchor. The person who fired her then went on to write a book called 'I wouldn't know talent if it kicked me', which ended up on the New York Times' list of failed titles nobody cares about.
(I made the last part up.)
How do you channel failure into success?
So there are 10 incredibly accomplished humans who all had to endure some pretty hideous failures, with no guarantee that their efforts would even end in success. What they all have in common, more than fame, is that they persevered. Against all criticism and rejection, they kept writing, composing, directing, auditioning, practicing, and campaigning.
Do you see what this means? It doesn't matter what other people think or say! It only matters that you devote yourself to your passions for the joy of creating (and not impressing others) whether it's art, music, science, movies, movement, or change. It's not easy but it's more than possible, and I believe you've got what it takes!
If you're short on motivation, here are some excellent study guides from the team at Brainscape: we hope they inspire you to rise to your wildest challenge, whatever it is!