Success can seem like the most important thing in a world that rewards speed, progress, and gain. As a result, people are scared of failure. To a driven individual, failure is a sign that somewhere along the way, they made a grave error that kept them from reaching their goals.
Those who reach for the sky often follow the models of others who are already at the top. Looking towards what they did right and how they did it seems like a good idea—and the easiest way—to get ahead. Sometimes, this can lead to success; what worked once may work a second time. But it might just as well fail spectacularly.
While there are some clear practices that help you better tip the scales in your favor, there is no possible way to predict the positive outcome of any personal or business venture. Failure is just one of the calculated risks we have to take.
But what if our fear becomes so great that it keeps us from even trying? Hopefully this article will show you that failing doesn't have to be scary. We will share the stories of 10 famous people who failed ... and still went on to do amazing things.
Moving from failure to success
Studies have shown that people who are highly afraid of failing are much more likely to procrastinate. In contrast, those who show higher levels of autonomy and vitality more readily approach new tasks, no matter their fears for the future. Another interesting finding: if we feel competent enough to carry out a task, we do not procrastinate out of fear of failure. (We may still procrastinate for other reasons.)
[See our guide on How to get motivated when you feel like procrastinating.]
We here at Brainscape know all about turning failures into success. We've built our web and mobile flashcards app and dedicated our entire philosophy to helping people turn weaknesses into strengths. This is largely done by encouraging the persistence in learners: everyone CAN learn efficiently with the right mind set and tools. And we're here to guide you. Learn more about Brainscape's philosophy on our About page.
So, does the secret to avoiding failure lie in only doing what we do and know best? There is no right answer to this question because it is in fact the wrong question to ask. What we should ask ourselves is this: Why should we be afraid of failure?
Many guides today want to show us the road to success. But for any “How to be Rich/Successful/Best” advice in books and on the Internet, there are also plenty of people who experienced the opposite end of success and lived to tell the tale. The Road to Success is Paved with Failure is just one example: it lists the mishaps and failures of the rich and famous and how they overcame their misfortunes. Many public figures we know today as great and successful in fact failed spectacularly at one point or another in their lives.
We’ve put together a list of some of the most famous examples of people who bounced back from early failures.
10 Famous people who failed
1. Abraham Lincoln
While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the United States, Lincoln’s life wasn’t so easy. In his youth he went to war a captain and returned a private (if you’re not familiar with military ranks, just know that private is as low as it gets). Lincoln didn’t stop there, however. He started numerous failed businesses, went bankrupt twice, and was defeated in 26 campaigns he made for public office.
2. J. K. Rowling
Rowling may be rolling in a lot of Harry Potter dough today, but before she published the series of 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 a great book idea!), Rowling eventually went from depending on welfare to survive to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven
In his formative years, young Beethoven was incredibly awkward on the violin and was often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. Despite his love of composition, his teachers felt he was hopeless at it and would never succeed with the violin or in composing. In fact, his music teacher told his parents he was too stupid to be a music composer.
4. 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. Luckily, Jordan didn’t let this setback stop him from playing the game, and as he once stated in a famous ad, “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.”
5. Stephen King
His first book, the iconic thriller Carrie, received 30 rejections, finally causing King to give up and throw it in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to resubmit it, and the rest is history, with King now having hundreds of books published and the distinction of being one of the best-selling authors of all time.
6. Fred Astaire
In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” Astaire went on to become an incredibly successful actor/singer/dancer and kept that note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.
7. Charles Darwin
Chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy, Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect. When Darwin first presented his research on evolution, it was met with little enthusiasm. He continued to work on his theory of evolution when all of his colleagues called him a fool and said what he was doing “a fool’s experiment.”
8. Steven Spielberg
While today Spielberg’s name is synonymous with big-budget blockbusters and critically acclaimed films alike, he was rejected from the USC’s School of Theater, Film, and Television three times. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing. 35 years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA.
9. Vincent Van Gogh
During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and this was to a friend and only for a very small amount of money. While Van Gogh was never a success during his life, he plugged on with painting, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. Today, some are worth hundreds of millions of dollars each.
10. Oprah Winfrey
Although she is now worth billions and adored by millions of fans thanks to her popular talk show and media empire, Winfrey was actually fired from her first TV job as one of the 6 pm news anchors for Baltimore’s WJZ-TV.
How do you channel failure into success?
If we look at all these stories of famous people who failed, we see a common theme: persistence and motivation. It's not easy to pick yourself up after a failure but it's definitely possible.
And we have good news: finding the motivation to keep fighting, to keep working, to keep studying is something in your control. We at Brainscape thoroughly believe that with the methods, anyone can find the motivation to persist.
In fact, Brainscape has created a guide on how you can even build your willpower like a warrior. We dive into why it’s so hard to find the motivation to study and how manipulate yourself into making smarter decisions today for a better you tomorrow.
Find your motivation today. We believe in you.