Have you ever been told that you have to fail to succeed? That you should try to fail forward (whatever that means)? Or maybe the classic, “third time’s the charm?” After a long string of “almost-but-not-quites,” one too many “better-luck-next-times,” trying again can feel like the labor of Hercules.
Luckily (or unluckily), you’re not alone! As isolating as these personal struggles might feel, everyone experiences failure, even the people who have made it to the top of their professions. No one achieves their dreams on the first attempt, and for these influencers like so many others, success only came after (often repeated) failure.
1. J.K. Rowling
Once upon a time, there was a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Sound familiar? Before the wildly successful Harry Potter series made her a world famous author, J.K. Rowling was facing life on welfare and writing her soon-to-be life-changing novel on the London underground.
2. Vincent Van Gogh
Although Van Gogh is now recognized as one of the greatest painters of the 19th century, he was virtually unknown during his lifetime. He died unsuccessful and unappreciated, having sold only one painting. Today, a genuine Van Gogh is priceless (but will easily run you upwards of $1,000,000).
3. Lady Gaga
She made her name by giving herself and her public a fantastical, exaggerated, Grammy-winning alter ego. But contrary to her own lyrics, Stefani Germanotta wasn’t quite born that way. She was a quiet girl who dropped out of school to pursue a music career. That path proved bumpy and filled with rejection, dropped contracts, dingy venues, and requests to change her “look.” Her signature style eventually caught the attention of fellow artist Akon and his record label, catapulting her to stardom.
4. Dr. Seuss
Despite becoming one of the best-loved authors of children’s books, Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was repeatedly turned down for publication. His first manuscript was rejected 28 times! Imagine how many kids (and adults!) wouldn’t know the places they could go if Random House hadn’t finally recognized the genius combination of green eggs and ham…
5. Claude Monet
During his lifetime, Claude Monet endured public ridicule and even exclusion from the prestigious Paris Salon due to his style of painting. That’s right, the masterpieces of the acknowledged Father of Impressionism were not considered good enough for exhibition! One critic actually coined the name of the movement saying of Monet’s work that it was a series of unfinished scribbles, or “impressions.” Well, Monet certainly made a lasting impression.
6. Ludwig van Beethoven
You’ve heard this composer’s world famous pieces soaring majestically at classical concerts, pounded awkwardly at school recitals, adding atmosphere on movie soundtracks, and even piped through crackling elevators speakers. Beethoven certainly didn’t have an easy path to success, though. His teacher once called him hopeless, and he even lost his hearing during his career! Luckily for music lovers everywhere, Beethoven didn’t just “roll over.”
7. Jay Z
A modern King of Hip Hop, rapper and entrepreneur Jay Z had a (very) checkered rise to fame and fortune. Shawn Carter was born in the projects in Brooklyn where he made money and connections by selling drugs. He started his music career by selling tracks out of his trunk until forming his own label with friends. Even after releasing acclaimed albums, Jay Z’s rise wasn’t smooth—he ran into legal trouble repeatedly, but his talent and boldness have confirmed him as one of the most influential rappers of our time.
8. Stephen King
The King of Horror faced his own horrors—at the hands of publishers and his own high standards. A sufferer since childhood of anxiety and depression, the stress of writing and publication took a harsh toll on his mental and emotional health. He was rejected no less than 30 times while trying to publish Carrie and tossed out the manuscript in despair, only for his wife to retrieve it—thankfully!
9. Vera Wang
Although her name has become synonymous with fashion, this trendy dress designer originally had very different dreams. She trained to be an ice skater, and tried out for the Olympic figure-skating team in 1968. After failing to make the cut, Vera Wang pursued a career in publishing, serving as an editor for Vogue magazine until she was passed over for the editor-in-chief position. Staying true to the theme and passion of fashion running through her life, she finally found her success as a top-tier wedding dress designer.
10. The Beatles
The Beatles are one of the most beloved rock bands of all time. Along with the Rolling Stones and others, they led the British Invasion of the 1960s. However, before their breakout appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the Beatles struggled to sign with a label. Decca Records turned them down because their sound was “on the way out.” Someone should have told those screaming mobs of teenagers.
What can we learn from these famous failures-turned-success stories? Each of them followed their passions, even in the face of multiple rejections. So remember to be patient and persistent. Remember that success takes time and lots of hard work, so don’t give up on your dream!
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