Famous Failures who became Wildly Successful

By | April 19, 2017

There is a lot of comfort in checking out famous failures who succeeded later on in life. Many people have failed multiple times before hitting it big. Sometimes they’ve had to try and try again hundreds of times.

You may have heard that Did Michael Jordan got CUT from his high school basketball team before going on to be the greatest NBA player of all time. But did he really get CUT? Read on to find out the absolute truth!

I myself have tried several things in my life and failed. I’ve also been very successful in some things. One of the things I failed at was being terminated by a mission board after being a missionary with them for 9 years. Very devastating because I felt as if I’d given up my life to be a missionary with that group. Here is a picture of me and my young family in Thailand in 1995:

I picked up the pieces and moved on to something else. Finally I found something I could be happy with and then that industry changed after several years. After being successful in cable for about 9 years, the US government mandated a switch from analog signal to digital signal. That shook everything up and I moved on to security systems last fall.

I’m a hard worker and have often been successful, but I’ve had to adapt because of failure. I’m in the middle of reinventing myself in this very moment as well. The following 26 people adapted too, in very inspiring ways. Some of them are included in the embedded youtube video above. The following list of 26 people are some of my favorites that I gleaned from the lists of famous people who overcame failure at onlinecollege.org and lifehack.org.

After you read some of these, please leave your personal failure to success story on this growing list of real people on our social site for budding entrepreneurs: Any Failures to Success Stories Out There?

1. Henry Ford: Ford’s early businesses failed and left him broke five time before he founded the successful Ford Motor Company!

2. Bill Gates: Gates dropped out of Harvard and starting a failed first business called Traf-O-Data with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. After this of course, Gates created the global empire that is Microsoft.

3. Harland David Sanders: Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame had a hard time selling his chicken at first. His famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant accepted it!

4. Walt Disney: Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After that, Disney started a number of businesses that didn’t last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure. He kept plugging along, though of course. Disney’s take on failure:

“I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young… Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid.”

5. Albert Einstein: Einstein did not speak until he was four and did not read until he was seven, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. Eventually, he was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School.

He went on to win a Nobel Prize and altered the world’s approach to physics. I guess he was just thinking of the right thing to say for those first four years, lol.

6. Thomas Edison: In his early years, teachers told Edison he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Work was no better, as he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. Even as an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. Of course, all those unsuccessful attempts finally resulted in the design that worked.

Edison went on to hold more than 1,000 patents, including the phonograph and practical electric lamp. Death most likely spared his teachers the ignominy of their incorrect assessment.

7. Orville and Wilbur Wright: These brothers battled depression and family illness before starting the bicycle shop that would lead them to experimenting with flight. After numerous attempts at creating flying machines, several years of hard work, and tons of failed prototypes, the brothers finally created a plane that could get airborne and stay there.

8. Winston Churchill: This Nobel Prize-winning, twice-elected Prime Minster of the United Kingdom struggled in school and failed the sixth grade. After school he faced many years of political failures, as he was defeated in every election for public office until he finally became the Prime Minister at the ripe old age of 62!

9. Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln’s life wasn’t so easy. Lincoln’s failures were broad and numerous. He achieved the unique feat of leaving for a war a captain and returning a private (the lowest military rank). Lincoln didn’t stop failing there, however. He started numerous failed businesses and was defeated in numerous runs he made for public office.

He next took failure in stride during multiple failed business attempts. Undeterred, Lincoln marched into the political realm, where he launched several failed runs at political office before his ascendance to President.

10. Oprah Winfrey: Oprah is now one of the most iconic faces on TV as well as one of the richest and most successful women in the world. Oprah faced a hard road to get to that position though, enduring a rough and often abusive childhood as well as numerous career setbacks including being fired from her job as a television reporter because she was “unfit for tv.”

“There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

11. Harry S. Truman: This WWI vet, Senator, Vice President and eventual President eventually found success in his life, but not without a few missteps along the way. Truman started a store that sold silk shirts and other clothing–seemingly a success at first–only go bankrupt a few years later.

12. Jerry Seinfeld: Just about everybody knows who Seinfeld is, but the first time the young comedian walked on stage at a comedy club, he looked out at the audience, froze and was eventually jeered and booed off of the stage. Seinfeld knew he could do it, so he went back the next night, completed his set to laughter and applause, and the rest is history.

13. Fred Astaire: In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Astaire went on to become an incredibly successful actor, singer and dancer and kept that note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.

14. Charlie Chaplin: It’s hard to imagine film without the iconic Charlie Chaplin, but his act was initially rejected by Hollywood studio chiefs because they felt it was a little too nonsensical to ever sell.

15. Lucille Ball: During her career, Ball had thirteen Emmy nominations and four wins and also earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors. Before starring in I Love Lucy, Ball was widely regarded as a failed actress and a B movie star. Even her drama instructors didn’t feel she could make it, telling her to try another profession. She, of course, proved them all wrong.

16. Harrison Ford: In his first film, Ford was told by the movie execs that he simply didn’t have what it takes to be a star. Today, with numerous hits under his belt, iconic portrayals of characters like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and a career that stretches decades, Ford can proudly show that he does, in fact, have what it takes.

17. Vincent Van Gogh: Van Gogh was never a success during his lifetime but he plugged on with painting anyway, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. He himself sold just one painting, ‘The Red Vineyard’, during his lifetime, and the sale came not long before his death and it was to a friend for very little money.  Today a Van Gogh painting could cost you $100 million. From Wikipedia:

18. Charles Schultz: Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip has had enduring fame, yet this cartoonist had every cartoon he submitted rejected by his high school yearbook staff. Even after high school, Schultz didn’t have it easy, applying and being rejected for a position working with Walt Disney.

19. Steven Spielberg: Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. He was rejected TWICE by the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing.

Thirty-five years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA. His cinematic output has grossed more than $9 billion and brought him three Academy Awards. 

20. Monet: Today Monet’s work sells for millions of dollars and hangs in some of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Yet during his own time, it was mocked and rejected by the artistic elite, the Paris Salon. Monet kept at his impressionist style, which caught on and in many ways was a starting point for some major changes to art that ushered in the modern era.

21. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mozart began composing at the age of five, writing over 600 pieces of music that today are lauded as some of the best ever created. Yet during his lifetime, Mozart didn’t have such an easy time, and was often restless, leading to his dismissal from a position as a court musician in Salzberg. He struggled to keep the support of the aristocracy and died with little to his name.

22. Elvis Presley: As one of the best-selling artists of all time, Elvis has become a household name even years after his death. But back in 1954, Elvis was still a nobody, and Jimmy Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, fired Elvis Presley after just one performance telling him, “You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.” Presley went on to become the world’s biggest star with a legacy that endures.

23. The Beatles: Few people can deny the lasting power of this super group, still popular with listeners around the world today. When they were just starting out though, a recording company told them: “we don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” Good thing the Beatles didn’t quit!

24. 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 composing, his teachers felt he was hopeless at it and would never succeed with the violin or in composing. Beethoven kept plugging along, however, and composed some of the best-loved symphonies of all time–five of them while he was completely deaf.

25. Michael Jordan: Jordan was said to have been cut from his high school team. But the truth is: he didn’t make varsity. He was put on the JV team instead. Jordan took it personally but didn’t let this setback hold him back or keep him from keep trying until he had won 6 Championships and 5 MVPs. Jordan became arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. He famously said:

“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.”

26. Babe Ruth: He’s probably the most famous baseball player ever and you probably know Babe Ruth because of his home run record (714 during his career). But he also had the strikeout record for decades (1,330 in all). When asked about this he simply said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”



10 thoughts on “Famous Failures who became Wildly Successful

  1. carl

    What a fascinating article. I really enjoyed it. I am a huge fan of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, some of my most favorite movie actors. Great stuff! A Lot of them I had no idea, that they had such huge failures before becoming successful. I guess it is all in the mindset, just as some of your quotes show, like Oprah Winfrey’s quote. Thanks again for a wonderful article and I look forward to seeing some more interesting stuff from u.


    1. Tim Gillen Post author

      Thank you very much Carl. Any of us can hit it big, just takes persistence. Look at how many times it took Edison to get the light bulb!! Tim

  2. Aisha Labefo-Audu

    What a great write up of some of the most amazing people I have followed and read about over the years. When I saw Oprah Winfrey I knew this was the complete package all in one place. Very Inspiring and very Intriguing, great research and content. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Tim Gillen Post author

      Thank you so much Aisha. Yeah I love Oprah too. Fascinating how she has become such a mogul of success. Let’s become like her 🙂

  3. Marcin

    What an inspiring article!!! This makes you realise how much you don’t know about the people that became famous, how many times they have failed and what they had to go through before their dream came through. And most of the times we are tend to give up after one little failure and constantly complain about how our life is bad. Thank you for sharing, well put together and really inspirational.

    1. Tim Gillen Post author

      Thank you so much Marcin. I’m so glad you like it. Yeah so inspirational. I mean look at how many times Edison had to fail before he got electricity to work. Amazing. We all just have to keep at it and you never know when we’ll make something big happen 🙂


  4. Thomas

    This post is exactly what I needed to not give up on persisting to make my success story. I have had more than my share of failures, and I am hoping that this is the start of my success story. Thank you for posting this!


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