Courage to continue: 7 big successes who failed first

Posted by | April 23, 2015 | Good stuff, How I got my dream job, Looking for work

Courage to continue - big successes who failed first

As a job-seeker, you occasionally experience days when life seems particularly awesome. The sun shines, your job applications are eagerly received, and it turns out that a potential new boss shares your fondness for potted shrimp and Kim Kardashian. Gold star!

On other days, well… it’s less like your parade is being rained on, more like your parade has been caught in a freak electrical storm and some of the floats are actually on fire. Perhaps a prime job interview suddenly nose-dived out of nowhere, a Dream Job has been snaffled by your arch nemesis or your post-apocalyptic cookery book has been rejected by the 17th publisher in a row.

Whatever the reason, sometimes it’s hard to keep going. That’s why I’ve put together a list of 7 people who, despite failing first, kept going and became super-successful in their chosen field. Hopefully, it helps inspire you to get back out there, pour water on that parade-fire, rescue the brass band from drowning, and keep going!

#1. Michael Jordan: kicked out of high school basketball team, kept going

Micahel Jordan, by Steve Lipofsky at

Michael Jordan slam drunks. Attribution: Steve Lipofsky at

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed — Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is perhaps the most well-known professional basketball player ever (and who can forget Space Jam?). But in high school, as the story goes, Michael Jordan was cut from his basketball team. What did he do? He went home, locked himself in his room, and cried.*

But did he give up? Never.


#2. Oprah Winfrey:  not ‘fit for television’, kept going

Oprah Winfrey, queen of an empire.

Oprah Winfrey, empire in herself. Attribution: vargas2040,

 Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire — Oprah Winfrey 

The “Queen of All Media” is,  according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world. She’s also a survivor of a traumatic childhood and adolescence.

Given her success, it may come as some surprise to learn that early on in her career, Ms O. was fired from a position as News Anchor, because she ‘wasn’t fit for television’. How wrong that boss was.


#3. The Beatles: ‘no future in show business’, kept going

The Beatles arrive in New York City. 1964

The Beatles arrive in NYC, 1964

I never studied anything, really. I didn’t study the drums. I joined bands and made all the mistakes onstage — Ringo Starr

The Beatles. Where to begin? They’re still the best-selling music artists in the United States, they’ve had more number-one albums on the British charts and sold more singles in the UK than anyone else. They are still considered, by some, to be the most successful artists of all time.

So one can only assume that Decca Recording Studios must somewhat regret their comment as they turned The Beatles away: “We don’t like their sound, they have no future in show business.”

#4. Dr Seuss: rejected by 27 different publishers, kept going

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) by Al Ravenna.

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) in 1957 by Al Ravenna.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not — Dr Seuss

The magic of Dr Seuss is still beloved. Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) wrote and illustrated dozens of children’s books, of which 46 were published.

But success did not come automatically: his first children’s book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected by 27 different publishers. But Seuss knew the value of his work, and the book eventually found a home with Vanguard Press.

#5. J.K Rowling: rejected by 12 publishers, kept going

J.K. Rowling accepting an honorary degree in 2006.

J.K. Rowling accepting an honorary degree in 2006.

 I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had. —  J. K. Rowling

Joanne Rowling needs no introduction, but let’s give her one anyway: she is the author of the Harry Potter series, the best-selling book series in history which became the highest-grossing film series in history.

The legend is thus: after finishing her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone on an old manual typewriter, she acquired an agent who submitted the book to 12 publishers, all of whom rejected the book. Finally — thank goodness —  Bloomsbury Press snapped it up.

#6. Vincent Van Gogh: sold one painting in his lifetime, kept going

Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait, dedicated to Paul Gauguin

Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait, dedicated to Paul Gauguin

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced — Vincent Van Gogh

In the list of most expensive paintings in the world, Vincent Van Gogh is rivalled only by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. His paintings can be valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. But while Picasso and Warhol became very wealthy in their lifetimes, the word on the street is that Van Gogh only sold ONE painting in his lifetime (1853-1890).

Van Gogh persistence is admirable: in the decade before his tragic death, he finished more than 2,100 artworks.

#7. Sylvester Stallone: turned down $300,000 when very broke, kept going

Sylvester Stallone in 1988 in Sweden for Rambo III

Sylvester Stallone in 1988 in Sweden for Rambo III

“It was really insane at the time ’cause I was pretty broke,” —  Sylvester Stallone

When Sty Stallone was 30 years old and had $100 in his bank account, he turned down an offer of $300,000 (today worth over one million) for the rights to Rocky. The reason? He wanted to make his screenplay on his terms, and he wanted to star in the film himself.

This risky step paid off.  Rocky became a six-film success, making more than a billion dollars, and Stallone became a superstar.

The next time your parade is rained on —  or burnt to a crisp —  try thinking of these seven successes who failed first but kept going. For extra protection in warding off electrical storms, I recommend eating a large bowl of icecream.

Have YOU ever had job-seeking despair?  Comment below to share your story, or to spread the love with tips for getting through those dark times.

*To be honest, this story has been refuted. But it’s such a good one, I couldn’t bear to leave it out.


By Liz Willoughby-Martin

Like this post? You might also like First-day nerves: preparing for your new ‘do good’ job and Escape the daily grind: take a radical sabbatical


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