When is the last time you beat yourself up for failing at something? Failure is a part of life, as plenty of successful people have found. In fact, some of the most successful people in history failed miserably before finding success. Read on to learn about some of the most epic failures in history.
Starbucks almost didn’t make it out of Seattle.
1. Howard Schultz Was Turned Down By 217 Investors
The business magnate who began the incredibly successful Starbucks coffee chain almost was confined to the one small coffee shop that he opened in Seattle. The Seattle coffee shop was an instant success, but the parent company behind his venture didn’t want the business to get too big. So Schultz decided to buy out the Starbucks company.
Doing so would require an immense amount of capital, but Schultz was turned down by 217 investors who didn’t believe that his plan would work. In his words, “You have to have a tremendous belief in what you’re doing and just persevere.” The Starbucks empire led to a series of coffee chains and coffee shop culture the world over.
2. Elizabeth Arden’s First Business Venture Failed
Elizabeth Arden is a household name, as it represents a global cosmetics empire with over one billion dollars in sales annually. However, the woman behind the brand, Florence Nightingale Graham, known professionally as Elizabeth Arden, failed in her first business venture after only six months.
She eventually traveled to France, where she learned all of the latest beauty and cosmetic techniques being used at salons over there. She brought the knowledge back and used it in her Red Door Salon in New York City. The business empire that she created made make-up accessible to people outside of the upper classes.
Singer Katy Perry is currently a judge on American Idol.
3. Multiple Record Labels Dropped Katy Perry
While Katy Perry seemed to hit overnight success with her single “I Kissed a Girl,” the album was nine years in the making. Her first album, Katy Hudson, was a gospel record that she recorded when she was 17; it sold only 200 copies before the record label ceased operations. She later signed on with Java, but its parent company dropped it, and she lost her deal.
Columbia Records was next, but before her record with that company was completed, it dropped her, too. Finally, Capitol Records took a chance on her. She recorded, “I Kissed a Girl” nine years after she had dropped out of high school to pursue a music career. Only then did she become a household name.
The author of Harry Potter failed so many times that she became suicidal.
4. JK Rowling’s Life Was Marked By Failure
The acclaimed author of the Harry Potter series was rejected from Oxford University before she enrolled at Exeter. Following a tumultuous childhood, with a sick mother and a complicated relationship with her father, she couldn’t find a stable job or relationship. When she did get married, she experienced abuse at the hands of her husband.
She got the idea for Harry Potter in 1990, when she was 25 years old, but three years later, she had only completed three chapters. She and her daughter had to move in with her sister in Edinburgh, by which time she considered herself to be a complete failure and was diagnosed as clinically depressed and suicidal.
After her sister encouraged her to complete Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 12 publishing houses rejected the manuscript before a tiny publisher in London offered her a £1500 advance in 1997. Seven years later, she was the first person to become a billionaire as an author.
Microsoft was Bill Gates’ first success after failing.
5. Bill Gates’ First Software Company Failed Before It Started
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft with partner Paul Allen, demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age. When he was 17 years old, he and Paul designed software that he intended to create into a business called Traf-o-Data. The software would analyze vast amounts of automobile traffic data and automatically generate results.
When a representative of the County of Seattle’s traffic department came to view the revolutionary new software, it didn’t work. Gates’ and Allen’s first business venture failed, but a few years later, the duo dropped out of Harvard to create a business that would revolutionize not only automobile traffic but all of computing: Microsoft.
Actor Keanu Reeves stars in the John Wick franchise.
6. Keanu Reeves’ Life Was Marked By Tragedy Before The Matrix
Keanu Reeves was born in Lebanon to an American father and British mother, but his father abandoned the family when Keanu was three. He didn’t see him again until he was 13. The young Keanu lived in Lebanon, Australia, and Canada while his mother went through four tumultuous marriages.
He moved to the US and married Jennifer Syme, but their first child together was stillborn, and Syme died a year and a half later. Though he is known as one of the most talented and gracious actors in Hollywood, his life was profoundly shaped by tragedy and grief before he made it to the big screen.
The author of The Call of the Wild and numerous other stories about life in the far north received so many rejections that he considered himself to be a failure. He dropped out of college and moved out to the Klondike for a year to recover from personal tragedy, and when he returned, decided that he wanted to get published.
He wrote every single day, but every submission that he made to magazines and newspapers was rejected. Finally, after new printing technologies caused the print market to expand, things seemed to turn around. However, he was rejected 50 more times before finally getting published.
Chicken Soup for the Soul is one of the most famous inspirational book series in the world.
8. 144 Publishers Rejected Mark Canfield’s Proposal
Mark Canfield set out to publish a book of inspirational stories that would help motivate people, the title of which would be Chicken Soup for the Soul. When he told one of the publishers that he hoped the book would sell at least 500,000 copies, the publisher laughed at him.
A small publishing house decided to take a chance on Canfield’s idea, and Chicken Soup for the Soul has since sold over 500 million copies and led to an entire series of inspirational books, such as Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul and Chicken Soup for the Parent’s Soul.
9. Jim Carrey Lived in a Van Before Finding Success
Jim Carrey was born into such severe poverty that in high school, he had to work eight-hour shifts as a janitor after classes. He and his family lived in a VW van because they didn’t have enough money to afford a house. Eventually, though, they had enough money for his father to drive him to Toronto to do a standup routine at a comedy club. The act was a failure.
Carrey soon moved to Hollywood and found some regular acting roles, but he didn’t get his lucky break until 11 years later when he was cast in the show In Living Color. Finally, when he was 32 years old, he became the star in the film Ace Ventura. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Elvis Presley was known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
10. Elvis Presley Was Told He Couldn’t Sing
The King was born into such dire poverty that when his parents could no longer pay for their shotgun house in Mississippi, they moved up to Memphis, Tennessee. There, when Elvis was 18 years old, he auditioned with Sun Records but didn’t get a deal.
He also auditioned for a quartet called the Songfellows, but they didn’t accept him because, in Elvis’ words, “They told me I couldn’t sing.” He ended up becoming a truck driver before his partner on the road suggested he join a group that was looking for a vocalist. When they got a professional DJ’s attention, Elvis the Pelvis went down in history.
When asked to think of the most brilliant mind that ever lived, most people will immediately give the name Albert Einstein. But the author of the theories of general relativity and special relativity didn’t speak until he was four years old. His teachers labeled him hopeless, and when he was 16 years old, he failed the exam for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School.
Einstein completed university, but barely. By the time his father passed away, he had considered Albert to be a complete failure. Albert Einstein became an insurance salesman, and then a clerk at a patent office before his theories of relativity led to him getting the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.
Dr. Seuss and some of his legendary illustrations.
12. Dr. Seuss’s First Book Was Rejected 28 Times
Theodore Geisel, known the world over as Dr. Seuss, was both an artist and illustrator who drew for many notable companies. He wrote his first book, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street when he was 33 years old. He sent it to numerous publishing houses, and it was rejected 28 times before Random House decided to take a chance on him.
Today, Dr. Seuss is a household name, and his books are still a staple in children’s libraries. His books have sold over 600 million copies all around the world, and they are still being made into successful movies. He could have given up after the 28th rejection, but he held in and the 29th time was a charm.
We can hardly imagine comedy without the legendary Jerry Seinfeld, but when he first gave a shot at an open-mic night in New York City, a heckler jeered, “Is this your first time?” He was booed off the stage. Though dejected by the failure, he didn’t give up.
Seinfeld continued doing stand-up around the New York City circuit until he was picked up for a role on the show Benson. He later appeared next to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show before he and Larry David pitched their idea about a sitcom to NBC. In 2002, it was considered by TV Guide to be the most excellent show in history.
Henry Ford went down in history for not only designing the Model T, which made automobiles accessible to the mass public, but also for inventing the assembly line, which made production incredibly more quick and efficient. But his first business venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, failed after two years because he couldn’t pay back a loan.
His financiers decided to give him another chance, but the venture failed again because of internal relations. Two years later, he found a new financial backer and began the Ford Motor Company. Today, the name Ford is practically synonymous with automobiles and the assembly line.
15. Charles Darwin’s Father Considered Him a Failure
Charles Darwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh as a teenager to study medicine, but he dropped out. The next year, he enrolled at Cambridge University, but he dropped out of there, as well. His father referred to him as an “idle gentleman,” meaning that he wasted his time on frivolous pursuits, namely his love of the natural world.
Darwin’s niche wasn’t to be in medicine but in following his passion for nature. Today, he is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and influential scientific minds in history. This was despite, to quote his autobiography, “I was considered by all my masters and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.”
Stores didn’t want to carry a vacuum cleaner that didn’t use bags.
16. James Dyson’s Vacuum Cleaner Almost Didn’t Succeed
Dyson brand cleaners are some of the most innovative in the world, but while James Dyson was constructing the prototypes, he and his wife were so broke that she had to teach private art lessons for them to make ends meet. When he finally succeeded, most stores wouldn’t sell his model because they didn’t want to upset the companies that sold vacuum cleaner bags.
In Dyson’s words, “There are countless times an inventor can give up on an idea. By the time I made my 15th prototype, my third child was born. By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies. By 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash. These were tough times, but each failure brought me closer to solving the problem.”
Beyonce Knowles performed with Destiny’s Child before going solo.
17. Beyonce Almost Didn’t Become the Queen Bey
Before there was Destiny’s Child, there was a group called Girl’s Tyme, which Beyonce and some friends created when she was eight years old. The following year, the group appeared on the show Star Search and lost, and the defeat shattered the young Beyonce. Still, the group held together until she was a teenager when the name was changed to Destiny’s Child.
Destiny’s Child had its fair share of problems, including internal struggles among the group’s members. Of the original six members of Girl’s Tyme, only two remained in Destiny’s Child after it was formed. They finally got a record deal with Columbia Records in 1996, and the rest is history. All of the single ladies are grateful to Queen Bey.
18. Emily Dickinson Was Unknown During Her Lifetime
Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous poets in American history, but during her lifetime, only 12 of her poems were published. Most of these poems were significantly altered by the publisher because they departed so far from the norm. She was such an introverted recluse that for much of her life, she only corresponded with people through letters.
After her death, her sister discovered over 1800 poems that Emily had written. Many of them were about controversial subjects, like death. However, her sister recognized their brilliance and had them published. Emily’s poetry is still honored today.
Curtis Jackson, who became known professionally as 50 Cent, grew up in the worst poverty that New York City had to offer. His mother was a drug dealer, and after she died, he began dealing drugs when he was only 12 years old. He was sentenced to 3 to 9 years for possession of drugs and a firearm but got out with six months of boot camp and a GED.
In 2000, Jackson was shot nine times. While he was recovering, he signed a deal with Columbia Records, but that deal turned south when he recorded the song “Ghetto Qur’an.” He went to Canada to record there, during which time he was picked up by Eminem and Dr. Dre. He became one of the most successful rappers in history.
Facebook came after a miserable failure, Facemash.
20. Harvard Shut Down Mark Zuckerberg’s First Website
The wildly successful creator of Facebook failed at his first venture into social networking. He created a website called Facemash, which allowed people to look at sets of photos and decide which person looked better. Students complained, and rightly so. Harvard shut down the website and forced Zuckerberg to apologize.
When he and his partners launched Facebook, they became some of the wealthiest people in the world, and their website connected people all over the globe. Zuckerberg has since had to endure lawsuits and investigations to keep his website going.
21. Colonel Sanders Failed in Numerous Business Ventures
The Colonel was 65 years old before a restaurant finally took him up on his idea to sell his famous “secret recipe” chicken. He began creating the recipe as a young boy, as his family grew up in poverty, and he had to take care of himself and his siblings from a very early age. He learned to cook and was a proficient chef by the age of 10.
Despite numerous business ventures – some of which failed due to fire or other disasters, some of which failed due to the war, and some of which just failed – he couldn’t seem to make a company successful. After being rejected by 1,099 restaurants, he finally found one that decided to use his recipe to build a chicken franchise. The rest is Kentucky fried history.
Charlie Chaplin was an infamous silent film actor.
22. Charlie Chaplin Was Born Into Less-Than-Privileged Circumstances
The greatest silent film actor in history was born in London, England. His father abandoned him, his mother, and brother when Charlie was only two years old. His mother was mentally ill and had no stable income, so he and his brother frequently went for days without food. At the age of seven, he had to go to the poor house, where he worked long hours in exchange for a place to live and paltry food.
Charlie’s mother went into a mental asylum, and his alcoholic father died of cirrhosis. He and his brother had to fend for themselves, which led to them traveling to the United States. Charlie found himself in Hollywood, where he was rejected multiple times before becoming the quintessential actor of the silent film era.
23. George Lucas Was Turned Down by United Artists and Universal
When George Lucas pitched his idea for Star Wars, both United Artists and Universal turned him down. He had previously failed in his first movie attempt, which led to a financial loss for the producing studio. But American Graffiti was successful enough that Fox 21 decided to give Lucas a chance.
Star Wars became the highest-grossing film to date, even beating out Stephen Spielberg’s ET. Lucas went on to produce other hits, like the Indiana Jones series. In the past few years, the Star Wars series has been revived with plenty of new titles added to the repertoire.
Marilyn Monroe is famous for her looks, movies, and mysterious death.
24. Marilyn Monroe Grew Up in Foster Care
Growing up in foster care doesn’t make you a failure, but it certainly can make you believe that success will always be out of reach. Marilyn Monroe went into foster care after her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia; the future Hollywood actress developed a stutter and became incredibly withdrawn, at least in part because of the abuse she endured in foster homes.
She went on to grace the covers of dozens of magazines before signing on with 20th Century Fox, but she didn’t find any work with the company. She had to give lessons to make ends meet, and her six-month contract wasn’t renewed. Despite signing on with numerous companies, she didn’t become successful until she appeared in some critically-acclaimed films.
When Mary Kay Ash was passed over for a business promotion, she decided to quit her job instead of staying in a dead-end position. She wrote a book that she intended to publish, but the book instead became the business plan for the cosmetics company that she would begin with her husband, Mel.
But Mel died a month before the company was set to launch, leaving her without a partner. She had to take out a $5000 loan from her oldest son in order to launch the business, which became successful beyond her wildest dreams. The company that empowers women is one of the most recognizable makeup brands today.
26. Abraham Lincoln Lost Many Elections Before Becoming President
Abraham Lincoln was the defining politician of the nineteenth century. He took the office of president when the country was so divided that the Southern states seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America. The secession led to a four-year bloodbath, the Civil War. Lincoln served as president throughout the Civil War and effectively abolished slavery.
But for a while, it looked like Lincoln might not be cut out for politics. When he was 23 years old, in 1832, he lost his job and the election for a spot in the Illinois legislature. When he was 39, he failed to secure an appointment as Commissioner General of the General Land Office, and ten years later, he lost the election to the US Senate. Had Lincoln let any of those setbacks cause him to give up, the United States may still be a land divided by slavery.
27. Chris Gardener Battled Homelessness and Jail Before Becoming a Successful Stockbroker
If you have seen the film The Pursuit of Happyness, then you are familiar with the story of Chris Gardener. As a child, he, his mother, and siblings were abused by his stepfather, and he spent time in the foster care system. He got married as a young man but had an affair and got the mistress pregnant.
When his second child was born, he was unable to provide for his family on his paltry income. He became a medical equipment salesman until the fateful day when he asked a man driving a red Ferrari how he could get one, too. Before he rose to stratospheric success as a stockbroker, he spent time homeless and in jail.
When Madonna arrived in New York City to pursue a dance career, she had only $35 in her pocket. She took a job at a Dunkin’ Donuts, but after squirting a customer with jelly, was fired. She was later robbed at knifepoint, an experience that left her cautious and afraid.
She landed some small roles in New York City before getting spotted by the founder of Sire Records, Seymour Stein. She released some singles before releasing her first album, Madonna. She went on to become the Queen of Pop and an icon of pure Americana.
Michael Jordan is one of the best basketball players to ever live.
29. Michael Jordan Didn’t Make Varsity in High School
When the 15-year-old Michael Jordan saw his name on the list for the junior varsity team, he cried. However, his mother encouraged him to continue playing, and he stayed on the JV team, imagining that list without his name on it. At the age of 21, he signed on with the Chicago Bulls and became one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
In Jordan’s words, ”I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Fred Astaire was a beloved actor during the Golden Age.
30. Fred Astaire Was Told He Couldn’t Act
Fred Astaire, like many child stars today, was immensely successful with his sister when the duo were children. His parents moved them to New York City so that they could develop careers as dancers and travel the Broadway circuit, which they did. After Fred’s sister got married and he set out on his own as an adult, though, he couldn’t get a break.
He auditioned in Hollywood, but was told that he couldn’t act and was a bit bald, although he could dance a little. It’s a good thing he didn’t give up, because the famous actor Gene Kelly said, “The history of dance on film begins with Astaire.” He acted in 31 musicals, TV shows, and sound recordings.
Jay-Z grew up in utter poverty in the housing projects of Brooklyn, New York. His family life was unstable, growing up with a single mother after his father abandoned the family, and for a time, he resorted to selling drugs. During that time, though, he developed an interest in music.
Unable to get a record deal, Jay-Z sold CDs out of his trunk before forming his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records. His career finally took off when his debut album soared up to number 23 on the Billboard 200 before going platinum.
32. Richard Branson Nearly Lost His Shirt in Business
The creator of the Virgin Group, which began as Virgin Records, began his company while he was in college by distributing a magazine that sold discounted records. When he opened his own record shop in 1971, he ended up having to pay so many fines and penalties to the government that his mother had to remortgage the house.
Virgin Records became a huge success, and Branson went on to create the Virgin Atlantic airline. But in order to keep the airline solvent, he had to sell the record label, a heartbreaking loss for someone whose first success was in the record business.
Oprah Winfrey has her own television network, book club, magazine, and more.
33. Oprah Was Considered Unfit for Television
Oprah Winfrey was born into dire poverty, growing up with her teenage mother and her grandmother. She was sexually abused by family and friends, and when she was 14, gave birth to a baby who died shortly after. She had to overcome tremendous odds to become the icon of television that she is today.
After college, she co-anchored a news show in Baltimore, but the producer removed her, stating that she was unfit for television. She went on to host a show called AM Chicago and was so good at it that it became The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Today, Hershey’s is synonymous with chocolate success.
34. Milton Hershey’s First Business Failed
The man whose name is synonymous with chocolate was fired from his first job when he was 14. He later went to work for a candy maker and decided to start his own business, but that business failed. After traveling the country and not finding any opportunities, he moved back to the family farm in Pennsylvania.
There, he learned how to make chocolate out of condensed milk and created the Lancaster Caramel Company. It succeeded, and he sold it for one million dollars to create the Hershey’s Chocolate Company. It is one of the most famous brands in the world.
The man who would be immortalized as Rocky Balboa in the hit Rocky films was so destitute after moving to New York City that he had to sell his dog for $25 in order to pay his electric bill. He sat in 1500 offices of talent agents, scouts, and recruiters, all of which rejected him. He became homeless and spent three weeks sleeping in a bus station.
After writing the script for Rocky, he was offered $350,000 on the grounds that he did not act on the film. He rejected the offer and eventually got a deal for $35,000 plus a percentage of sales, with him as the star. The film grossed $200 million at the box office.
Steve Jobs’ early life was so filled with failure that he dropped out of college to travel the world and study Zen Buddhism. After he and Steve Wozniak formed Apple Computers in 1976, he hired a CEO who was not up to the job. Unable to fire the CEO, Jobs left Apple Computers to form a new company, NeXT.
NeXT became a successful company, but Apple struggled. Apple eventually acquired NeXT in 1997, bringing Jobs back to the company that he had founded. He went on to design products that would revolutionize computing and make it a part of our daily lives, but only after failing numerous times.
Stephen King is notorious for his horror books, which turn into films like It.
37. Stephen King Kept Tabs of His Rejection Letters
By the time he was 14 years old, Stephen King had received so many rejection letters that the nail he had put in his wall to display them could no longer bear their weight. He continued writing after college but couldn’t seem to land a job. When he began his breakout hit, Carrie, he became so discouraged that he threw it in the trash.
His wife retrieved the manuscript and urged him to complete it. It was rejected by 30 publishers before Doubleday offered him a $2500 advance. He soon sold the rights for it for $200,00, and he has since become one of the most famous authors in history.
Steven Spielberg is one of the most famous directors of all time.
38. Steven Spielberg’s 1941 Was a Flop
Spielberg applied to attend college at the University of Southern California, but his application was rejected due to poor grades. After graduating from California State University at Long Beach, he produced the blockbuster Jaws, which propelled him to instant fame and success.
However, riding on the success of Jaws couldn’t prevent his next movie, 1941, from being a flop. It lost so much money that his career nearly ended. He had to push through and persevere before being able to continue making his blockbuster films, which included ET and The Color Purple.
39. Soichiro Honda Had to Pawn His Wife’s Wedding Ring
The man who would build the Honda car company, after apprenticing at a mechanic shop, set out to open his own automotive shop. He tried to create piston rings for the Toyota company, but he was so poor that he had to pawn his wife’s wedding ring. Ultimately, the rings he designed were deemed unsuitable.
After going back to school and getting back to the drawing board, he created rings that Toyota accepted. However, the factory that he built to construct those rings were destroyed in World War II. The next factory was destroyed by an earthquake. Undeterred, Honda went on to build the motorcycle that would become the Honda Motorbike.
40. The Beatles Were Told They Would Never Succeed
Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and George Harrison drove through a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve in 1961 to record some tracks at the Decca Recording Studio. The sound tech there, Dick Rowe, said that they would never succeed and that “guitar groups were on their way out.” They didn’t give up.
After five months, The Beatles signed on with Parlophone Records and released the first of many hits that year, “Love Me Do.” Today, they remain one of the most iconic guitar bands in all of history and a cultural symbol of the 1960s.
41. Studio Executives Told Harrison Ford He Would Never Succeed in Show Business
When Harrison Ford was 22, he moved to LA to try to break into show business. He failed his first auditions for voice-overs but, two years later, landed an uncredited role as an extra in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. However, the executives at the studio told him that he would never make it in the business.
Ford didn’t give up and, nine years later, was cast by George Lucas in American Graffiti. Lucas and Ford became a dynamic duo, with Ford playing some of the main characters in the highly successful movies that Lucas produced, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. Today, he is one of the most famous actors in history.