“You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
- Mary Pickford
How many times have you heard a down-and-out story about someone who went on to become a success? More times than you can count? Well, there’s a reason for that. Few people have achieved success without experiencing numerous setbacks.
Of course, it’s often hard to see the forest from the trees when experiencing significant failures or misfortunes. Seeing them as obstacles, though, rather than indicative of future unsuccessfulness can make all the difference.
“Avoid self-defeating assumptions”, advises Psychologist Robert Brooks. Just because your abilities, brilliant invention and so forth haven’t been recognized yet doesn’t mean that they will never be. Determination and “self-efficacy” are crucial. “To experience rejection implies that we were willing to take risks in order to pursue our dreams and goals,” emphasizes Brooks. The only sure way not to fail, is not to try. But that’s also a pretty sure way not to achieve. With that in mind, here is a brief list of setbacks that didn’t set them back – well, at least not for long.
1. Against All Odds
Some belong in a league of their own, having conquered what most would consider insurmountable obstacles. Of course, most of us are fortunate enough to not have to experience the tragic circumstances of Helen Keller, Terry Fox or Rick Hansen. But their tremendous achievements remind us what we can attain if we believe in ourselves and persevere.
2. Business Flops
So your first business was a flop? Join the club. And, luckily, it’s a group populated with many famous business people. Bill Gates, Lewis Tappan and Walt Disney are but a few who had their first venture tank.
3. Novels that May Have Languished
The Diary of Anne Frank, A Time to Kill, Dune, Carrie and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were all rejected many, many times. Sometimes the rejections were fairly insulting and contained very inaccurate projections. (NPR has an amusing short segment on the subject.)
4. Oprah Winfrey
Although MadTV has portrayed her as a creature from beyond (in a sketch I can only describe as hilarious), I’m a big fan of Oprah, especially since her life serves as a tremendous example of what can be achieved if you have the passion and motivation to keep going in spite of the odds. She grew up black and poor, was fired from her job as a news anchor, was repeatedly asked to change her name, appearance and, well, just about everything that made her who she was (including being “too emotional”). She went on to become the woman we know now: one of the most powerful celebrities and the richest in entertainment. At a recent Stanford Commencement ceremony, she imparted the following words of wisdom: “We all stumble. We all have setbacks. If things go wrong, you hit a dead end—as you will—it’s just life’s way of saying time to change course. … If you really get the lesson, you pass and you don’t have to repeat the class. If you don’t get the lesson, it shows up wearing another pair of pants—or skirt—to give you some remedial work.”
It’s too bad Apple didn’t work out. Oh wait… Although the company can now boast about the success of their Mac and the IPhone phenomenon, “Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were rebuffed by Atari Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. when they tried to sell an early Apple computer”.
6. Harrison Ford
Ford who went on to become “Indiana Jones” was fired from Columbia Pictures and told he would never make it. This was just one of the jobs he was apparently not suitable for.
7. Woody Allen
Allen has said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” He’s had many successful films (including Annie Hall) but he’s also seen many films flop at the box office as well. And although he is an Oscar winning writer and director he was, by his own admission “thrown out of New York University quite rapidly” when he was a film major at the school.
8. Thomas Watson
Watson bounced back from his failures and went on to make IBM the success it became. He didn’t allow falure to discourage him, instead he encouraged others to:”Double your rate of failure. You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. It is better to aim at perfection and miss it than to aim at imperfection and hit it. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the far side.”
9. Abraham Lincoln
While claims of his “failures” might be somewhat exaggerated, there is little doubt that the road to Presidency was anything but smooth for Lincoln who was defeated many times and experienced many personal tragedies before being elected at 51.
10. Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison “reportedly tried over 2,000 different experiments before he got the first incandescent light bulb to work. When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail so many times he replied, ‘I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2,000-step process.’”
11. J.K. Rowling
Rowling went from being unemployed to creating one of the world’s most popular characters in fiction. Her book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Potter” was rejected by 12 publishers before being published. The “Harry Potter” series has since been credited with getting children back into reading – and making her a phenomenal success.
12. Simon Cowell
Cowell made himself known as the King of Nice. OK, that’s not true, but Cowell made his unique personality his trademark and didn’t let his failures define him (though he seems to relish in pointing out those of others). Even after his music company folded, he wound up in debt and had his show canceled, he eventually landed back on his feet.
“America’s Department Store” would not exist today had R.H. Macy given up. He “failed seven times as a businessman before achieving ultimate success.”
14. The Beatles
Rejected by the Decca Recording Company who proclaimed: “‘We don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out.’ These words would soon come back to haunt them when the group, who happened to be called The Beatles, became the biggest band in the world, shifting over half a billion units within 10 years.”
15. Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. But he’s still considered by many as the greatest baseball player in history. He hit 714 home runs and famously stated “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
We’re fond of asking questions here – and we want to know whose “failures” remind you to keep plugging along. Any setbacks of your own that you overcame to realize your dreams?