11 Famous Failures That Led to Success (And the Lessons They Teach)


Have you ever noticed how focused we are on winners? Most of our time and attention is devoted to people who have already succeeded — entertainers who now fill the stadiums or walk the red carpet, influential politicians, famous CEOs. But that's merely the end of the story. So much more can be learned from the failures that got them there. Failure provides some of life's most enduring lessons.

One part of our culture where failure is not only accepted but is actually looked upon favorably is in business, among entrepreneurs. To entrepreneurs failure is worn like a badge of courage. It often leads them to greater insights and solutions and, with a healthy dose of persistence, eventual success. This helps to explain why the United States continues to lead the world in innovation.

Here are 11 examples of initial failures — and the lessons learned — by entrepreneurs and others who ultimately achieved great success in their fields.

1. Fran Tarkenton

Tarkenton is an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, a television personality, and businessman. But his transition to entrepreneurship came with a costly lesson. Says Tarkenton, "When I was 27, a lawyer friend told me he could help me start a business, and he could run it, but I should use my money." Later, after spending $250,000, he opened up Scrambler's Village restaurant in Atlanta, but it never caught on. The lawyer lost some of his time; Tarkenton lost all the money. But he picked himself up, learned from the experience, and founded a successful computer software company.

Lesson: Be wary of shortcuts and do your homework before making a big decision.

2. Barbara Corcoran

One of the Sharks of TV's "Shark Tank," Corcoran is one of 10 children, all of whom became business owners. In her book Shark Tales she describes her failures without apologies. She had 23 jobs — and was fired from three of them — before finally finding success in New York City real estate. Ms. Corcoran sets an example for how to confront and overcome failure, using it to fuel future success. But she also shows how it can help build confidence and self-fulfillment.

Lesson: Accept failure as a gift that helps you learn how to do it better next time.

3. Harrison Ford

The actor struggled for nine years, getting only small non-credited movie roles and working on the side as a carpenter to support his wife and two sons. He was hired to build cabinets at the home of director George Lucas, who recognized his talent and cast him in a supporting role in the film "American Grafitti." Shortly afterwards, Ford was hired by Lucas to read lines for actors auditioning for "Star Wars." Lucas was so impressed with Ford's character portrayals during the readings that he offered the Han Solo role to the cabinet maker. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Lesson: Get your message out there. Find as many ways as you can to open doors.

4. J.K. Rowling

A struggling novelist, Rowling nurtured her vision to become an author during a seven-year period that included the death of her mother, divorce from her first husband, and raising her children in near-poverty. After her manuscript was repeatedly rejected by major publishers — 12 times, in fact — a small London publisher chose to publish it only after the CEO's 8-year old daughter begged her father to print the book. Rowling's Harry Potter books have now sold more than 400 million copies. The franchise holds the distinction of having both the best-selling book series in history and also the highest grossing film series in history.

Lesson: Follow your passion.

5. The Beatles

After two years of practicing and performing relentlessly, often for 10 or more hours a day, the Beatles were finally given their first audition for a recording contract with Decca records. Decca turned them down without hesitation, stating that "guitar groups are on the way out."

Lesson: Nobody wants to be the first to like a new idea (or sound) — but everybody wants to be second.

6. Reed Hastings

The shock of a $40 late fee charge in 1997 for a VHS tape of Apollo 13 spurred Reed Hastings to explore the idea of how to create a movie rental business by mail. So he started a company called Netflix. His original "pay per rental" business model was like Blockbuster's, and it wasn't very popular. So he listened to customer feedback and in 1999 he re-launched the business as a subscription service. Netflix wound up almost single-handedly putting Blockbuster out of business, and Hastings continues to adapt his business model to meet changing technology and customer needs. Netflix now has over 40 million streaming customers and an academy award-nominated original production, The Square.

Lesson: Listen to those who have something constructive to say, and be open to "pivoting" (changing direction) based on their feedback.

7. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah, of course, hosted one of the highest ranking TV shows in history and is the richest self-made woman and the only black female billionaire. However, she was fired from her first television job as an anchor in Baltimore. According to CNN, Oprah's first boss told her she was too emotional and not right for television.

Lesson: Avoid the naysayers. Recognize how to distinguish between those with "can do" versus "can't do" attitudes.

8. Tom Corley

After his book Rich Habits was published, Corley spent 18 months attempting to drum up publicity from 1,000 newspaper and magazine book editors (none of whom reviewed the book) and dozens of schools, libraries, civic, and business groups all to no avail. Throughout the process, though, he learned who the few key media players were and then focused on getting their attention. The strategy worked. A series of four interviews — with Yahoo! Finance, Dave Ramsey, MSN Personal Finance, and CBS TV — almost instantly catapulted the book to the #1 Bestseller position on Amazon.

Lesson: Focus. Identify the one or two activities that will generate the biggest outcome.

9. Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel submitted his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, to 27 different publishers. All of them rejected it. According to Geisel, as he was walking home to burn the manuscript he happened to run into an old Dartmouth classmate who helped him find a publisher for the book. Dr. Seuss went on to become a legendary children's author of classics like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. His books have sold over 600 million copies.

Lesson: You can't always do it alone. Use your network and seek the help of good partners.

10. James Dyson

The British inventor, industrial designer, and founder of the Dyson company is best known for inventing the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. What is less well known is that, while developing his vacuum, he went through 5,126 failed prototypes before getting it right. He also exhausted his savings in the process. He is now worth an estimated $4.5 billion, according to Forbes.

Lesson: Persistence, persistence, persistence!

11. "Colonel" Harland David Sanders

For decades, Harland Sanders held many jobs including fireman, insurance salesman, and gas station owner before trying his hand at selling fried chicken from a roadside restaurant in Kentucky. Just as his local restaurant was gaining some traction the construction of a nearby highway put him out of business. He then made over 1,000 pitches of his chicken recipe to investors before, at age 68, he found a buyer and started franchising the business. Seven years later he sold the fried chicken company for $15 million.

Lesson: It's never too late to start.

What would you consider your most valuable lesson learned? Please share in comments!

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