How some successful people failed in their life in early years

In today’s age of over inflated success stories where everyone is looking to get rich quick and does not have time to take a single misstep in the wrong direction, failure has become synonymous with incompetence. If you fail to get excellent marks in your academics, you are a failure; if you do not get into the choicest of colleges, you are a failure; if you do not get a job in a reputed company, you are a failure or of you do all the above and forget to have a life, you are a failure. Thus, instead of looking at failures as stepping stones to something bigger, our generation has starting dreading the f word. But there is a term in economics called as “opportunity cost”. Briefly what it means is that there is a hidden cost for everything that you do even though it is for free. For example even if you are taking a leisurely walk in the park, there is an opportunity cost in terms of the time being utilised in walking which could have been put on something more productive. Similarly there is a huge opportunity cost with NOT FAILING, i.e. you do not get to learn.


There is a famous quote which says “We learn from Failure, Not from Success”, and most of the people whom you consider successful would agree with this conclusion. Whether we like it or not failure is the building block of the path to our dreams. One must not be afraid of failing but be afraid of not learning from those failed outcomes since experience is the best teacher that a person has over his lifetime. Many successful people would have you believe that they have never failed in life to give themselves an aura of invincibility but either these people are lying or they aren’t what they are trying to portray and have not faced the test of times. To prove these points in even greater detail here is a list of 10 highly successful people who had to sail through rough waters to get to where they eventually got.

Thomas Alva Edison

By Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c05139. Source: wikipedia

Thomas Alva Edison is the embodiment of failing your way to success. Edison has over a thousand patents to his name out of which only a few namely the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion camera hit off with the public’s imagination. But he was never the one to get disheartened with any of his failures as he never believed that any effort put into constructing something is wasted effort. He looked at his failures like stepping stones to success. In his own words he says about his failures that “I have not failed. I have just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” Now that is some extra ordinary level of commitment and hard work that the man put into his work. Also famous for propagating the use of Direct Current he wasn’t a bright performer at school with his teachers exclaiming that Edison was too stupid to learn anything! Imagine saying that to one of the greatest inventors of all times! Moreover he did not quite succeed at the regular jobs that he took up and was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive”. However his early fascination for chemical experiments and mechanical engineering paved the way for some tremendous feats and his company General Electric (Yes! He was a founder!) is one of the biggest companies in the world and is continuously innovating across a wide a variety of fields, staying true to its founder’s character. It is said that behind every great man there is a woman and so was the case with Edison too. His mother pulled him out of school where the teachers didn’t understand Edison’s calibre and began teaching him herself. And it was because of his mother’s efforts and how whole heartedly she believed in him that he did not want to disappoint her that he went on to do such great things.

Bill Gates

By DFID – UK Department for International

Nobody needs an introduction to Bill Gates, who has been ranking as the richest man on this planet for a long time. The American is the founder of the software giant Microsoft and revolutionised the technology sector. However what many people do not know is that before Microsoft, Bill Gates had to suffer failure in business. Bill Gates’s is different from other successful failures in that he had well to do parents but he did not have to rely on them for his businesses. And although his business acumen is second to no one in this world, his very first business was a failure. He, along with Paul Gilbert and Paul Allen had started a company named Traf-O-Data whose objective as the name suggests was to create traffic data, particularly create reports for roadway engineers from traffic data. They did manage to generate some income from the raw traffic data but when they tried to get the machine into the county official’s attention, it got a pretty cold response and their business idea flopped. This however did not discourage Gates who went on from one learning curve to another and used the knowledge gained out of this failure to put together Microsoft. And we all know what happened after.

Walt Disney

By Boy Scouts of America – eBay itemphoto

Disney has had the most profound influence on most of the millennials and continues to hold sway on the present generation of kids through its various cartoons and theme parks. However the iconic Mickey Mouse was born out of the vision and dedication of this man: Walt Disney. He used to work for a newspaper where the editor left no stone unturned in discouraging Disney at every chance he got and fired him off by saying that Walt “lacked imagination and no good ideas”. This was not to be the end of woes for Walt Disney though and he had to go through a string of failures. His first attempt at business ended up making him bankrupt. This might not sound like a huge blow upon just reading but it is enough to break the morale and hearts of a majority of people. By this time he was having some taste at success and his cartoon characters were gaining momentum and thus he ended up buying an animation studio named Laugh-O-Gram. But upon hiring salaried people to perform the multitude of tasks associated with managing a studio, Walt Disney found himself financially overwhelmed and the business incurred a lot of debt on its name. Eventually Walt Disney had to file for bankruptcy and moved over to Hollywood where he would go on to create history. Here is what Walt Disney has to say about 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.”

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan at Boston Garden
Michael Jordan at Boston Garden By Steve

Michael Jordan is considered by a majority of people as the greatest basketball player to have ever played the game. In fact his biography on the NBA website also says “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time”. And though it is hard and controversial to give the tag of the greatest player to any individual, there are no two opinions that he was the most effectively marketed athlete and played a huge role in popularizing the NBA around the world. However such an iconic character has a failure story too! This came during his high school days. Michael was very competitive from his early childhood and used to compete in one on one intense matches in the back yard of his house with his elder brother Larry who used to dominate most of these matches. People then had the general idea that it would be his brother who went on to achieve great things and that Michael would forever remain in his brother’s shadows. And when the university basketball team was announced, Michael was dumbfounded to have been left out of the list and was assigned to the junior squad instead. But this only made him more determined to prove his coach wrong and led him to work even harder on his game. Michael Jordan has an interesting take on failure too. He says “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.”

J. K. Rowling

By Daniel Ogren, CC BY 2.077

J. K. Rowling is probably one of the most encouraging success stories to be inspired by. She is well known for the creation of the epic novel (now major movies) series Harry Potter in which she has woven a fantastical world of magical creatures and beings. The Briton’s creativity and outstanding story telling has won the hearts of a huge number of people across the globe. But to reach this level of success, she has had to suffer tremendously too. It is quite well known that Rowling came up with the idea of Harry Potter while she was travelling on a train from Manchester to London and she began her work earnestly soon after. However her mother passed away later that same year after battling Multiple Sclerosis for 10 years. She eventually got over this heartbreak and moved to Portugal in 1992 to teach English where she got married and had a daughter with a man. However the marriage did not have a rosy ending like the Harry Potter books and ended in divorce after which she moved to Scotland. At this point of time Rowling was an emotional mess. She was divorced, jobless and had the responsibility of a child dependent on her. She fell into depression and had to get by after signing up for government assisted welfare schemes. Moreover the Harry Potter script was rejected by 12 major publishing houses in England but was fortunately accepted by Bloomsbury which extended her a small advance to get her through her financial woes. In 1997 the book was published with only a 1000 copies being printed after which the book’s popularity spread like wildfire. Today Rowling has sold more than 400 million copies of her books.

Albert Einstein

By Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.Modified with Photoshop by PM_Poon and later by Dantadd. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46036.

If someone calls you an Einstein, it is taken to be as a compliment with the person is praising you for your intellect. Einstein is famous for his work on the theory of relativity and the mass energy equation which confounds scientists even to this day as to how he could think of such complicated theories. But Einstein did not begin speaking fluently until he was 9 years old causing his teachers to think he was slow. Moreover he was expelled from school for his rebellious nature and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. Even after graduating, Einstein had to do odd jobs in order to sustain himself. He says his father died believing that he was a complete failure. However after a while he found employment as a patent clerk from where he would take his love for maths from strength to strength and completely shake up how physicists looked at the world and its workings.

Abraham Lincoln

By Alexander Gardner – [1], Public Domain

Lincoln is the most iconic of the Presidents that the United States of America has ever had. However before becoming the most powerful man of the country, Abraham Lincoln suffered a lot too. He has the unique embarrassment of leaving for the Black Hawk war as a captain in the army and returning as a private, which is the lowliest of the ranks. And this was not because of some fault on his part but due to unavoidable war time circumstances. The next year in 1833 Lincoln tried his hand at establishing a business and failed miserably at that too with the business flopping within no time. Subsequently he had to see through a string of political failures as well which included being defeated for Speaker in 1838, getting defeated for nomination of Congress in 1843 and then losing the renomination after getting elected in 1848, getting rejected for the post of Land Officer in 1849, Getting defeated for Senate, getting defeated for the post of Vice President in 1856 and getting defeated for the Senate in 1856 again before finally becoming the President in 1860. And in the meanwhile he had to suffer the loss of his dear wife following which he also went through a nervous breakdown. This is surely a long list of failures and sufferings for a man to endure but he emerged stronger and wiser from all his sufferings.

Amitabh Bachchan

By TeachAIDS

The Big B of Indian cinema made it big by delivering some super hit blockbusters since the 1970s and gained himself the title of an “Angry Young Man” by his portrayal of such characters in the movies. He has been nominated for the most number of times in a major acting category at Filmfare and is among the richest persons in the Bollywood industry today heading production houses, investing in companies and furthering his acting greatness by delivering multiple hits at the box office. Life however has not always been rosy for Bachchan. Many of his Indian fans would remember the life threatening injury that he suffered while shooting at the sets of the movie Coolie. He recovered from this physical injury only to be doused by financial ones during his 50s. When most people at this age look forward to live off their earnings, Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t one of them and he looked to further his ambitions by creating his company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL). However he stretched himself too thin with this venture and almost lost all that he had built up over the years. “In the year 2000, when the entire world was celebrating the new century, I was celebrating my disastrous fortune. There were no films, no money, no company, a million legal cases against and the tax authorities had put notice of recovery on my home”. He however recovered from this misfortune with his role in Kaun Banega Crorepati which became a household favourite and brought at his feet a host of endorsements thus saving the day for him.

Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone in Paris at the french premiere of The Expendables 2 By Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Sylvester Stallone in Paris at the french premiere of The Expendables 2

Sylvester Stallone’s story seems to be taken right out of a rags-to-riches story book. His struggle begins right from the time he was coming into this world. His mother had labour complications while giving him birth and the obstetricians had to use two pair of forceps during his birth which accidentally severed a nerve in Stallone’s face causing paralysis in some parts. This is what gives him his trademark snarling face and a slightly slurred speech. He had to go through a lot of financial problems before his epic movie Rocky came into existence. Before the movie, he had moved to new York to pursue his dreams of making it big in the movie industry and was so broke that he had to sleep for three weeks at the New Jersey bus terminal. He even had to do a soft porn movie for which he was paid 200$ for two days of acting. He says “It was either do the movie or go rob someone”. Moreover, the lowest point in his life came when he had to sell his dog for $25; the dog had been his best and only friend for a long time. However one day while watching Muhammad Ali fighting, the idea for Rocky began to form in his mind and he set himself to work on its script. And even though the movie houses liked the script and offered him $325,000 for the movie, they were reluctant to let him act because of his “disabilities”. Sylvester Stallone however was not the one to budge and in the end got to act in his dream movie as the protagonist Rocky. And guess what he did with the movie that he got for Rocky? He tracked down the person to whom he had sold his dog and bought him back for about 500 times the money that he had originally received for him.

Henry Ford

By Hartsook, photographer. – Library of CongressThis image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c11278.

Henry Ford can be rightly called the father of the automobile industry and his Model T was the first car that became publically accepted and brought driving cars into the public’s imagination. His Model T went on to sell over 17 Million units and the American even receives a mention in most History school textbooks for this remarkable achievement. A lot of people are aware of this achievement but do not know that Ford went bankrupt twice! In 1989 at the age of 36 he formed his first company and named it the Detroit Automobile Company which had the backing of a renowned lumber Baron. Nevertheless the business could not be managed efficiently and led to the company incurring huge losses before going bankrupt. Two years later he started another company and named the Henry Ford Company but was ousted from this company leaving with the rights to his name. This company later became the Cadillac Automobile Company, another giant in the present day automobile industry. But Ford was not the one to give up on his dreams of having his own car company and with the Ford Motor Company and the introduction of the Model T, his fortunes changed for the good and he never looked back from there. Here is Henry Ford’s take on failure “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently”.

These examples clearly show that in order to succeed you must first be prepared to experience failure too. Failures should never deflate your motivation and derail you from your path but should be shaken off as soon as possible, with your efforts resuming with even greater vigour and with a clearer sense of direction.