Feeling like a failure? You’re in good company. You may have heard one or two of these classic stories before; they’re stories of the failures of wildly successful people. It never hurts to be reminded that failure is a stepping stone on the road to success. But more than that, success is usually, if not always, actually driven by prior failure. I have written many times before about failures, mostly my own, so I figured it was worth recounting some of history’s biggest from some of history’s best.
Success is a bad teacher, because when you succeed, you’re not always sure what you did right. It could have been just dumb luck. But when you fail, you usually know exactly what you did wrong. The paradox of success is that if you’re failing in the right way, you’re probably doing exactly what you should be doing to succeed long-term. The key is to make small, calculated mistakes, and then learn from them. That is how the brain works: our minds stumble through our environment taking guesses, and then learns through repetition, avoiding negative consequences and seeking pleasure. It is that simplicity that makes the brain so effective and powerful.
Some of our greatest leaders have done the same thing, stumbled through the dark until they hit a eureka moment. Rather than list all my favorites, I figured I would start with ten that I love and learn from some of yours. Later, I’ll submit a broader article (with attribution, of course) with the best of the worst.
1. After World War II, many Japanese homes had electricity but no appliances. Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita sensed an opportunity, and developed a rice cooker intended to become a staple in every home. But the cooker was awful – it either burned rice or undercooked it, and less than 100 units were sold. This didn’t dissuade Ikuba and Morita from their dream of selling household products. After several other false starts, they began selling portable transistor radios. Thanks to this product, the fledging Sony Corporation became a success.
2. Many successful writers rightfully consider their early rejections to be badges of honor. Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, accumulated at least 30 rejection slips before it was accepted by Doubleday. Legend has it that Jack London’s first story was rejected 600 times. Had he quit after the first couple hundred failures, the world would have had to live without The Call of the Wild and White Fang. More recently, J.K. Rowling had her first Harry Potter novel rejected a whopping 12 times and was told “not to quit her day job.” (My first book, Wired for Thought, was rejected 9 times. Even after proving myself as a writer, my newest book, Breakpoint, was rejected 3 times. I probably would be more successful as a writer if I got even more rejections!)
3. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started a business called Traf-O-Data, which took raw data from traffic counters and processed them into reports to sell to cities in Washington for traffic planning purposes. Then the state began giving away the reports to cities for free, making the business model completely obsolete. But the two college dropouts with a track record of failure didn’t give up. Instead, they created Microsoft.
4. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team – a heartbreaking experience for any teenager. Then he became what many consider the greatest basketball player in the history of the game. He is the author of one of my favorite quotes about failure, one proudly displayed on the Failure Wall at my company: “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.”
5. As a young man, Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job for a lack of good ideas. Then he started his first animation company in 1921 but quickly went bankrupt and ate dog food to survive. If you were subsisting on dog food because of the failure of your first animation company, would you start another animation company? Probably not. But that’s exactly what Walt Disney did. In fact, he had to restart several more times after that before finally becoming successful.
6. In 1899, Henry Ford left his long-term, comfortable job to establish the Detroit Automobile Company with $150,000 of investor money. A little over a year later it went bankrupt. Somehow, his investors still had faith in Ford and invested in the Henry Ford Company in 1901. But this company went bankrupt as well. Having lost all your investors’ money twice, would you try a third time? Ford did, establishing the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Five years later the company became a success with the release of the Model T.
7. Despite some local success playing cover songs in UK bars and clubs, The Beatles were turned down by almost every record label. In one infamous rejection, an executive at Decca Records declined to sign them because “guitar groups are on the way out” and “The Beatles have no future in show business.” Ouch. Of course, that rejection is now considered one of the biggest mistakes in music history (and hopefully that executive learned from her epic failure). Keep this in mind next time you’re rejected: it may well be that you haven’t failed at all! Or take the alternative message to heart. It turns out that two years after Decca rejected the Beatles, George Harrison returned to the label to offer a tip: sign the Rolling Stones. This time around, Decca learned from its failure and had a success of its own.
8. As an aspiring actor, Fred Astaire must have been thrilled to book a screen test for MGM Studios. That is, until he received the director’s feedback, which read: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” After becoming immensely successful, Astaire displayed that note in his Beverly Hills mansion to remind himself not to take no for an answer.
9. In the early 1990s, rapper Jay-Z was turned down by every record label in the business, with some stating he was too old, and some concerned that he wasn’t “hard” enough, as he didn’t rap about drugs or crime. Instead of giving up, he formed his own record label to release his first album. Fast forward to 2014 and he and his wife, Beyoncé, are worth an estimated $900 million, the majority of it from Jay-Z’s empire.
10. Most people know that Babe Ruth is one of the greatest baseball players of all time, an accolade that is well-deserved given his record of home runs. What most people don’t know is that when he retired in 1935, he also held the record for the most strike outs in all of Major League Baseball. He trudged back to the dugout twice as often as he ran the bases. His explanation? “I just go up there and I swing. I just keep on swinging and I keep on swinging. Every strike brings me closer to my next home run.”
These are my top ten but there are many more stories of success through failure worth noting. What are your favorite swings and misses?