Feeling like a failure? You’re in good company
[part 2]

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 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.

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?


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