9 Famous People Who Failed Spectacularly Before They Found Success
Success is a funny thing.
Some people find fame and fortune almost as soon as they set out to look for it. By the age of 6, Mozart was performing as a child prodigy at the Imperial Courts in Vienna and Prague, probably before he had any concept of what the word ‘success’ even meant. Vera Wang only decided at the age of 40 that she wanted to be a designer, designed her own wedding dress that year and opened her first bridal boutique just a year later before becoming internationally known.
For others, success is fleeting; Herman Melville’s first and second novels were bestsellers, but subsequent works struggled commercially and following the disastrous reception of Moby-Dick and Pierre, he was no longer able to make a living from his writing. Oscar Wilde was the darling of the London literary scene in the 1880s and 1890s, but following his arrest and imprisonment for gross indecency, he languished in poverty.
In this article, we take a look at the famous figures who fall into a third category: they failed and failed again, but still just kept trying until they finally found success.
1. Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
It’s hard to know where to begin when listing Isaac Newton’s achievements; he would be famous for any one of them. He formulated the laws of motion and of universal gravitation. He built the first practical reflecting telescope. He made the first theoretical calculation of the speed of sound. He developed calculus. As Warden and Master of the Royal Mint, he saved Britain’s coinage and possibly rescued the country from a financial disaster. And he may have invented the cat-flap.
But Newton’s early life was not a success. At the age of 17, his mother removed him from his school in order that he should learn how to be a farmer, as his father had been. But Newton passionately hated farming. He preferred to read than farm, and was absent-minded, neglecting his chores. Eventually, he was readmitted to school to finish his education, and then admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge. Even there, he was undistinguished, disappointing his tutor, Isaac Barrow, with his ignorance of Euclid. It was only when the university was closed for two years from 1665 to 1667 and Newton pursued his studies at home that he began to show signs of intellectual brilliance. By 1669, Isaac Barrow was describing him as “an unparalleled genius”, and by 1670 he was elected to the prestigious post of Lucasian professor of mathematics.
2. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
The USA’s most famous president did not have a great start to his career. Until the age of 21, he worked on the family farm. At the age of 23, he announced his candidacy for election to the Illinois General Assembly. With the election some months away, he went to serve in the Illinois Militia for the Black Hawk War, entering as a captain, being mustered in and out of service several times, and finishing as a private; not a great sign of military success. When the election came around, he finished eighth of thirteen candidates.
His next move was to buy a small general store with a friend he had known from the war. The local economy was doing well but Lincoln didn’t prosper, and eventually sold his share. It was only when he ran for office again two years later than he was successfully elected, and saw success in his career only when he switched course and began to teach himself law in order to be admitted to the Bar.
3. Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Darwin is best known for his seminal work On the Origin of Species in which he laid out the theory of evolution – but this was not published until 1859, when he was 50 years old. His father, Robert Darwin, was a doctor, and initially Charles Darwin looked set to follow in his footsteps. He spent a summer as an apprentice doctor before enrolling at the prestigious medical school of the University of Edinburgh.
But he proved to be a poor student; he thought that his lectures were stupid and boring. Worse, he disliked the sight of blood and could hardly bear to watch the brutality of surgery being carried out without anaesthetic. He only attended surgical operations twice, and was haunted by the memory of watching a child being operated on. Eventually, his father took note and sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge, instead. Even there he didn’t take to studying, preferring riding and shooting; he did well academically, but only by knuckling down ahead of his exams. But at both universities he had become involved in natural history as a hobby, and it was this that led him to become a naturalist on the ship the Beagle, and began his journey towards understanding evolution.
4. Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women, explores the life of a family of four sisters living in relative poverty, with the oldest two forced to find work to support their younger siblings. Alcott’s writing was based on personal experience; from the age of 15, she was forced to give up her education in order to take various jobs. She worked as a seamstress, as did her sisters, and also at various times as a teacher, governess and servant. Steady work was not easy to come by, and at one point Alcott contemplated suicide. Literature – both reading and writing – was a comfort to her during these difficult times.
That passion for writing turned into a career when the letters that she had written while a working as a nurse in the American Civil War were published to considerable critical success. While Alcott is now remembered primarily as a writer of cosy stories with happy endings, in her lifetime she took on political causes too – her family sheltered fugitive slaves and her Civil War letters were full of criticism of the way hospitals were managed. But it was her writing for young women with the publication of Little Women that brought her fame, and with a keen eye for what was commercial, she focused from then on writing for children rather than adults.
5. The Wright Brothers (Orville 1871-1948 and Wilbur 1867-1912)
It’s long been understood that things heavier than air can still fly; birds demonstrate this every day. The flight of a manned hot-air balloon, lighter than air, was achieved in 1783. Kites, gliders and parachutes that allowed people to use air currents to fly have been in use for centuries, but achieving any sustained flight was difficult, you needed somewhere high up to push off from, and directional control could be erratic. It was in trying to improve gliders that the Wright brothers first got involved in building aircraft, but many of their prototypes failed.
Nonetheless, they persisted. From their first interest in aviation in the late 1890s, by 1903 they had flown 37m in 12 seconds (approximately jogging speed) in the world’s first manned, powered aircraft, making history. Even then, it took a while for the wider world to take notice. Local newspapers dismissed their achievements as unimportant, and photos of later, longer flights were disputed as fakes. Only in 1908, when public demonstrations were made, did the brothers begin to get the credit they deserved.
6. Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
When your place of birth is Blenheim Palace, it’s hard to imagine that your life will see much failure. But politics can be a tricky area to succeed in no matter how privileged your birth. His career initially took off; he entered Parliament in 1900, and despite switching parties (which normally acts as a check to a political career), he was Home Secretary within 10 years. His career stuttered when he supported the failed Dardanelles Campaign in 1915, which became the only major Ottoman victory in the First World War.
Ever a survivor, he rejoined the government in 1916 in a variety of ministerial roles (though all more minor than his previous positions), until he lost his seat in 1922. In 1924, he was back in Parliament in the major role of Chancellor of the Exchequer, but in 1929, that government was voted out of office and Churchill’s main policy stances, such as his opposition to Indian independence and his support for rearmament, were increasingly unpopular. He was out of the Cabinet until 1939, a period that has been described as his ‘Wilderness Years’.
But everyone knows what happens next. War with Nazi Germany made Churchill’s stance on rearmament – previously seen as dangerous and warmongering – seem prescient instead. When the Prime Minister, Chamberlain, resigned, Churchill was asked to be his successor, and led Britain to victory to become one of our most celebrated Prime Ministers of all time.
7. Walt Disney (1901-1966)
The films of Walt Disney – and those from his studio produced after his death – are an integral part of many people’s childhoods. But he experienced multiple failures, including one point at which his finances were in such a parlous state that he allegedly ate dog food to survive. His first studio, the Laugh-O-Gram Studio, lasted just two years before going bankrupt in 1923.
By 1926, he had created a successful cartoon character in the form of Oswald the Rabbit, but when he tried to negotiate a higher fee for producing the series, his distributer informed him that his fee was to be cut instead. Even worse, he didn’t own the intellectual property to the character as he had believed he did. He was given an ultimatum: accept the reduced fee or have the character and staff taken from him. He declined, and most of his staff left him. But the loss of the Oswald character was ultimately to be Disney’s gain. The next character he created was due to be remembered long after Oswald was just a footnote in Disney’s biography: Mickey Mouse.
8. JK Rowling (1965-)
At the time when JK Rowling was writing what was to become the most popular children’s fiction series of all time, she was also at the lowest ebb of her life. Unemployed, she has described herself at that time as being as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless”. She had a young child who was dependent on her and who she was raising alone, and she was struggling with clinical depression. When she first submitted the manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to publishing houses, no fewer than 12 of them rejected it. Even when Bloomsbury accepted the novel, Rowling was advised by her editor that she ought to get a day job, as she would not be able to earn enough from writing to support herself.
You know the rest of the story. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone became one of the top five bestselling books of all time, selling over 100 million copies. It and its sequels made Rowling the first person in the world to become a US dollar billionaire by writing fiction. They are a must-read across the world, and are likely to remain so for generations to come.
9. Lady Gaga (1986-)
Lady Gaga’s start in life was both privileged and troubled. Privileged, because her parents were wealthy and her talent nurtured; from the age of 11 she was given singing lessons by Christina Aguilera’s singing coach. Troubled, because this couldn’t spare her the relentless bullying that she faced at school. She was signed by a record label at 19, but they dropped her just three months later. No one seemed to be interested in her as an artist, though she found work writing songs for other artists including Britney Spears.
But that changed when Lady Gaga came into contact with the singer, rapper and producer Akon, who heard her songs and signed her to his own label. And her first album, The Fame, must have made her original label wish they had kept her; it was the fifth-bestselling album of the year, won two Grammy awards, was number one in nine countries and catapulted the former bullied student to worldwide stardom.
Images: isaac newton; abraham lincoln; charles darwin; louisa may alcott; the wright brothers; winston churchill; walt disney; jk rowling; lady gaga; weightlifting fail; bob dylan fail