Professional Development

These famous people failed at first, then found success

Written by Peter Jones

Ever get discouraged because you feel like nothing’s going your way? Or maybe you’ve been at it for a few years and just feel that you aren’t where you should—or want to—be.

Chances are, you’re being too hard on yourself and not allowing for the normal ebb and flow of failure that leads to most success. Don’t believe it? We have proof. Here are 10 people who totally failed at first and then went on to achieve great success, fame, and fortune! Use them for inspiration when next you’re getting down on yourself.

1. R.H. Macy

You probably don’t know this guy by name alone, but chances are you’ve shopped at one of his stores. That’s right, the founder of Macy’s department stores managed to fail at seven early business attempts before landing on the perfect breakthrough with his first NYC store.

2. Bill Gates

First, he dropped out of Harvard. Then, his first business was a failed company you’ve likely never heard of called Traf-o-Data. But his next company, Microsoft, did much better. Much, much better.

3. Albert Einstein

As a kid, Einstein didn’t speak until he was four years old. In fact, he couldn’t read until the age of seven—his parents and teachers thought he might not be very bright at all. He was expelled from school and denied admission to Zurich Polytechnic. But then he went on to become such a success in his field that his name is now used as a synonym for “genius” all over the world.

4. Steven Spielberg

Spielberg was rejected from USC’s School of Theater, Film, & Television three times, then dropped out of Cal State, Long Beach. He eventually went back and finished school in 2002, but only after becoming the big-budget award-winning smash success he is today. 

5. J.K. Rowling

The billion dollar empress of the Harry Potter franchise? She was a divorced, depressed, and penniless single mother attending school while on welfare. Now she’s one of the richest women in the world.

6. Tyler Perry

From a rough abusive childhood, high school expulsion, and two attempted suicides, Tyler Perry went on to work several jobs and try to build his career. At one point, he sunk everything he had into his first film, which flopped spectacularly. He kept at it, though (even sleeping in his car) and now he’s one of entertainment’s most respected and highest paid men.

7. Emily Blunt

The award-winning acclaimed actress had a terrible stutter until the age of 14. But Blunt was encouraged to do theatre, which changed everything. Through hard work and gigs that asked her to play different characters and use different accents, she was able to overcome her stutter and become an international film star of the first degree.

8. Vera Wang

Fashion designer Vera Wang failed first at figure skating when she didn’t make the 1968 Olympic team. She then became a Vogue editor, but was passed over for a coveted promotion. At the age of 40, she started designing wedding gowns and, well, the rest is history. She’s now worth over a billion dollars. She’s even come full circle by designing costumes for Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. 

9. Lucille Ball

Everyone loves “Lucy,” but before this sitcom star was tearing it up with husband Desi Arnaz on cable, she was considered the “Queen of B Movies” because the only work she could get was on second-tier films people found silly. She’s now remembered as one of the funniest and most accomplished comediennes of all time.

About the author

Peter Jones