Famous People Who Failed Hard Before They Succeeded

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It’s an old adage, but it really is true. Success doesn’t happen overnight. You have to face failure if you want to be successful. All of the wildly successful celebrities on this list have dealt with failure at some point in their careers.

If you’re dealing with rejection right now, take a hit of inspiration from these people who’ve gone through it all and lived to tell the tale.

Stephen King

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Stephen King is one of the most successful authors of all time. He’s sold millions of copies of his books, and some of his most famous stories have been turned into wildly popular movies. It took him a while to find his footing in the literary industry, though.

A 14-year-old King started nailing rejection letters to his wall. His manuscripts were rejected so often that pretty soon, a nail supporting his rejection letters on the wall could no longer bear their weight. Eventually, he replaced the nail with a spike and continued to hang his rejection letters.

Albert Einstein

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Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius. This guy is famous for being smart even though most people couldn’t even begin to explain his discoveries. He wasn’t always a success story, though.

Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4 years old. When he was 16, he failed to pass the examination for entrance into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic school located in Zurich. He did manage to graduate from university, but he nearly dropped out after he struggled in many of his courses.

Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs’ rise to the top wasn’t a straight and easy one. In 1983, Jobs hired John Scully from Pepsi as Apple’s CEO. It ended up being one of the worst decisions he ever made. After some major disagreements with Scully, Jobs resigned from Apple and started a new business venture called NeXT.

Later, Apple would acquire NeXT, and Jobs would make his way back into the folds of the company. With Steve’s help, Apple became one of the most successful companies of all time.

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin is one of the most influential scientists of our time. However, his own father once considered him a huge failure. Due to his interest in nature, Darwin neglected his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. He ended up dropping out of medical school, prompting his father to say, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching.”

In his autobiography, Darwin stated, “I was considered by all my masters and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.”


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Musicians don’t get much more successful than Beyoncé. This woman is a powerhouse vocalist and an all-around pop sensation. It took her a while to make it in the music industry, though. Before there was Destiny’s Child, there was Girl Tyme, a young girl group that appeared on the show, Star Search.

Beyoncé was nine years old when her girl group lost the televised competition. Later, the group members did some shuffling and the group got a new name (Destiny’s Child). The rest is history.

Charlie Chaplin

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Charlie Chaplin didn’t have an easy childhood. He was born into poverty and his father abandoned him when he was 2 years old. When Chaplin was 7 years old, he was forced to go to a workhouse.

When he was 9 years old, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin’s mother battled mental illness for several years after that, until she was permanently committed to an asylum where she stayed until her death in 1928. Somehow, though all of that hardship, Chaplin managed to become the greatest silent film actor who ever lived.

Dr. Seuss

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Writers who are having a hard time getting their first book published should look to Dr. Seuss as a source of inspiration. His first manuscript titled, And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street was famously rejected 28 times before it was accepted by Random House/Vanguard Press.

Once that book was published, Dr. Seuss’s career took off. His publisher said, “I’ve published any number of great writers, from William Faulkner to John O’Hara, but there’s only one genius on my authors’ list. His name is Ted Geisel.” Ted Geisel is Dr. Seuss’s real name.

50 Cent

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Curtis Jackson, AKA 50 Cent, had a pretty tumultuous upbringing. He grew up in Queens, New York, with very little money in a rough neighborhood. His own mother was a drug dealer who died in a mysterious fire. 50 Cent started dealing drugs when he was just 12 years old. He got arrested and was shot 9 times at close range before he finally made it big.

In 2002, Eminem heard his song, “Guess Who’s Back?” and he signed him to his record label. Now 50 Cent is one of the most famous and best-selling rappers of our generation.

Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah may be the queen of all media right now, but she wasn’t always pop culture royalty. Oprah had a very difficult childhood. She was sexually molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend. When she was 13, she ran away from home, and when she was 14, she got pregnant and gave birth prematurely to a baby who died shortly after being born.

She started working at a radio station after winning a beauty pageant, then she started working in television. Now she’s THE Oprah Winfrey.

Jon Hamm

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When Jon Hamm first moved to Los Angeles, he couldn’t land a single gig. It was so bad that his talent agency in Hollywood actually dropped him. He started working as a waiter and thought about giving up acting altogether.

During that time, he made a plan — either he would find stable work before he turned 30, or he would quit the acting business. He was able to land a part in Mel Gibson’s Vietnam War story, We Were Soldiers, which then led him to the role of a lifetime in 2007’s Mad Men.

Howard Schultz

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Howard Schultz is the man behind Starbucks, one of the most successful American companies. Howard wasn’t always a crazy rich entrepreneur, though. Schultz grew up in extreme poverty. He went to university on a sports scholarship.

After graduation, he began working with various businesses, and eventually, with a Swedish coffeemaker called Hammerplast that eventually led him to Starbucks. While trying to raise the capital to purchase the company, Schultz famously said, “I was turned down by 217 of the 242 investors I initially talked to. You have to have a tremendous belief in what you’re doing and just persevere.”

Fred Astaire

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In 1905, Fred Astaire’s family moved to New York City to allow Fred and his sister, Adele, to pursue a career in entertainment. In 1932, the sister-and-brother act split when Adele got married. Unfortunately, people weren’t too keen on Fred without his sister.

Fred didn’t let that stop him. He joined forces with Ginger Rogers and his career in the industry lasted a whopping 76 years. Gene Kelly once said, “the history of dance on film begins with Astaire.”


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Jay-Z had an unstable upbringing that led him to start dealing drugs at an early age. When he decided he wanted to be a rapper, he started selling CDs out of the trunk of his car. Every major record label had turned him down, so he co-founded his own label called Roc-A-Fella Records.

After much hard work, Jay-Z released his debut album entitled, Reasonable Doubt, which reached number 23 on the Billboard 200. Rolling Stones calling it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Marilyn Monroe

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Marilyn Monroe didn’t know her biological father until she was 12 years old. Her mother suffered a mental breakdown in 1934 and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Marilyn became a ward of the state, moving in and out of foster homes for the next several years, where she suffered abuse and developed a stutter.

She dropped out of school and signed a contract with an acting agency. She spent six months improving her skills, but in the end, her contract wasn’t renewed. After several unrenewed contracts, Monroe got her big break in 1950. Now she’s a literal icon because she didn’t let failure hold her back.

Bill Gates

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Bill Gates was born into a privileged situation, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t tried and failed multiple times in his career. Gates’ father was a well-known lawyer, so Bill was expected to become a lawyer too.

Gates formed a company when he was just 17 years old. He wanted to build a hardware device that could read traffic data tapes. When he presented his device to a supervisor from the County of Seattle’s traffic department, the device failed to work. The business failed before it even started. Luckily, Mr. Gates had a very bright future ahead of him.

Jim Carrey

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Jim Carrey’s family was poor while he was growing up and they weren’t able to support Carrey’s ambitions. At one point, his family lived out of a VW camper van until they could afford enough money to move back into a house.

Jim started doing standup at a Toronto comedy club called Yuk Yuk’s. He bombed the first time he went on stage, but he didn’t give up. Carrey dropped out of high school to pursue his passion. In 1990, after 11 years of trying and failing, Carrey appeared on a show called In Living Color. After that, his career totally took off.

Stephen Spielberg

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The great Stephen Spielberg was actually rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school. He didn’t give up on his dream, though. He decided to go to the less-prominent California State University at Long Beach.

In 1979, he released a movie that didn’t do so well called 1941. Although 1941 did well at the box office, it was a critical failure. Spielberg refused to give up, and now we have films like Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and so many more.

George Lucas

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You might know George Lucas best as a filmmaker, but before he ever picked up a camera, he was obsessed with race car driving. He gave that hobby up after a terrible car crash that almost killed him. His first movie, THX 1138, was a financial failure. Lucas kept at it, and his next film, American Graffiti, was a huge success.

Then Star Wars happened and Lucas became a legend. When Lucas first pitched Star Wars to 20th Century Fox, the studio said, “I don’t understand this, but I loved American Graffiti, and whatever you do is okay with me.”

Sylvester Stallone

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When Sylvester Stallone first moved to New York City in the 1970s to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, a whole bunch of people told him that he talked funny, walked funny, and couldn’t act. He was broke at the time and he was forced to sell his dog for $25 just to pay for his electricity bill. This man faced rejection over 1,500 times.

Stallone took his fate into his own hands and wrote the script for Rocky. He was offered a huge amount of money for the script with one caveat — the studio didn’t want him to act in the film. Stallone refused and then accepted way less money so that he could play the starring role.

The Beatles

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Even The Beatles, one of the most successful bands of all time, once considered themselves failures. On New Year’s Eve in 1961, the group drove in a snowstorm to Decca Recording Studios to record some R&B and Rock tunes.

Dick Rowe, an A&R at the studio, said that they would never succeed. He said that “guitar groups were on their way out.” Well, he could not have been more wrong. Luckily, the Beatles never gave up on their unique sound.

Jerry Seinfeld

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Jerry Seinfeld is one of the greatest comedians to ever hold a microphone. He wasn’t always successful, though. When he was 22 years old, he tried his hand at standup during an open-mic night in New York City. He froze on stage and forgot all of his material. A heckler asked, “Is this your first time?” and he was booed off the stage.

Jerry didn’t let one bad set stop him. He kept working on his act, earned himself a fan based, and then starred in a wildly successful sitcom.


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While trying to make it in the big city as a performer, Madonna took on a whole bunch of random jobs. At one point, she was fired from Dunkin’ Donuts because she accidentally squirted jelly on a customer.

After that, she was robbed at knifepoint by two men. Not a great introduction to New York. Eventually, after years of trying to make it, she caught the eye of Sire Records founder, Seymour Stein. In 1982, when she was 24 years old, she debuted her single, Everybody, followed by Burning Up, both of which did really well.

Keanu Reeves

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Keanu’s life was pretty eventful even before he became a famous actor. Keanu was born in Beirut, Lebanon, where his mother, who is from England, met his father, an American from Hawaii, while working in the country. When Keanu was three, his father abandoned the family. Keanu lived in Australia and then Canada. His mother got married and then divorced 4 times. When he was 17, he dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles.

In 1998, Reeves married Jennifer Syme and Jennifer got pregnant. Unfortunately, the baby was stillborn, Keanu and Jennifer broke up, and then Jennifer died in a car accident 18 months later. All of that happened before Keanu landed any of his major film roles.

Mark Zuckerberg

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If you’ve seen The Social Network, you already know about Mark Zuckerberg’s tumultuous rise to the top. The creator of Facebook lost friends, dealt with lawsuits, and ran into a host of problems while developing the site.

Shortly after starting up Facebook, Zuckerberg was sued by Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narenda. That case was later settled for 1.2 million Facebook shares. However you feel about Mark Zuckerberg, you can’t deny that he’s achieved tremendous success.

Katy Perry

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Katy Perry experienced numerous heart-wrenching failures on her path towards stardom. Her family didn’t have much money while she was growing up and sometimes they had to rely on food stamps. When Katy was 15 years old, she dropped out of high school after completing her GED in order to pursue music full time. She moved to Tennessee where she signed with Red Hill Records and debuted a Gospel record entitled, Katy Hudson. The record only sold 200 copies before the label shut it down.

In 2004 she was signed to another label that dropped her after some unsuccessful singles. It wasn’t until 2007 that she signed with Capitol Records and released her first hit, “I Kissed a Girl.”

Elvis Presley

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Everyone knows about Elvis Presley’s successes, but his failures are rarely talked about. In 1948, when Elvis was 13 years old, the Presley family moved to Memphis, Tennessee from their home in Mississippi. They lived in boarding houses before they could afford an apartment.

When Elvis was 18, he recorded a demo that never really turned into anything. He tried to make another demo a year later. Then he tried to join a quartet but he was told that he couldn’t sing. Elvis worked as a truck driver before he ever became The King.

Abraham Lincoln

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Most people think of Abraham Lincoln as one of the most successful presidents in American history, but he failed numerous times before he held the highest office in the land. He lost his job when he was 23, he lost his bid for State Legislature, and at 26, he lost the love of his life when Ann Rutledge died. He also lost his bid to become Speaker in the Illinois House of Representatives.

It wasn’t until 1861, when Lincoln was 52, that he secured the office of President of the United States.

James Dyson

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James Dyson of Dyson vacuums didn’t become successful overnight. In the late 1970’s, Dyson had the idea of using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that wouldn’t lose suction. He eventually created an impressive company, but it took a lot of time and effort.

Dyson said, “there are countless times an inventor can give up on an idea. By the time I made my 15th prototype, my third child was born. By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies. By 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash. These were tough times, but each failure brought me closer to solving the problem.”

Harrison Ford

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It seems like Harrison Ford just burst onto the scene as a fully-fledged action star, but he actually went through a lot before he became Indiana Jones. After graduating from college, Ford went to Los Angeles to try his hand in voice-overs. He failed to secure that job but decided to stay in L.A.

It took Ford two years of working odd jobs before he landed his first uncredited role as a bellhop in the movie, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. Studio execs didn’t think young Ford had much promise and they told him “he would never make it in this business.”

J.K. Rowling

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Harry Potter is the most successful children’s book series of all time, but J.K. Rowling wasn’t exactly rolling in success (or money) before the first book came out. Rowling faced rejection over and over again. She was rejected from Oxford University, and 12 major publishing houses rejected her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

It wasn’t until 1996 that Bloomsbury, a small literary house in London, decided to publish Harry Potter. By 2004, Rowling had become the first author to become a billionaire through book writing, according to Forbes.