Famous failings

The road to success is not always straightforward. The stories of a number of successful figures in literature, business and medicine help reveal the value of perseverance and the importance of the way in which we look at adversity. 

  • Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States. First ran for Congress in 1999 but was decisively defeated in the elections. Burdened with doubts about whether he had made the right choice in choosing politics as a career, he decided to ignore these questions and focus on the work involved. Obama went on to make history as the first African American President of the United States in 2009. He was reelected and served a second Presidential term in 2013.
  • Elon Musk, entrepreneur. Among other setbacks and failures, Musk was ousted as CEO from two companies, was turned down twice by Russian officials when he asked if he could use one of their rockets to send to Mars, was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission and fined $20 million for tweets he made, started his own space company SpaceX but suffered repeated catastrophic launch failures, and was at one time brought to the verge of bankruptcy. Through SpaceX, however, Musk also revolutionised the space launch industry with a string of ground-breaking successes, including becoming the first privately funded company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, and the first to launch a previously used rocket.
  • Jack Ma Yum, entrepreneur. Failed key primary school and middle school tests, as well as college entrance exams. His application to Harvard University was rejected ten times. After graduating from Hangzhou Normal University, he applied for 30 different jobs but was rejected for all of them (including for one where, he claims, all 23 other applicants besides him were hired). Ma went on to become a billionaire entrepreneur after founding the e-commerce website Alibaba. As he put it, "If you don't give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure."

“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped. I had been in the state legislature for a long time, I was in the minority party, I wasn’t getting a lot done, and I was away from my family and putting a lot of strain on Michelle. Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working."

—Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States

  • John Epley, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist. Developed a non-surgical approach for treating a crippling inner ear condition known as Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) in the 1980s. Although his results were remarkable, Epley's treatment was also non-conventional, and he encountered enormous resistance to it from the medical community. Some of his colleagues rolled their eyes and laughed openly at conferences, while others walked out of the room altogether, leaving comments like "I resent having to waste my time listening to some guy's pet theory." Epley resolved to persevere, and although it took him roughly a decade to win acceptance, his technique is now regarded as the established medical treatment for BPPV.
  • Joseph Lister, 19th-century surgeon. Roughly one in two patients died from infection following an amputation at the time when Lister was working. Motivated by their deaths, Lister invented a ground-breaking approach to sterilisation and wound treatment that dramatically decreased the chances of dying. When he published his results, however, he was met with considerable scepticism and opposition from many of his peers. Though gentle and shy by disposition, Lister did not give up on what he had discovered, and his techniques eventually prevailed to gain widespread acceptance. Today, he is recognised as one of the most important figures in the history of medicine.
  • J. K. Rowling, author. At one point in her life, Rowling was (in her own words) "the biggest failure I knew" from the point of view of relationships, employment and financial security. Using the desperation of her situation as motivation to pursue her passion for storytelling, the manuscript she wrote for the first book of the Harry Potter series was rejected by the first twelve publishing houses. Fortunately, the book was eventually picked up for publication after it received endorsement from the daughter of a publishing executive. With the series, Rowling's career as a writer was launched, and she stands today as one of the most successful and celebrated contemporary authors. 
  • Stephen King, author. King's manuscript for Carrie, a dystopian sci-fi novel, was rejected by upwards of 30 publishing houses. At one point, after receiving another rejection letter, King picked up his manuscript and threw it in the rubbish. His wife retrieved it, however, and managed to convince him to keep trying. King eventually did land a publishing contract for the book, and it went on to become a commercial success. Today, King has written books that have sold over 350 million copies. 

“By any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

—J. K. Rowling, best-selling British author