14 Success Stories of Famous People Who Begin With Setbacks

Do you have a favorite failure? It’s a question author Tim Ferriss asks every guest on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. Without fail, each guest can credit their success to a single setback or a long string of failure after failure that ultimately motivated them to improve and try again. It’s how we learn.

As Henry Ford once said,

“Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.”

Success isn’t linear. If you zoom out on the success story of Amazon over the last twenty years, it appears as if it has only gone up based on stock value. But if you zoom in, there were constant ebbs and flows.

There are months where share value tanked and it looked like it would never recover. Inevitably, those downturns were followed by tremendous gains that doubled or tripled their losses. It’s those setbacks that are necessary to learn and allow more room for future growth.

I guarantee any celebrity or icon you look up to initially struggled in what they wanted to accomplish. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Beyonce—yes, Beyonce—all struggled at some point. They thought they may fail. They probably had self-doubt in pursuing their dreams because they sounded ridiculous. Some thought they make end up working a desk job for the rest of their life. But through a combination of self-belief and determination, they were able to forget their struggles, analyze what they did wrong, and understand how to change their approach to execute flawlessly the next time around.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf once said,

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”

What most people don’t realize is that failure acts as a stepping-stone towards success. It’s through our failures that we learn our ability to grow in life, love, goals, and happiness. Plus, everyone has failed at some point in their life.

To put things into perspective, here are 14 success stories of some of the most famous people who began their careers with initial setbacks. Success doesn’t come overnight, but so long as you don’t give up, it will be there waiting for you.

1. Steven Spielberg

Before releasing the 1975 classic, Jaws, Steven Spielberg was rejected multiple times from USC’s School of Cinematic Hearts.((JarredBunch: 15 Ridiculously Influential People Who Had to Fail to Succeed)) If he hadn’t taken those early failures to heart, we may never have had E.T., Indiana Jones, or Jurassic Park to thank him for.

2. Chris Pratt

Actor Chris Pratt was homeless and living in a van in Hawaii when he was nineteen before he finally made it onto the big screen.((Go Social: 20 Famous People Who MASSIVELY Failed Before Succeeding)) His first movie only paid him $700. Twenty years of hard work later, Pratt was paid $10 million to film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

3. Sylvester Stallone

Rocky star and writer, Sylvester Stallone was so poor at one point that he had to sell his dog for $40 just to buy food. After receiving two Oscar bids for his script and performance in Rocky, he was able to buy the dog back from the new owner for $15,000!

4. Oprah Winfrey

Probably having one of the most famous success stories, Oprah was born into deep poverty in Mississippi, raised by a single mother living on welfare. She was physically, mentally, and sexually abused during her childhood.

One thing not many people know about her is that she ran away from home and got pregnant when she was only fourteen-years-old.((Huffpost: 21 Famous Failures Who Refused to Give Up)) She lost the baby shortly after birth. Despite her initial struggles as a young girl, she turned herself into one of the most successful individuals of our time.

5. Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey is one of the funniest people on the planet. He has been the star of some of the most successful movies of all time. But Carrey grew up extremely poor in Canada.

When he was a teenager, his family worked as janitors at a school to help pay the bills. And during his first stand-up comedy performance, he was booed off the stage. Not shortly after, he made it big on In Living Color and then went on to star in Dumb & Dumber, The Mask, and Ace Ventura in the same year!

6. J.K. Rowling

Before writing one of the most successful book series in modern history, J.K. Rowling was broke, living on welfare, and supporting a child on her own. It took her seven years to write the first Harry Potter novel, and even then, all twelve major publishing houses at that time rejected the book.

7. Katy Perry

Before dancing on stage with the infamous “Left Shark” at the halftime show of Super Bowl XLIX, Katy Perry’s long journey was filled with failures. Her first record label went out of business after her first album sold only two hundred copies. After two more labels dropped her, it took Katy Perry over ten years of hard work before she finally had a hit in 2008 called I Kissed a Girl.

8. Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is not only the most famous inventor (of the phonograph, the movie camera, alkaline storage batteries, etc.) you know, given his well-known success story, but you also probably know him as a famous failure.

In elementary school, we were all taught that Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times when attempting to invent a commercially-viable electric lightbulb. ((Develop Good Habits: 45 Famous Failures Who Became Successful People))  Edison was a master of trial and error. He was not afraid to make hundreds, or even thousands, of mistakes before figuring something out.

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” —Thomas Edison

9. Henry Ford

The success story of Henry Ford is one that is also well-known. Henry Ford, as you all know, is the father of the automobile and creator of the assembly line. He helped bring transportation to the masses in America with his Ford Model T car. But what you may not know was that his first company went bankrupt. Even his second company also went bankrupt.

10. Beyoncé

Before Destiny’s Child, Beyonce was in a group called Girl’s Tyme. When Beyonce was just nine years old, the group appeared on the show Star Search and lost. That group went on to become Destiny’s Child.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. They had internal struggles and of the original six members of Girl’s Tyme, only two remained in Destiny’s Child after it was formed. In 1996, they were signed by Columbia Records, and the rest is history.

11. James Dyson

If you thought Thomas Edison’s failures were bad, let me introduce you to James Dyson, the famous inventor of the Dyson vacuums you see all over television. Dyson developed over 5,000 failed prototypes before finding the bagless vacuum brand. Not only that, he invested his entire savings account into his prototypes over fifteen years! Luckily, the bagless vacuum worked and now Forbes estimates James Dyson’s net worth at over $6 billion.((Forbes: Singapore-Bound Billionaire James Dyson Plans $3.6 Billion Move Into Batteries And Robotics After Electric Car Failure))

12. Stephen King

Before Stephen King became known as arguably the greatest living writer—having written over 60 novels, many of which have been adapted for film and television—King was rejected over and over again.

In his memoir, On Writing, King describes how he used to post his rejection letters on the wall with a big spike for inspiration. His first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times. Just when he was about to give up and move on to his next project, his wife found the manuscript in the trash and asked him to try one more time. We all know what happened after that.

13. Vincent Van Gogh

The success story of Vincent Van Gogh may not be as well-known as the others, but it is still as inspiring. Most people don’t know that Van Gogh never actually got to see how much of a success he was. His paintings did not become popular until after his death. Of his 900 paintings, only one was sold while he was alive.

14. Jay-Z

It’s no hidden secret that Jay-Z sold drugs in his youth—he raps about it constantly to remind himself of his humble roots. He is in no way proud of it, but it was what he had to do to scrape by in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects.

During that time, he developed an interest in music and sold CDs out of his trunk before starting his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records.((MoneyPPL: 41 Successful People Who Failed Miserably Before Making It Big)) Shortly after, his career sky-rocketed into the limelight when his album soared to number 23 on the Billboard 200 before going platinum.

Final Thoughts

Hard work is what gets you through life. The Navy SEALs developed BUD/s, known as the most difficult training program in the U.S. military. They want to make sure the warriors they select have the mental toughness to remain calm under pressure and never quit, regardless of the circumstances.

The best way to do that is to expose them to extreme pressure and impossible conditions over and over again. The more they experience setbacks, the more they can learn from them and develop their mental and physical strategies to overcome the obstacles next time.

This is exactly what formed some of the most successful people we know of today. They didn’t purposely put themselves in difficult situations, but the circumstances they were able to overcome allowed them to develop the confidence in themselves to persevere and learn how to do things better.

Self-belief is one of the strongest personal attributes that will lead to your success. So, when you face setbacks in life, don’t get down on yourself. That’s too easy.

Instead, look at it with a smile and say to yourself, “This is why I’m here. This is my opportunity to learn and get better.” Besides, look at how many other people have done it.

More Success Stories of People Who Faced Setbacks

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