How Elvis Presley and These Other Famous People Turned Failure Into Success

We all know the names. We’ve heard them time and time again. But what most people don’t know is just how they failed before they succeeded. The general consensus of success in the arts, entertainment, or business doesn’t take into account personal struggles. All we see are the personification of that success through whatever outlet we happen to come by it.

While you struggle day-in and day-out towards the fulfillment of your hopes and your dreams, know this: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Although Fredrick Douglas might have conveyed this statement more than 150 years ago, it’s a theme that has been evident since the dawn of time. Organisms, both small and large, have always fought for survival, struggling for progress across all spectrums of life.

Here’s a list of 9 famous people who failed before they succeeded – these were people who didn’t give up in the face of their struggles. They’re people that persevered. They pushed through their present-day limitations, had breakthroughs, and whose names have become synonymous with success in their respective fields of study and work:

1. J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling had just gotten a divorce, was on government aid, and could barely afford to feed her baby in 1994, just three years before the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, was published. When she was shopping it out, she was so poor she couldn’t afford a computer or even the cost of photocopying the 90,000-word novel, so she manually typed out each version to send to publishers. It was rejected dozens of times until finally Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, gave it a second chance after the CEO’s eight year-old daughter fell in love with it.

2. Stephen King

King was broke and struggling when he was first trying to write. He lived in a trailer with his wife—also a writer—and they both worked multiple jobs to support their family while pursuing their craft. They were so poor they had to borrow clothes for their wedding and had gotten rid of the telephone because it was too expensive.

King received so many rejection letters for his works that he developed a system for collecting them. In his book On Writing, he recalls: “By the time I was 14…the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” He received 60 rejections before selling his first short story, “The Glass Floor,” for $35. Even his now best-selling book, Carrie, wasn’t a hit at first. After dozens of rejections, he finally sold it for a meager advance to Doubleday Publishing, where the hardback sold only 13,000 copies—not great. Soon after, though, Signet Books signed on for the paperback rights for $400,000, $200,000 of which went to King. Success achieved!

3. Colonel (Harland) Sanders

Colonel Harland Sanders was fired from a variety of jobs throughout his career before he first started cooking chicken in his roadside Shell Service Station in 1930, when he was 40 years old, during the Great Depression. His gas station didn’t actually have a restaurant, so he served diners in his attached personal living quarters.

Over the next 10 years, he perfected his “Secret Recipe” and pressure fryer cooking method for his famous fried chicken and moved onto bigger locations. His chicken was even praised in the media by food critic Duncan Hines (yes, that Duncan Hines). However, as the interstate came through the Kentucky town where the Colonel’s restaurant was located in the 1950s, it took away important road traffic, and the Colonel was forced to close his business and retire, essentially broke. Worried about how he was going to survive off his meager $105 monthly pension check, he set out to find restaurants who would franchise his secret recipe—he wanted a nickel for each piece of chicken sold. He drove around, sleeping in his car, and was rejected more than 1,000 times before finally finding his first partner.

4. Elvis Presley

Yes, at one time, even Elvis Presley — the King himself — was a failure. He failed music classes, and was something of a social outcast in his younger years. He spent time as a truck driver before making the decision to record for the first time. He was even told by his manager, after his first performance, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”

5. Emily Blunt

Before Blunt was getting nominated for Golden Globes and landing leading roles on the stage and big screen, she could barely carry a conversation with her classmates: Between ages seven and 14, Emily had a major stutter. As she told W magazine, “I was a smart kid, and had a lot to say, but I just couldn’t say it. It would just haunt me. I never thought I’d be able to sit and talk to someone like I’m talking to you right now.”

But that all changed when one of her junior high teachers encouraged her to try out for the school play—a totally unappealing feat given the fact that she had such a hard time communicating. But the teacher kept gently pressing and suggested she try accents and character voices to help get the words out—and it worked. By the end of her teens, Blunt had overcome her stutter and went on to achieve the successful career she has now.

6. Henry Ford

Many people know Henry Ford for the Ford Motor Company, one of the most successful automotive companies of all time. However, what they don’t know is that Ford failed two times before that abruptly resulted in bankruptcies, prior to successfully launching the present incarnation of his company.

Ford is no stranger to failure, but he also didn’t give up. Yet, when we think about Ford, we don’t picture the failures because all it took was just succeeding one time. However, in 1899, at the age of 36 years old, Ford formed his first company, the Detroit Automobile Company with backing from the famed lumber baron, William H. Murphy. That company went bankrupt.

His second attempt was in 1901, when he formed the Henry Ford Company, which he ended up leaving with the rights to his name. That company was later renamed to the Cadillac Automobile Company. However, it was Ford’s third try, with the Ford Motor Company, that hit the proverbial nail on the head.

After that, we all know the story. Ford revolutionized the automobile industry, pioneering not only the Model T and the assembly line, but also the concept and notion of an automobile in every home. Driving became a “thing,” and subsequently, Ford’s Model T went on to sell over 17 million units.

7. Thomas Edison

We’ve all heard the name before. This famous American is attributed with failing over 10,000 times to invent a commercially viable electric lightbulb, but he didn’t give up. When asked by a newspaper reporter if he felt like a failure and if he should give up, after having gone through over 9,000 failed attempts, Edison simply stated “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric lightbulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”

This is also the same person whose teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything,” and fired from his first two employment positions for not being productive enough. However, Edison, through his failures, is also the greatest innovator of all time with 1,093 US patents to his name, along with several others in the UK, and Canada. This is someone who refused to ever give up no matter what.

It’s said that in his early days, he attributed his success to his mother, who pulled him out of school and began to teach him herself. It’s because of his mother, and how wholeheartedly she believed in him, that he didn’t want to disappoint her. His early fascination for chemical experiments and mechanical engineering paved the way for a future that was incredible bright. His company, GE, is still one of the largest publicly-traded firms in the world, continually innovating across virtually every spectrum.

8. Walt Disney

The man who has affected generations to come with his cartoon creations, was once considered a failure. Disney was fired by the editor in 1919 from his job at the Kansas City Star paper because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” However, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse and a slew of other characters didn’t stop failing there.

Disney’s first go at business landed in bankruptcy when he acquired an animation studio by the name of Laugh-O-Gram. The company was acquired because, at the time, Disney’s cartoon creations had gained popularity in the Kansas City area. But, when he hired on salaried employees, he was unable to manage money and the business wound up heavily in debt. Subsequently, he filed for bankruptcy and moved to Hollywood, California.

The early failures in Disney’s life didn’t dissuade him from moving forward. Of course, like anyone else, Disney’s failures were a blow to the ego. Anyone that has to suffer through the torment of failure and bankruptcy knows how this feels. However, it also laid the foundation for a successful career. When he formed the Walt Disney Company, all of his past failures helped to pave the way for a successful business.

Disney and the Walt Disney Company have touched the lives of millions across the globe. From cartoons, to theme parks, and animated movies, both children and adults now enjoy the fruits of Disney’s labor. Had he given up, things would have been far different. But he persevered, even through bankruptcy.

9. Sir James Dyson

The Dyson Vacuum Cleaner is known around the world as the vacuum that doesn’t lose suction. But the idea for it was born long ago. Dyson first had the idea in his early 30’s when he became frustrated with his Hoover vacuum and its loss of suction. At the time, the disposable bag replacement market for vacuums was valued somewhere around the  £100 million per year.

His big idea was to use the concept of cyclonic separation to create the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. It took Dyson 5,126 failures to finally get it right. When he did, at the age of 36, he was faced with more resistance when no distributor in the UK would take on the revolutionary product. No one wanted to buck the trend.

So, Dyson hit the Japanese market in 1983, with a hot pink version of his vacuum cleaner. It won an industrial award in Japan, and in 1986, three years after its first introduction, he was awarded his first US Patent for it. However, manufacturers still didn’t want to take it on in other companies, so Dyson formed his own company, in 1993 at the age of 46, to market the product.

Today, Dyson is worth more than £3 billion all because of his refusal to give up. He struggled through times of failure, sorrow, and regret, but he persevered.