Life Lessons from 6 Famous Failures

6 lessons from famous failuresHave you ever met a successful person who did not encounter some failures along the way?

I know I haven’t … it seems that failure is inextricably blended into the pathway toward success.

Fortunately for us, some very famous people have traveled this path.

What can we learn from these “famous failures”?

1. Never give up.  (Winston Churchill)

Churchill failed sixth grade and was defeated in every election for public office until he became Prime Minister of England at the age of 62.  When he met with his Cabinet on May 13, 1940, as England was about to enter the war against Germany, he told them that, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

I believe it was Churchill’s determination to face his earlier failures head on which gave him the resolve to lead his nation through years of warfare.  He later wrote these now famous words, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never, never, never, never give up.”

How about you?  When you are pursuing something noble, honorable and right, do you tend to give up or do you, like Churchill, doggedly stick with it?

2. Learn from your failures.  (Thomas Edison)

Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.”  He made thousands of unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb, but when a young reporter asked him how if felt to have failed all those times, Edison’s now famous reply was, “I didn’t fail 5,000 times.  I discovered 5,000 ways that didn’t work.

How about you?  When things don’t go as you hoped for, do you get paralyzed by self pity or do you take a step back and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?

3. Discover your niche.  (Albert Einstein)

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 4 years old and did not read until he was 7.  One of his teachers described him as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.”  Einstein had speech difficulties as a child and was once thought to be mentally handicapped.

He was expelled from school and failed admittance into Zurich Polytechnic School.  However, he buckled down, received some training and was eventually accepted into Zurich Polytechnic.  A few years later, after earning his PHD, he received a Nobel prize for Physics and has generally been recognized as the genius of our modern era.

Because of his early failures, Einstein could have given up. Obviously, he wasn’t meant to be a writer or speaker, but he WAS meant to be a physicist of the highest order.  The key?  Discovering his niche.

How about you?  Do you think of yourself as a failure in life because you failed in one area of life?  Maybe those failures are a message you should heed:  try something else, and keep trying until you discover your niche.

4. Trust your gut. (Beethoven)

Although Beethoven handled the violin awkwardly, and his music instructor told him that he was “hopeless as a composer”, he continued to play his own compositions instead of working on his technique.  The rest, of course, is history and even legend: Beethoven wrote five of his greatest symphonies while completely deaf.

We are thankful today that Beethoven insisted on playing his own compositions, but, if he hadn’t “trusted his gut”, he may have given up his pursuits of composing.  He just KNEW that he was meant to be a composer.

How about you?  Are you doing what you know you should be doing?  Do you continue doing it even if critics and friends tell you to give up?  Do you trust your gut?

5. Use criticism as your motivator. (Sidney Poitier)

After his first audition, the casting director told Sidney Poitier, “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?”  Poitier recalls that he decided at that very moment to devote his life to acting.

How about you?  Does the sting of criticism make you want to quit or do you allow it to motivate you?

6. Allow failures to give you focus.  (JK Rowling)

Before Harry Potter fame, JK Rowling was a divorced mother living on welfare.  She refers to herself as “the biggest failure I knew”, but credits much of her success to her failure.  She explained in a Harvard commencement speech, “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

How about you?  Do your failures give you an intense focus on the things that really matter to you?  If not, why not?

Hopefully, these stories will help us realize that failure is not final, but merely preparation for the next step in our journey.

Readers:  How do you deal with failures in your own life?   Do you see them as healthy steps on the roadway to success or as disappointments to be avoided? Does fear of failure ever keep you from attempting a new venture?

34 Comments
  1. John | Married (with Debt)

    It’s amazing how one big success can wipe out years of false starts and failures. The key is to keep trying! Great post to start the day with.

    • Joe Plemon

      John — Agreed, but you make me ponder, “what about the person who perseveres yet never has that one big success?” For example, what about a missionary who labors diligently for years without seeing many results? I like to believe that God is saving up some rewards in heaven for those who diligently serve him.

  2. Joolie

    I can’t think of personal great failures that have lead to great success, but my philosophy is just try it. Try anything and everything. I was raised to believe I could do anything if I put my mind to it. While I have lack of success in some things (like math) I believe it really is because I don’t put my mind to it. Many people have expressed incredulity that I do so many things and do them well, but I go into each new experience believing in myself. I’m not afraid to try anything. I research and learn as much as possible, and I do so with the intent of succeeding.

    • Joe Plemon

      I love your “can do” mindset. Whereas many people are so afraid of failure that they won’t try anything new, you tend to love the challenge. I would guess that most of our “famous failures”, like you, never considered their disappointments to be failures…only steps toward future success.

  3. Mac Hildebrand

    The progression through modern history and the variety of names and situations had much to teach me here. In the realm of finance, fear of failure can be crippling and selfish.

    The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 came to mind as an example of the Bible’s perspective on the fear of failure ruining our God-given responsibility to invest our resources. I want to be careful not to detract from the Bible’s complete message in order to water it down to merely a financial message. Finances are part of the larger picture.

    The undeniably Christian theme of “having in order to give” is unavoidable in this parable since it is really a picture of our entire spiritual lives including our financial resources. Whatever we have, it belongs to the master. The servants are investing for the sake of the master, a picture of our God and savior. The main way that we invest for God is dying to self and putting into His cause (Matthew 16:24-28), so that in our financial gain, we do not lose our souls.

    • Joe Plemon

      I think you made an astute observation concerning the man who was afraid to use his talent. He fully realized that the talent belonged to the Master, but he nevertheless buried it because he was afraid of failure. It makes me wonder, “how many of us bury our talents because we are afraid of failure?”

  4. Colin - Pet Bird Shop UK

    I have got to agree with Joe that is why I think 3. Discover your niche means the most to me

    • Joe Plemon

      Colin…just curious…have you discovered your niche, or are you still looking for it?

  5. Kalu James

    There are usually potentials hidden behind every fear of failure which need to be discovered for a dynamic success .

    • Joe Plemon

      Good point. Perhaps we should start viewing our fears as doorways toward hidden potentials. Breaking those doors open could be difficult, depending on the depth of fear, but imagine how rewarding it would be to discover those “dynamic successes”!

  6. Azra Panjwani

    Wow. What an amazing and inspirational post, really enjoyed reading this! Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team and Walt Disney was fired by the editor of the newspaper where he worked for lack of good ideas. Imagine if they’d let the failure get the best of them instead of feuling them…

    • Joe Plemon

      Thanks Azra — Yes, Michael Jordon and Walt Disney are two more inspirational stories. I too am glad they never let failure get the best of them.

  7. Teodven Saladaga

    Thank you very much, very useful……… God bless!!!!

  8. Joe Plemon

    Scott — As a civil engineer, I can appreciate how the Thomas Edison story would have special meaning to an electrical engineer. His example has been an inspiration to me also!

  9. These are inspiring examples. Thanks so much!

    • Joe Plemon

      You’re quite welcome!

  10. Money Infant

    Every failure is a wonderful opportunity to do better the next time with the increased knowledge and experience you now have.

    • Joe Plemon

      Well said. Now…if we can implant the equation “Failure = Opportunity” deeply into our mindsets, we will be better able to put the principle to work.

      Stated differently, the principle is true, but utilizing it in the midst of disappointment is not easily done.

    • Money Infant

      I think once you change your mindset to embrace failure you no longer experience the disappointment as heavily. Once you can make that crucial change you’ll see the opportunities rather than the disappointment. Maybe it isn’t easy to make the change in outlook, but it is well worth it once you overcome your fear of failure.

    • Joe Plemon

      Amen!

  11. Takeshi Yashima

    This is such a great post. Its so important that people learn lessons from these failures and from their personal failures as well. Financial liberty doesn’t come to anybody, it has to be earned. Only those who deserves it, surely gets it…

    • Joe Plemon

      So true. NONE of us get it right the first time!

  12. “Never give up” – is the key to success in Information Technology, just like every other aspects in life and business… Great post.

    • Joe Plemon

      Giving up is easy…something anyone can do. NOT giving up, however, sets people apart and often is THE determining factor of success.

  13. Sean Hopcraft

    I am saving these and implementing them in my Sunday school group on Sundays. High schoolers love stories about contemporaries or hearing rags-to-riches stories. Thanks Joe.

    • Joe Plemon

      I have always loved vignettes. Come to think of it, Jesus did too. I hope your high schoolers will be encouraged by these stories!

  14. Joe Plemon

    Hahaha. Love the quote by Einstein! It definitely frees us up to do what we are called to do and NOT what is not our niche.

  15. Mr.Ven

    Hi Joe Plemon,

    The story of Albert Einstein is really inspiring. Failures are the stepping stones for success and every one should fail at least once 😉

    Thanks

    • Joe Plemon

      Agreed that everyone should fail at least once. I have more than met my quota. 🙂 But if I didn’t let fear of failure prevent me from trying new things, I would undoubtedly fail more often, which means that I would be walking on those stepping stones of success more often.

  16. Kent

    This is a great article. So many people run and hide from them, but it seems that within them we have greater potential to do so much more because of them. Very encouraging.

    • Joe Plemon

      Yes, that potential is there to do so much more. The common thread for all of our “famous failures” is not being a genius or even having amazing natural abilities — it is trying, failing, and trying again. And again. That is how they turned potential into fulfillment.

  17. Thanks! I really needed to hear that today. I’m tired, but determined to keep my nose to the grindstone.

    • Joe Plemon

      Paula — Thanks for the encouraging words. I write them as much to myself (because I need to hear them) as to others. Remember, while your nose is to the grindstone, to occasionally look up.