Published on December 31, 2020

14 Success Stories of Famous People Who Begin With Setbacks

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

    Getty Image

    Before releasing the 1975 classic, Jaws, Steven Spielberg was rejected multiple times from USC’s School of Cinematic Hearts.[1] 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

      Getty Image

      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.[2] 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

          Getty Image

          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.[3] 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

            Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

            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

              Taylor Hill/Getty Imags

              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

                Hello Magazine

                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

                  George Rinhart/Corbis Historical

                  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. [4]  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

                    Hindustan Times

                    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

                      Getty Images

                      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.[5]

                        12. Stephen King

                          Shane Leonard/Simon & Schuster

                          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

                            Self Portrait (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

                            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

                              Kevin Mazur/ Getty Images

                              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.[6] 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

                              Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via


                              More by this author

                              Kyle J. Brennan

                              Digital marketing expert, book reviewer, triathlete, & experimenter of all things.

                              12 Things That Will Always Motivate You to Do a Good Job 9 Killer Self-Confidence Tips For a Confidence Boost 14 Success Stories of Famous People Who Begin With Setbacks The Real Reason Why You Feel Exhausted (No Matter How Much You Sleep)

                              Trending in Success Mindset

                              1 17 Traits That Make a Successful Person Stand out from the Crowd 2 Is There a True Measure of Success? How to Define Your Own 3 How Do You Measure Success: 10 New And Better Ways 4 50 Habits of Highly Successful People You Should Learn 5 8 Daily Habits of the Successful People (Which Are Rare)

                              Read Next


                              Last Updated on July 21, 2021

                              17 Traits That Make a Successful Person Stand out from the Crowd

                              17 Traits That Make a Successful Person Stand out from the Crowd

                              If you are like most people, you probably have big goals and dreams that you would like to succeed in — you want to be the top in your career, live a healthy lifestyle, or flourish in your relationships.

                              Everyone dreams of a positive future, but most people don’t realize the secret to a truly successful life:

                              You determine your future in the way you spend your everyday moments. If you want to be a successful person, you must consistently develop good daily habits. As Aristotle pointed out:

                              “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

                              Building positive daily habits is a huge challenge, but can you imagine the amazing things you could accomplish with just a little commitment and determination?

                              Creating lasting, healthy habits is the real key difference between people who are successful in life and those who are unsuccessful.

                              You might be wondering which specific habits make the biggest difference. Not to worry, I’ve compiled a comparison list to help you get a jump start on a successful future.

                              1. Successful people embrace change. Unsuccessful people fear change.

                              Change is a constant for all of humanity, and it is important that you develop a positive relationship with it.

                              When unexpected or unwelcome changes arise, ask yourself how you can embrace it instead of running away. A few practical ways to reverse a change-fearing mindset include:

                              • Take a moment to recognize and address any fears associated with the upcoming change.
                              • Communicate with a person you trust about your negative feelings toward change.
                              • Practice positive thinking, which you can read about in the next section.

                              2. Successful people exude joy. Unsuccessful people think, say and do negative things.

                              A joyful, positive disposition can seem like a distant reality in today’s cynical world, but it may be easier to achieve than you think. All you have to do is notice the good things around you and practice being thankful.


                              Mindfulness and gratitude are not just buzz words – choosing a positive attitude can honestly change your life. Many studies have found that thankfulness leads to greater happiness. Furthermore, research indicates that gratitude may even have a lasting positive impact on the brain and overall mental health.[1]

                              3. Successful people forgive others. Unsuccessful people hold grudges.

                              As a human being, you have likely been offended or hurt by others plenty of times. Don’t give in to the temptation to hold a grudge. Let it go.

                              Note that forgiving someone does not equate to giving up your boundaries (which are very important) or even admitting that the offending party is right. You should choose to let go for your own peace of mind.

                              4. Successful people track progress. Unsuccessful people just criticize.

                              Some kinds of criticism, such as constructive criticism, are good for personal and professional development. The kind of criticism I’m talking about is the pessimistic, nagging, unhelpful variety. This is the kind of criticism in play when you are unfairly harsh to yourself or others.

                              Toss unfounded criticisms aside and consider tracking your “wins” or your progresses, no matter how small. Take mental notes or keep a progress journal.

                              If you have a solid sense of what you have achieved, you will be less tempted to be hard on yourself.

                              5. Successful people share information, data and ideas. Unsuccessful people hoard.

                              If you have useful information or generate brilliant ideas on the regular, your first instinct may be to keep it all to yourself for personal gain and solo recognition.

                              Instead of hoarding bright ideas, share them with your team. Your talents will be on display for the team, and the team will be able to support you and make your ideas a reality.

                              6. Successful people are humble. Unsuccessful people talk more than they listen.

                              Humility is key. The ability to listen to other people, really listen and understand, is essential to success in both work and relationships — and to listen you have to be humble.

                              Everyone has experienced the frustration of being in a one-sided conversation. When someone approaches you with a question or concern, put your own world aside for just a moment and give them the kindness of your full attention.


                              7. Successful people take risks. Unsuccessful people take the easy way out.

                              The next time your heart is racing and you want to walk away, consider embracing the risk. You never know what might happen if you take a chance.

                              Embracing risks looks like accepting the speaking engagement even though it seems a little scary. Success takes the courageous route, not the easy route.

                              8. Successful people learn, improve and read every day. Unsuccessful people stop learning.

                              Instead of binge-watching a show tonight, save an hour before bed to read a book and expand your mind.

                              Unsuccessful people are afraid to be flexible – they don’t challenge themselves to learn new things. Avoid this pitfall by exposing yourself to new thoughts and ideas every day.

                              9. Successful people handle problems well. Unsuccessful people act before they think.

                              The next time you run into a problem or even an emergency, try to work through your initial panic reaction with a few deep breaths.

                              Instead of acting rashly, think through your next actions as quickly but as logically as you can.

                              Learning to handle problems thoughtfully is an absolutely essential tool in the successful person’s toolbox (that’s you!).

                              10. Successful people accept responsibility for their failures. Unsuccessful people blame others.

                              Along with a previous tip about humility, this is one of the hardest things you’ll ever learn to do – but also the most rewarding. When you’ve failed, you must fight the urge to pass the blame. Successful people are able to fail honestly and gracefully.

                              And, hey, don’t feel bad about failing. Some of the most successful people in the world have failed too many times to count. It’s all a part of the process.

                              You can check out this article for more tips on how to fail well:


                              How Failure Helps You To Succeed and Grow

                              11. Successful people work with passion and commitment. Unsuccessful people have a sense of entitlement.

                              A short and sweet lesson for you:

                              You should never expect to achieve the things you want without working hard.

                              Follow your passion and stay committed to pursuing it. Work hard and stick to your habits every day. You’ll earn your reward.

                              12. Successful people spend time with the right people. Unsuccessful people think they already know it all.

                              A lot of people miss out on useful relationships and information sharing because they think they can do it all alone.

                              Spend time with people who inspire you, spur you to be a better person, and remind you that you can’t go it alone.

                              13. Successful people make to-do lists and maintain proper life balance. Unsuccessful people waste their time.

                              Ah, time management. Unsuccessful people never master the art of organization and planning.

                              Here are a few tips for you when it comes to time management:

                              • Make to-do lists. Seriously, this will help you. Make time to do it every morning, evening, or whenever you are able.
                              • Keep track of your time. Are you happy with the way you are currently balancing things? What changes can you make?
                              • Keep a calendar full of your long-term goals (see next tip).

                              14. Successful people write down goals and think long term about their burning desires. Unsuccessful people get distracted every day.

                              Why is it so important to keep a long-term goal calendar? Here’s the deal:

                              The things you are passionate about today need a backbone.


                              Give your passionate ideas sustainability by writing down goals and staying on task instead of succumbing to distraction.

                              15. Successful people compliment others. Unsuccessful people try to bring others down to their level.

                              There is no greater confidence than saying “no” to sudden jealous or envious feelings and choosing to sincerely admire someone’s talents instead.

                              Unsuccessful people live in a world driven by competition, but successful people know that building people up is far more rewarding than bringing them down.

                              16. Successful people want others to succeed. Unsuccessful people secretly hope they fail.

                              In the same vein as the point above, this tip is all about good intentions.

                              Care for the people around you. Encourage them toward their successes. Hoping that others fail will not help you at all.

                              17. Successful people know their purpose and mission. Unsuccessful people don’t know what they want to be.

                              The last thing that differentiates successful people from unsuccessful people is one of the most important:

                              Keep your mission in mind.

                              Don’t be swayed to and fro by passing emotions and events. Know who you are and pursue your dreams wholeheartedly.

                              Final thoughts

                              Above all, stay confident. Truly believe that you can be and are successful. Strive to prove it in your day-to-day habits and activities!

                              What are you waiting for? Choose one of the habits above and get started today.


                              Featured photo credit: Unsplash via


                              [1] Berkeley University of California: How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain

                              Read Next