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.

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                              Last Updated on January 21, 2021

                              10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

                              10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

                              “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi

                              “Willpower is essential to the accomplishment of anything worthwhile.” – Brian Tracy

                              “Just do it.” – Nike

                              The most important and satisfying things in life usually aren’t the easiest ones.

                              The good news: In today’s hyper-connected world, we have access to all the information we could want to help us achieve our future goals. We know what foods will make us healthier (would kale or quinoa be as popular without the internet and Dr. Oz? I think not). We can also estimate for ourselves the benefits of starting retirement savings early – and the implications for the lifestyles of our future selves (that boat at 65 means fewer vacations in your 20’s).


                              We almost always know what we should do thanks to endless knowledge at our fingertips. But actually doing it is an entirely different kind of challenge. Most of us can relate to that feeling of inertia at the start of a big project, or the struggle to consistently make good, long-term choices for our health, or saving for the future. This mental tug-of-war we experience has evolutionary roots. While knowing this might bring comfort, it doesn’t help solve the problem at hand:

                              How can we flex our willpower to become better, faster, smarter, and stronger?

                              The bad news: you can’t Google your way out of this one.

                              Or can you? A fascinating body of research (much of which you can turn up online through popular press and academic articles) sheds light on how to hack your willpower for better, easier results in all areas of your life. The Willpower Instinct, a great book by Stanford prof Kelly McGonigal, provides a deep dive into these and more topics for anyone keenly interested.

                              Here’s the short version: we can make the most of our willpower through two types of hacks. First, there are ways to turbo boost your willpower. Second, there are ways to hack the system so you make the best use of whatever (sometimes infinitely modest) willpower you have.


                              The following 10 tips draw on both of these toolkits.

                              1. Slow the heck down.

                              Most regrettable decisions (the splurge at the mall, the procrastination on the project, the snacks in the break room) happen when one part of our brain effectively hijacks the other. We go into automatic pilot (and unfortunately the pilot in question has a penchant for shoes, Facebook and cookies!). Researchers suggest that we can override this system by charging up the other. That is, slow down and focus on the moment at hand. Think about your breathing. Bring yourself back to this moment in time, feel the compulsion but don’t act on it yet. Try telling yourself, “If this feeling is still just as uncomfortable in 10 minutes, I’ll act on it.” Take a little time to be mindful – then make your decision.

                              2. Dream of ‘done.’

                              Imagine yourself handing in the big project, soaking up the appreciation from your colleagues or boss. Or crossing the finish line for the half-marathon you’ve always wanted to run. The rush, the aliveness, the wind on your face, the medal …

                              That’s a lot more fun and motivating to think about than how much work it is to get out of bed for your long, Sunday morning run!

                              Re-orient your brain by summoning more motivating feelings than just “not running this morning is more enjoyable than running this morning.” If your goals are meaningful, this will help.


                              3. Make your toughest choices first.

                              Scientists have found that willpower is like a full bathtub that’s drained throughout the day. So, why not start your toughest challenges when you have a full reserve? Get that project started or fit that workout in before you even check your email or have breakfast. Bonus: the high you’ll get from crossing off your hardest ‘to-do’ will help you sail through the rest of your day.

                              4. Progress = commitment, not a license to backslide.

                              A lot of times people will ‘cheat’ right after taking positive steps towards their goals. (A common version of this trap is, “I worked out three days in a row, so I deserve this cookie.”) Most of us can relate to this thinking – but it’s totally irrational! We’ll often trick ourselves into setbacks because we think we deserve them, even if we don’t really want them and deep down we know they’ll work against us in the long-run.

                              How can you counteract this effect? Research finds that if you use your positive streak to recommit (“If I worked out three days this week, I must be really committed to my health and fitness goal!”) rather than an excuse for wiggle room, we don’t take the same cheat options. Cool, right?

                              5. Meditate.

                              Meditation is an expressway to better willpower. Bringing your attention to your breathing for 15 minutes, or even five, flexes your willpower muscles by applying discipline to your thinking. It does this by working two mental ‘muscle groups’: first, the set of muscles that notice when your attention is drifting, and second, the set of muscles that bring you back to your task at hand. Over time, even small amounts of meditation will help you build the discipline to easily do what was once hard – like pushing through a long stretch at work.

                              6. Set mini-goals.

                              Which seems more doable: committing to three 20 minute runs this week or a half-marathon? Mini-goals are brilliant because they’re easier to achieve and boost your commitment to continuing. When we size them up, we see them as achievable rather than daunting. Each time you succeed at one, it boosts your sense of efficacy and personal integrity: not only are you capable of doing what you set out to do, but you followed through on it. Nice.


                              The beauty of mini-goals is that over time, mini-goals – and the momentum you’ve built by doing them – can quickly turn into super-goals. So that half marathon might be more likely to happen, and sooner and more easily than you think!

                              7. Eat.

                              Low blood sugar decreases your ability to make tough decisions. If you’re running on empty physically, you’ll also be running on empty mentally. (Yes, this one’s somewhat ironic if your goal involves changing food patterns – but even so, letting your blood sugar drop too far will only sabotage you over time.)

                              8. Sleep.

                              Research shows people who don’t get enough sleep have a tough time exercising their willpower. Sleep is critical for a healthy brain – along with just about everything else. So to optimize your willpower muscle, make sure you’re catching your zzz’s.

                              9. Nix the self-sabotage.

                              Making yourself feel bad hurts, rather than helps, your willpower efforts. Researchers have found that compassion is a far better strategy than tough love – telling yourself “It’s OK, everyone has setbacks sometimes,” will help you bounce back more quickly than negative self-talk.

                              10. Take the first hard step.

                              As a new behavior becomes a habit, it is more natural. You have to use less and less willpower to ‘make it so.’ When you’re starting a new pattern that feels hard, remind yourself that the first steps are truly the hardest. It will probably never feel harder than it does in those first few choices. In the case of repeated behaviors, like exercise or saving money, it takes weeks for new habits to take hold. By that point, the habit will be so ingrained, you’d have to try hard not to do it.

                              Featured photo credit: Kym Ellis via

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