by Catherine Watts

As Winston Churchill once wisely said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

Anyone who has achieved anything great or has changed the world in some way has made a choice to embrace failure as a stepping – stone to accomplish his or her goals. Successful artists understand that every failure brings them one step closer to achieving their goals. Here is a list of 21 performing and visual artists who failed miserably before they succeeded big.

Charles Schultz

Before he created the beloved series, Peanuts (featuring Snoopy and Charlie Brown), cartoon artist, Charles Schultz was rejected by his high school yearbook. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Schultz used that failure as motivation to create the comic series he became famous for. Today, the revenue from Peanuts has generated over $1 billion a year. Schultz’s high school actually went on to put a statue of Snoopy in the main office.

Walt Disney

The man who gave us Mickey Mouse and Disney World started his career as the artist nobody wanted to hire. His first animation company went bankrupt. A news editor fired him because he believed he lacked imagination. After this setback, Walt Disney decided to form Disney Brothers Studio with his brother Roy. Disney Brothers Studio later became called the Walt Disney Company. In 1928, five years after creating the Walt Disney Company, Disney created Mickey Mouse. The rest is history.

Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey made his standup debut at a comedy club called Yuk Yuk’s, which he completely bombed. After 11 years of trying to become an actor Carrey finally got his break in 1990 when he was cast on the show, In Living Color. In 1994, he got his biggest break yet to star in Ace Ventura. It was that role that helped to catapult him into stardom.

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga is one of the best-selling artists of all time. She has 6 Grammy awards under her belt and 13 MTV Video Music Awards. Before accomplishing all of that, Lady Gaga was dropped by Def Jam records after only 3 months of signing on with them. Def Jam Records believed that her over the top style of dress and music would not appeal to the masses. Lady Gaga stuck to her guns and it clearly worked in her favor.

Fred Astaire

Born in 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire is another famous failure. Astaire was supposedly rejected during a Hollywood screen test. He was told that he “Can’t act. Slighty bald. Dances a little.” He kept working at his dancing and acting and was finally able to create a successful career from it.


You know you’re big when you are known as the queen. But even Queen Bey experienced her fair share of initial failures before she hit it big. Before she was Queen Bey, 12-year-old Beyoncé was a member of the group Girls Tyme. The group appeared on a 1993 episode of the talent show, Star Search, and lost. A group called Skeleton Crew beat out girls Tyme and clearly Beyoncé never forgot the loss. You can actually see a snippet of that loss in her music video for “Flawless.”

In a 2013 interview, Beyoncé called the loss “a really defining moment in my life as a child.” She went on to say, “At that time, you don’t realize that you could work super hard and give everything you have—and lose.” She added: “You’re never too good to lose; you’re never too big to lose.” She didn’t allow that setback to define her and today Beyoncé has 22 Grammys to her name and is worth $355 million.

Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z

It would be a disservice to talk about Queen Bey, without also mentioning the Jigga Man himself. Although Jay-Z is considered to be one of the most successful rappers of all time, his early life was characterized by an unstable family life and a string of failures that led to him dealing drugs. Because no record label wanted to sign him, Jay-Z started selling CDs out of the trunk of his car. After every major label had turned him down, he decided to found his own label called Roc-A-Fella Records.

Charlie Chaplin

Born into poverty in 1889, Charlie Chaplin’s father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to care for the family alone. Throughout his childhood, Chaplin was forced to go to a workhouse, an institution in the UK where the indigent worked in exchange for room and board. During this time, Chaplin participated in stage plays. Eventually, Chaplin made his way to Hollywood, California where he was continuously turned away and snubbed, only later to become the greatest silent-film actor to have ever lived.

Sylvester Stallone

After moving to New York City in the 1970’s to pursue an acting career, Sylvester Stallone seemed to experience nothing but rejection and failure. People would tell him that he couldn’t act, that he talked funny, and even that he walked strangely.

Stallone was rejected at least 1,500 times by everyone that he met in the film industry. He would sit for hours on end in offices just to wait to the see the person who would ultimately reject him again. Stallone ended up homeless. He lived and slept in the bus station for three weeks while trying to save money for an apartment.

After writing the script for Rocky, he was offered more than $300,000 if he agreed not to star in the film. He refused time and again. Rocky Balboa is now the pride and joy of Philadelphia and even has a famous statue that is a major tourist attraction. You know you’ve hit it big when a major U.S. city wants to build a commemorative statue of a fictional character you created and starred as!

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley has sold over 1 billion records worldwide; however, his rise to the top was rife with failures. When Elvis was 18-years old, he recorded a demo with Sun Records, but nothing came of it. A year later, in 1954, he recorded another demo, which also floundered. That same year, Presley auditioned for the Songfellows quartet, but was rejected. When his father asked him what had happened, Presley stated, “They told me I couldn’t sing.”

Through a friend, Elvis eventually met Eddie Bond who helped him to find a gig as a vocalist in a professional band. They arranged some recordings, but nothing came of it until months later when Presley performed Arthur Crudup’s blues number, “That’s All Right.” That performance got the attention of a professional DJ, which jumpstarted the career of the “King Of Rock And Roll.”

George Lucas

George Lucas is the creative genius behind the Star Wars franchise and the Raiders Of The Lost Ark. But his feature film directorial debut in 1971, THX 1138, lost more money than it cost to make. Undeterred, Lucas’ next film, American Graffiti, was a huge success. Even still, his newly gained clout wasn’t enough to persuade two different studios of the viability of his next project, Star Wars. Eventually, 20th Century Fox approved the script. When it was released, Star Wars went on to become the highest grossing film of all time.

Jerry Seinfeld

After graduating from Queens College in 1976, Jerry Seinfeld tried his hand at standup during an open-mic night in New York City where he froze on stage and forgot his jokes. He was then booed off the stage but he didn’t let that stop him.

Over the next three years Seinfeld honed his standup skills. This eventually led to an appearance on an HBO Special for Rodney Dangerfield, and afterwards, to a role on the sitcom, Benson. In 1988, Seinfeld created the semi-fictional series about his life with co-creator Larry David called Seinfeld. By 2002, TV Guide ranked it as the greatest show of all time.

Harrison Ford

When Harrison Ford headed to Los Angeles to establish a career in voice-overs, he failed to secure any jobs, but he stayed in the area. After two years of working odd jobs and small-time gigs, Ford landed his first role as a bellhop in the 1964 movie, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go Round. However, studio executives were rough on Ford, telling him that “he would never make it in this business.”

But Harrison Ford refused to give up. 9 years later in 1973, Ford landed his breakthrough role in George Lucas’s film, American Graffiti. Because of that role, and his relationship with Lucas, Harrison Ford was able to build a highly successful acting career. George Lucas later cast Ford in Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series.

Kerry Washington

Before being catapulted to stardom with her lead role on hit drama, Scandal, Kerry Washington was fired from a pilot she filmed after it was picked up. In an interview, Kerry mentioned that, “Before Scandal, the only other two pilots I’d ever done were shows that got picked up, but I got fired,” Washington said at the Hollywood Reporter‘s Emmy Roundtable, “They recast my character on both shows.” That would certainly be a tough pill to swallow once, let alone twice. But Washington proved that tenacity and perseverance can help you to overcome any failure.


After dropping out of the University Michigan School of Music in order to pursue a career as an artist, Madonna started working at Dunkin’ Donuts in Times Square. That job was hilariously short-lived because she was fired on her first day after squirting jelly on a customer.

With only $35 in her pocket when arriving in New York City, Madonna searched for other work. She took random jobs, primarily as a backup dancer for modern dance troupes. One night, when she was returning home after a rehearsal, she was even robbed by two men at knifepoint. Needless to say this discouraged Madonna, but it did not deter her.

She landed small singing parts and performed with bands such as the Breakfast Club. Eventually she caught the eye of Sire Records founder, Seymour Stein. In 1982, at the age of 24-years old, she debuted her single, “Everybody,” followed by, “Burning Up,” both which became huge club hits. Since then Madonna has become one of the world’s wealthiest music artists with a net worth of $800 million.

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is, without a doubt, one of the most successful American filmmakers in history. Nonetheless, he was rejected from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema Arts, not once, but twice. He finally went on to graduate from Cal State University in Long Beach. Spielberg eventually received an honorary degree from the film school that rejected him and is now worth $2.7 billion.

The Beatles

The Beatles were rejected by numerous record labels including Decca Records, which said, “guitar groups are on the way out” and “the Beatles have no future in show business.” Five months after that rejection, The Beatles signed with George Martin from Parlophone and released their first in a string of hits later that year entitled, “Love Me Do.” Since then, The Beatles have sold more singles in the UK than anyone else, and have moved more units in the US (more than 177 million) than any other group.

Jon Hamm

Following his move to Los Angeles, Jon Hamm couldn’t land a single gig. He was so unsuccessful in finding acting work that his talent agency fired him. Hamm began working as a waiter and had contemplated giving up entirely on the acting business, considering himself to be a major failure at the time.

During the time he had been considering quitting acting for a more stable career, Jon found work on Mel Gibson’s movie, We Were Soldiers. It was after getting this role that he decided to stick it out in show business.

Good thing he did because he eventually landed the role of a lifetime with 2007’s Mad Men, turning him, not only into a famous actor, but a cultural icon. When he was cast as Don Draper, Hamm stated that he was at “the bottom of everyone’s list.” Hamm’s story shows that keeping hope alive can lead to amazing results.

Katy Perry

In 1999, at the age of 15, Katy Perry dropped out of high school after completing her GED in order to pursue a music career full time. She signed with Red Hill Records and debuted a gospel album called, Katy Hudson in 2001. After the album only sold 200 copies, Red Hill Records closed its doors just a few months later.

When she was 20-years old, Perry signed with another label called Java to work on a solo record, but her record was shelved. Afterwards, Perry signed with Columbia Records, and recorded new music over the next two years. But before the record was completed, she was dropped from that label as well.

Katy Perry’s big break finally came in 2007 when she signed with Capitol Records. In 2008, she released the would-be-hit song, “I Kissed a Girl.” What seemed like an overnight success at the time actually took nine years to accomplish.

Vincent Van Gogh

For most of his life, Vincent Van Gogh believed himself to be a failure. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Despite that, he kept painting and finished over 800 pieces. Now everyone wants to buy them and his most expensive painting is valued at $142.7 million.

Luckily for the artists of today, you probably wouldn’t need to die before becoming recognized for your work.

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