Career set backs happen to the best of us. Whether you’ve been made redundant, failed an exam, made a bad business deal or had the door shut in your face, it can leave you questioning yourself and your abilities. Take heart. Some of the world’s most successful men and women suffered crushing failure – and came back stronger than ever before.
J. K. Rowling: £560 million
As rags to riches stories go, few are more inspiring than author Joanne K. Rowling’s. In the early 1990s, a marriage break-up had left her unemployed and living on state benefits with a dependent child – in her own words, ‘poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless’. During this time, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and even contemplated suicide. Although she saw herself as ‘the biggest failure she knew’ she has since described the experience as liberating.
Giving a talk on the ‘Fringe Benefits of Failure’ she said: ‘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. Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’
Harry Potter may have achieved phenomenal success, but Rowling faced her fair share of rejection in the early days. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 different book publishers – until it was picked up by Barry Cunningham from Bloomsbury. Even though he agreed to publish the book (persuaded by his daughter who read the first chapter and loved it), Cunningham advised Rowling to get a day job, since he felt she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Little did he know.
Steve Jobs: £6.5 billion
A pioneer of the computer revolution, the late Steve Jobs will be remembered as one of the greatest innovators of all time. But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the co-founder of Apple. In the wake of declining sales, Jobs was ousted from the company he helped to build in 1985 – leaving him at a very low point. Using his energy to pursue new ventures, like Pixar, he returned to Apple in 1997, where he eventually took over as CEO.
During a 2005 speech, Jobs said: ‘I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did.’
On his return, Jobs turned Apple around – bringing the company he had founded back from the brink and once again producing innovative products, like iTunes, the iPod and the iPhone, credited with redefining the digital age.
Simon Cowell: £300 million
The international entertainment mogul has plenty to celebrate (especially given the phenomenal success of pop group One Direction, who are signed to his label) but things weren’t always easy. Having dropped out of college, Simon’s career in the music industry was humble – he began working in the mailroom at EMI before rising up to become a talent scout for the company. The first record label he started – Fanfare Records – closed down after just four years. Suddenly broke, Cowell was forced to move back in with his family.
Speaking in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said: ‘I made some absolutely horrific mistakes. I believed my own ego, believed my own hype, believed my own abilities, and lots of times it came crashing down. I thought I was absolutely untouchable. But it was all borrowed. It was all nothing. And sure enough, the whole lot came crashing down. At the age of 30, I went to live with my mom and dad and had to sell the house, the Porsche – everything. I had literally nothing other than about a half-million-dollar loan I had to repay.’
The failure served as a wake-up call. ‘Once everything was gone, there was nothing I missed, and all the pressure went away. Then it kind of became reality, which was, I’ve literally got to start again with nothing. In a weird way, it was one of the happiest times of my life.’