When Things Are Bad, Read This

Leadership in Early Stage companies is more often about managing through the lows than celebrating the highs. When it’s time to make a speech to the team, it’s often worth remembering that most great things and most great people did not start out great! This list of “background stories,” collected by many people over many years, is proof positive that fame and fortune is awarded mostly in hindsight.

As a young man, Abraham Lincolnwent to war a captain and returned a private. Afterwards, he was a failure in business. As a lawyer in Springfield, he was too impractical and temperamental to be a success. He turned to politics and was defeated in his first try for the Legislature, again defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for Congress, defeated in his application to be Commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the Senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the Vice Presidency in 1856, and defeated in the Senatorial election of 1858. At about that time, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.
Winston Churchillfailed sixth grade. He was subsequently defeated in every election for public office until he became Prime Minister at the age of 62. He later wrote, “Never give in, 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.” (The Capitals are his.)
Sigmund Freudwas booed from the podium when he first presented his ideas to the scientific community of Europe. He returned to his office and kept writing.
Thomas Edison’steacher’s said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.” As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Albert Einsteindid not speak until he was 4-years-old and did not read until he was 7. His parents thought he was “sub-normal”, and one of his teachers described him as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams.” He was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He did eventually learn to speak and read. Even do a little math.
Louis Pasteurwas only a mediocre pupil in undergraduate studies and ranked 15th out of 22 students in chemistry.
Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he succeeded.
R. H. Macytfailed seven times before his store in New York City caught on.
Rocket scientist Robert Goddardfound his ideas bitterly rejected by his scientific peers on the grounds that rocket propulsion would not work in the rarefied atmosphere of outer space.
an expert said of Vince Lombardi:“He possesses minimal football knowledge and lacks motivation.” Lombardi would later write, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get back up.”
Michael Jordan and Bob Cousy were each cut from their high school basketball teams. Jordan once observed, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”
Babe Ruthis famous for his home run record. But for decades, he also held the record for strikeouts. He hit 714 home runs and struck out 1,330 times in his career about which he said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
Stan Smithwas rejected as a ball boy for a Davis Cup tennis match because he was “too awkward and clumsy.” He went on to clumsily win Wimbledon and the U. S. Open. And eight Davis Cups.
Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, and Jimmy Johnsonaccounted for 11 of the 19 Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1993. They also share the distinction of having the worst records of first-season head coaches in NFL history – they didn’t win a single game.
William Procter (of Procter & Gamble) had success with his first product, Ivory Soap, because he left the mixer on too long in a batch of bar soap. Why was that important? Because over-mixing drove air into the soap, making it so light and fluffy that it actually floated. The good news? As people in the 1880s mostly bathed in rivers, floating soap was a real benefit. Within days, P&G started to receive orders from down river for “that soap that floats.”
Johnny Unitas‘ first pass in the NFL was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Joe Montana’s‘ first pass was also intercepted.
Walt Disneywas fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” He went bankrupt several times before he built Disneyland. In fact, the proposed park was rejected by the city of Anaheim on the grounds that it would only attract riffraff.
Charles Schultzhad every cartoon he submitted rejected by his high school yearbook staff. Oh, and Walt Disney wouldn’t hire him.
AfterFred Astaire’sfirst screen test, the memo from the testing director of MGM, in 1933, read, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” He kept that memo over the fire place in his Beverly Hills home. He once observed that “when you’re experimenting, you have to try so many things before you choose what you want, that you may go days getting nothing but exhaustion.” And here is the reward for perseverance: “The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it’s considered to be your style.”
After his first audition, Sidney Poitierwas told by the casting director, “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” It was at that moment, recalls Poitier, that he decided to devote his life to acting.
WhenLucille Ballbegan studying to be actress in 1927, she was told by the head instructor of the John Murray Anderson Drama School, “Try any other profession.”
The first time Jerry Seinfeld walked on-stage at a comedy club as a professional comic; he looked out at the audience, froze, and forgot the English language. He stumbled through “a minute-and a half” of material and was jeered offstage. He returned the following night and closed his set to wild applause.
In 1944, Emmeline Snively, director of the Blue Book Modeling Agency, told modeling hopeful Norma Jean Baker, “You’d better learn secretarial work or else get married.” Norma Jean later changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
After Harrison Ford’sfirst performance as a hotel bellhop in the film Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, the studio vice-president called him in to his office. “Sit down kid,” the studio head said, “I want to tell you a story. The first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie he delivered a bag of groceries. We took one look at him and knew he was a movie star.” Ford replied, “I thought you were supposed to think that he was a grocery delivery boy?” The vice president dismissed Ford with “You ain’t got it kid, you ain’t got it … now get out of here.”
Charlie Chaplin was initially rejected by Hollywood studio chiefs because his pantomime was considered “nonsense.”
Enrico Caruso’s music teacher said he had no voice at all and could not sing. His parents wanted him to become an engineer.
Decca Records turned down a recording contract with The Beatleswith the unprophetic evaluation, “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out.” After Decca rejected them, Columbia records followed suit.
In 1954, Jimmy Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, firedElvis Presleyafter one performance. He told Presley, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”
Beethovenhandled the violin awkwardly and preferred playing his own compositions instead of improving his technique. His teacher called him “hopeless as a composer.” He then wrote five of his greatest symphonies while completely deaf.
And finally … when Pablo Casalsreached 95, a young reporter asked him “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”