Failure is Just the First Step on the Road to Success

by | Jul 22, 2022


“Success is failure in progress.”

-Albert Einstein

In 1953, fledgling start-up Rocket Chemical Company’s three employees sought to create a rust-prevention and degreaser for the aerospace industry. Their first 39 “water displacement” formulas didn’t work but the 40th formula was magic — it worked exactly how they wanted it to. They named it WD-40 (for water displacement formula, 40th attempt) and it is still widely used today.

Failure often precedes success:

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby was rejected by multiple publishers. One publisher called it “an absurd story, and another bafflingly suggested that he’d have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character.” Source.
  • J.K. Rowling has one of the best rejection stories of all-time. The first Harry Potter book was “rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills.” Source
  • Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and started a company called Traf-O-Data that read the raw data from roadway traffic counters and created reports for traffic engineers. Traf-O-Data was a bust but the skills Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed writing code for their traffic software allowed them to launch Microsoft.
  • Abraham Lincoln lost his job in 1832 and also lost his election for state legislature. He failed in business again in 1833. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1836. After being elected to the Illinois state legislature he lost his bid for Speaker in 1838. He ran for Congress in 1843 and lost. He was elected to Congress in 1846 but lost renomination in 1848. He lost this bid for Senate in 1854, was defeated for nomination as Vice President in 1856, then again lost an election for the Senate in 1858. In 1860 he was elected President.
  • Bubble wrap was created n 1960 “in an attempt to create a trendy new textured wallpaper. This was a total failure, as was a later attempt to market it as housing insulation. When the wrap was eventually used by IBM to package a newly launched computer during transport, it suddenly became an overnight success.” Source.
  • James Dyson had a goal of creating a bagless vacuum that didn’t lose suction as it filled up. Sounds like a simple idea but it was unbelievably challenging, taking the creation of 5,127 prototypes until he came up with a design that worked. In 2011 Dyson wrote, “By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies and by 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash.” It worked out of James Dyson as he’s worth nearly $5 billion.

We all know that failure is usually a prerequisite for success, but keeping that in mind amid failure is hard. Hopefully these stories of failure before success are inspiring.

1 Comment

  1. Here’s a shout out to John’s friend Bob Christian who had success after several failures. Bob played football at Northwestern University where he set records (since broken) for career rushing, single season rushing, and single game all-purpose yards. Nonetheless, he was drafted until late in the 12th round. I don’t recall the details of his career, but I remember him getting cut more than once and having serious injuries. He played for the Chicago Bears and the Carolina Panthers before playing for the Atlanta Falcons. The first time they had him they cut him in training camp. Subsequently, he helped the Falcons reach the 1998 Superbowl and was named the best fullback by Sports Illustrated.


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