No beating around the bush, rejection hurts. Sometimes it hurts really bad. And sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to avoid ever feeling rejected again. But that doesn’t mean that rejection isn’t a necessary part of life, even a valuable part of life. Rejection, though painful, teaches us who we are, what we really want out of life, and just how much we are capable of surviving. Success isn’t the absence of failure; it’s preserving through failure.
But you already know what you’re supposed to do when you get knocked off a horse, so we thought we’d talk about people who have put the old adage into practice. We’ve compiled a brief list below of five famous names (you’ve heard of all of them) who have two things in common: They failed a lot, and they kept going anyway.
1. J.K. Rowling
We know her now as the author of Harry Potter, one of the best-selling book series in history, but about two decades ago Rowling was a single mother with hardly anything to her name except a dream for a book concerning a now-famous boy wizard. Rowling’s first manuscript of Harry Potter was rejected by more than a dozen publishing houses. Boy did those publishing houses miss out.
More recently, JK Rowling, now one of the most successful writer in the world, gave the 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University. Here’s what she had to say about success and failure:
"An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew. So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because 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 into 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 arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”
Read the rest of her commencement speech here.
2. Michael Jordan
Before Michael Jordan was the most famous basketball player to ever live, he was a kid who didn’t make his high school varsity team. The coach decided he was too short (he was 15, and had some growing left to do). Instead of giving up, he became the star of the junior varsity team and later took his spot playing varsity, where he proved himself a star player once again. The rest of the story you are more or less familiar with. Much later, when he was asked about his wild success, Jordan had this to say:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Read more about Michael Jordan’s early days here.
3. Jay Z
Today Jay Z is the most acclaimed rapper of all time, one of the world’s best-selling music artists, founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, 22-time Grammy Award winner, media mogul, and even a licensed sports agent. Before all that, he was a kid named Shawn, growing up in a New York Housing project. And when Jay Z had finished making his first record, Reasonable Doubt, no one wanted it.
“I went to every single record label,” Jay Z told MTV in 2001, “and they were like, This guy is terrible. He’s nothing.”
“I could have easily been like ‘Maybe what I’m talking about ain’t right! Nobody wants to sign me!’ That would have stopped the suffering, but I didn’t.”
Instead of giving up, Jay Z decided to start his own record label, the now famous Roc-A-Fella Records and put the record out himself. Eventually, Reasonable Doubt went Platinum.
Read more about Jay Z’s early days here from MTV.
4. Stephen King
Every writer has met countless rejections in his or her life, and King is no different. Before The Shining, Misery, It, Cujo, Pet Sematary, and The Dark Tower, Stephen King was a struggling writer, barely managing to get by, as he tried to find anyone to publish his first book. In a now somewhat famous anecdote, King threw away the first pages of the project, but his wife, Tabitha King, retrieved the pages from the trash and convinced him to keep at it. Later, once the book was finished, it was rejected by 30 publishing houses. The novel was called Carrie. Today it has been made into multiple movies and even a Broadway musical. King is now one of the bestselling authors of all time, not because he didn’t fail, but because he kept writing anyway.
As a writer, King says he was familiarized with rejection very early on. Instead of fleeing from failure, he pinned his rejection letters to his bedroom wall.
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
This passage was excerpted from King’s book On Writing. Read more here.
Before Oprah was the Oprah we know and love, she was the co-anchor of Baltimore’s WJZ's 6 p.m. weekday newscast—a position she was soon fired from. There’s a sharp SNL sketch, in which Leslie Jones may have summed it up just right when she said, “You know what happened to Oprah when she was 23? She got fired. Imagine Firing Oprah.” And when Colin Jost, her costar, replied, “Yeah, well that was a mistake,” Jones said: “No, it wasn’t. Cuz she wasn’t Oprah. She was just some 23-year-old punk who needed to get fired so she could become Oprah.”
Moral of the story, Oprah isn’t Oprah because it was easy, or because she started out as strong and capable as she is today. Oprah is Oprah because it was hard, and she battled through it anyway and learned from her failures. Today Oprah is remembered for her talk show, the highest-rated of its kind and time, and as a media mogul, a philanthropist, and North America’s first black multi-billionaire.
In her Harvard commencement speech, here’s what she had to say about rejection and failure:
“It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. At some point, you are bound to stumble. If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction. Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. When that moment comes, it’s okay to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost. But then, here’s the key: Learn from every mistake, because every experience, particularly your mistakes, are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are.”
We want to hear your rejection stories. How did you cope with it? And most importantly, how did you grow from it? Join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #BeWell, #BeHeard, and #BeThere.