It’s Business 101. Anyone who has ever tried to achieve a goal knows rejection and failure are a normal and healthy part of the process. It’s more prevalent in some occupations, especially in the arts (and particularly among, ahem, writers).
The following examples show a pattern: Persistence pays off. Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” But judging from the tales ahead, perhaps an amendment to this quote is in order: “Ninety percent of success is showing up, and showing up and showing up.”
As for the parties doing the rejecting, for those who shy from the new and different, refusal to look ahead can mean being left in the dust. When a struggling Bell Telephone offered the sale of its patents to Western Union, the famous reply rejecting the offer makes for an entertaining read today: “Why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?…We see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained.” Bell Telephone (as AT&T) later acquired Western Union and the wire service’s final telegram was sent in 2006.
Click ahead to discover many examples of successes that almost weren’t, spanning over varying categories: culture, advertising, architecture, business, invention and sports. Chances are you’ll discover that for something (or more than one something) you’ve used or enjoyed, someone has had to fight for it to exist.
Thomas Alva Edison is now heralded as New Jersey’s “Wizard of Menlo Park,” one of the most prolific inventors in history who invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera and made the first long-lasting electric light bulb, among many other accomplishments. Before all that, however, young Edison’s teacher — during his brief formal education — declared him "addled" and hyperactive. He was nearly fired from Western Union for doing too much moonlighting with his experiments.
If inventing the light bulb were up to anyone less persistent, we might still be using candles today. But it seems the only thing that would’ve stopped the invention of the light bulb was Edison’s own demise. Determined to find a filament that would last, Edison was unrelenting, with some accounts claiming he made 1,000 attempts before succeeding. An apocryphal anecdote goes that when a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times, Edison responded, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."
Edison is pictured here to the right of his friend Henry Ford, who went bankrupt numerous times before succeeding and knew a thing or two about failure and persistence himself.
The unmistakable cast concrete “shells” design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia make it iconic to its home city, but it’s also one of the most recognized midcentury modern buildings in the world.
The multi-use performance space was built after architect Danish architect Jørn Utzon won the design competition in 1957, beating out 232 other entries from around the globe. Legend has it that Utzon’s winning design had already been rejected; the story goes that architect Eero Saarinen rescued it from a slush pile of 30 rejects. Once it was selected, Utzon had more work to do on his plan as his grand design went beyond the engineering capabilities of the day, and there were other speed bumps as well. But in 1973, construction of Utzon's unique vision was completed.
It’s probably best for aspiring writers to just think of rejections as a rite of passage, even a badge of honor. The more rejection letters one amasses before publication, the more of a triumph it seems once the book makes the bestseller list.
A famous example is Stephen King’s “Carrie,” an early version of which — after 30 rejections — was fished out of the trash can by his wife and went on to become a bestselling novel and source of a successful movie. Stephen King went on to become STEPHEN KING, the all-caps name on book covers around the globe.
Another uplifting tale of note is that of a destitute, depressed single mom who was fired from a secretarial job for daydreaming. She wrote a book about young wizards that was rejected by 12 publishers. The book's main character became the media juggernaut now known to all on the planet as Harry Potter, and the author, who is probably feeling a lot less depressed, is J.K. Rowling.
The revered New Orleans-set novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” didn’t see the light of day until after its author, John Kennedy Toole, had committed suicide. His mother found a carbon copy of the manuscript and tried sending it to several publishers before consulting a professor at Loyola University. Because of her efforts, LSU Press published the book and it soon became a cult classic. It won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1981 and achieved mainstream success. Despite decades of efforts, however, attempts to bring this story to the silver screen, possibly starring Will Ferrell, might never succeed.
Other successful books that almost weren’t:
“A Time to Kill” — 15-28 rejections (story varies)
“To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street” — 20+ rejections
“M*A*S*H” — 21 rejections
“The Dubliners” — 22 rejections
“A Wrinkle in Time” — 26-40 rejections (story varies)
“Chicken Soup for the Soul” — 22-144 rejections (story varies)
“Gone With the Wind” —38 rejections
“The Help” — 60 rejections (then the film project was rejected numerous times before getting made)
The popular ice cream brand began humbly in 1978 with $12,000 after founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making and set up shop in a former gas station. By 1980, they began selling their product in pints. The burgeoning business could easily have gone the other way, however, and consumers today would never know the joys of Chubby Hubby, Cherry Garcia or Schweddy Balls because in 1984 someone tried to hold back Ben & Jerry’s.
It seems Häagen-Dazs wanted to limit distribution of its rising-star competitor in the Boston market, so the brand threatened to pull its pints from distributors that didn’t ditch Ben & Jerry’s. Ben & Jerry’s didn’t have the income to fight Häagen-Dazs’ parent company, Pillsbury, in court so they kicked off a “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign. The write-in kits brought protest letters to the Federal Trade Commission and Pillsbury, and was successful in convincing Pillsbury not to urge distributors to drop Ben & Jerry’s.
Peter Brock designed the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe for the 1964 racing season. “It looks fairly contemporary now," he told racing site Izoom, "But when I first showed my sketches [to the Shelby American racing team], they thought it was so ugly they refused to work on it.”
However, new crew member John Ohlsen and driver Ken Miles were on board and the car set a record on its maiden voyage. It then went on to win five victories in the 1965 season, including clinching the world sports car racing championship for the U.S. One of its drivers, Bob Bondurant, purchased the car in 1968 for $4,000 and later that year sold it for $10,000. He told Izoom.com he thought he’d made a killing, and he used the money to start a high-performance driving school. That car sold at auction for $7.25 million in 2009, making it the most expensive American car to ever sell at auction.
One influential facet of the Apple success story that almost didn’t come to be is the tale of its Super Bowl XVIII ad inspired by George Orwell’s “1984,” which can be viewed here.
The ad spot introduced the Macintosh personal computer to a broad audience, with Apple as the nonconformist, representing originality, and IBM in the role of Big Brother. (Even back in 1984 there were the seeds of the cool and rebellious “I’m a Mac,” versus the hopelessly square establishment “I’m a PC.”)
When the ad was shown to Apple’s board of directors, however, “everyone thought it was the worst commercial they had ever seen,” said John Sculley, then-CEO of Apple.
He urged them to cancel the two planned ad spots, but it was too late to cancel one of them, so the longer one-minute version did air. It got news coverage after the game and became a famous spot, and today many leaders in the tech industry cite it as an early inspiration.
KFC, the fast-food eatery formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, nearly didn’t make it beyond its origins as a roadside eatery owned by Harland Sanders called the Sanders Court and Café. When a new interstate was built in 1955, it bypassed the café, causing the property value to plummet by more than half.
At that low point, Sanders was 65. He had a few Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises but was broke. However, fueled by determination and fried protein, Sanders went on the road selling his secret recipe and kept at it. Within a few years the number of KFC franchises had expanded into the hundreds. In 1964, he sold the company for $2 million and became famous as its spokesman, Colonel Sanders.
One story has the Kansas City Star firing a young Walt Disney because, according to his editor, he lacked imagination and had no good ideas. Another one says he delivered the newspaper as a boy and applied multiple times to work for the Star for jobs as cartoonist, office boy and driver but was turned down each time. As a young man, Disney went on to file for bankruptcy protection several times and overcame numerous obstacles while creating the Disney empire beloved by children and adults today.
When he was seeking funding for Disneyland in Anaheim, California, it’s said that Disney was turned down by 302 bankers before he got the funding he needed. He prevailed, and Disneyland opened in 1955. Although Walt Disney did not live to see the 1971 opening day of Disney World in Florida, he would likely be pleased with the Disney company's continuing accomplishments, which included buying ABC, which in turn owned the Kansas City Star.
Before he was the iconic National Basketball Association superstar, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Even after he made it to the NBA, Jordan is more successful at failing than most people are at succeeding. He even starred in a Nike ad campaign highlighting his failures.
Jordan's script for the famous late-1990s ad spot goes like this: "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."
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is an undisputed classic of American cinema, no? Well, it almost didn’t get made when Paramount expressed many reservations. Among the issues: It had a gay protagonist, no love story, no central conflict and the ending wasn’t happy enough. The movie ending was rewritten to diverge from the ambiguous but not very optimistic ending of Truman Capote’s novel. The film also nearly didn’t have Audrey Hepburn cast in her signature role. Marilyn Monroe was the hoped-for actress to play Holly Golightly, but she was advised against playing a lady of the night.
There are plenty of other near-casualties of popular culture. Movies that encountered trouble getting made include “The Princess Bride”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Toy Story”, “Halloween”, and more recently, “Moneyball” and “J. Edgar.” From the music industry, the Beatles were rejected by numerous recording labels including Decca and Columbia. Other musical works to get resistance were the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and R.E.M.’s hit “Man on the Moon.” Television near-misses include “A Charlie Brown Christmas" and “I Love Lucy”.