Celebrating Failure – Success Digest #12

In this success digest, we are celebrating failure in all its glory.

We don’t like to fail. Failure haunts us, taunts us, and the mere threat of it is enough to send the weak of heart scurrying for cover. The project management field is no stranger to failure, or to its danger. In fact, the good project manager knows failure is part of the journey to success! Many successful people were failures first – and for many of them, it was their failures which gave them the tools to eventually succeed. Many successful companies launched products that bombed spectacularly (in one case, literally). Let’s dive right in and take a look – celebrating failure and its contributions to success.

“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” – Abraham Lincoln

Celebrating Failure: Quotes That Didn’t Age Well

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”

~ Jimmy Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, firing Elvis Presley after one performance in 1954

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

~ H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers Films, 1927

“We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out.”

~ Decca Records, turning down the Beatles in 1962. Columbia Records turned them down, too.

“You’d better learn secretarial work or else get married.”

~ Emmeline Snively, head of Blue Book Modeling Agency, to a young Norma Jean Baker (you may know her as Marilyn Monroe)

“You ain’t got it kid , you ain’t got it … now get out of here.”

~ studio VP to Harrison Ford, 1966

“Try any other profession.”

~ head instructor of John Anderson Murray acting school to Lucille Ball, 1927

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”

~ MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, 1933

“Well, Fred, the concept is interesting and well formed, but in order to earn better than a “C” grade, your ideas also have to be feasible.”

~ college professor to Fred Smith, grading his paper describing a national parcel shipping service. Smith later took the idea and founded FedEx

“Unable and unwilling to learn.”

~ said about Leo Tolstoy, as why he failed out of college

“Hopeless as a composer.”

~ Beethoven’s music teacher

michael jordan failure quote

Celebrating Failure: Failed Products

New Coke

This might have been THE story of the 1980s. In 1985 the iconic, timeless, much beloved Coke was changed. The change lasted three months; the resulting uproar by consumers was enough to convince management they had made a giant mistake. Late night TV hosts mocked New Coke, and PR firms were started just to complain about the switch. When Coke announced they were returning to the original recipe, the news interrupted General Hospital, and a Senator took the floor of the Senate to call it “a meaningful moment in US history.”

Ford Edsel

The Ford Edsel might be the biggest flop in automotive history. The Edsel cost Ford over $250 million (that is over $2 billion dollars worth in 2018)! It is still a case study in marketing failure, even today. The Edsel did have some nifty features, including one that has actually become standard fifty years later – the pushbutton ignition starter. Nifty features were not enough to sell metal, though, and the big boat Edsel could not compete in a market that was increasingly looking for compact cars. The Edsel ceased production three years after its launch.

1958 edsel corsairMcDonald’s Arch Deluxe Burger

In 1996, McDonald’s spent over $300 million in market research and advertising to launch the Arch Deluxe burger, aimed at adult audiences. It flopped, horribly, and was taken off all McDonald’s menus within three years. However, this failure had a silver lining – the market research that gave rise to the Arch Deluxe also informed McDonald’s that adults were looking for salad options, and those menu items remain a big hit at McDonald’s everywhere.

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” ~ H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers Films, 1927

Sony Betamax


Launched in the 1970s, Betamax was Sony’s entry into the home video market, competing with VHS (remember those?). Although Betamax had better video quality, it quickly failed. It only supported one hour of video, meaning movies couldn’t fit on one cassette. And it was simply more expensive than VHS. The product limped along, but was a failure…for a long time. The Sony Betamax was discontinued in 2016. Yes, you read that right.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

note 7 burnt

Any time your product is specifically banned from airplanes, you know there is a problem. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 obtained notoriety for its rather unfortunate tendency to explode. This is not a particularly sought after feature for mobile devices. This product bombed, literally.

Celebrating Failure: People Who Succeeded

Norman Vincent Peale

Peale is famous for writing “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which has sold over 20 million copies. What you may not know, though, is that Norman threw the manuscript in the trash after a string of rejections by publishers. It was his wife who retrieved it, sent it to one more publisher…and the rest is history.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln lost his job, and an election for State Legislature, in 1832. Three years later, he tried becoming Speaker of the House of Illinois Representatives. He lost that too. In 1836 he had a nervous breakdown. In 1848 he attempted to become Commissioner of the General Land Office. He lost that too. Ten years later, he ran for election as a US Senator. He lost that, too. In 1856, he ran for US President. He lost that election. But in 1860, he became the President of the United States. He abolished slavery and changed the face of the nation. In his words, “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Sounds like a man who knew celebrating failure is part of the road to success.

JK Rowling

Sure, JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. Before that, though, she was an unemployed, broke, single mom. “I had failed on an epic scale…The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” It took her seven years to write the first Harry Potter book, and it was rejected by twelve publishing houses before being published.

In high school, actor and comic Robin Williams was voted “Least Likely to Succeed.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four years old. He didn’t read until he was seven. Teachers thought he was mentally handicapped. Albert was expelled from school, refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic, and after being accepted there was the only member of his graduating class who was not given a teaching position…because no professor would write him a recommendation. One professor called him the laziest student he ever had. He took a job in a government patent office instead – and wrote his Theory of Relativity.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” wasn’t always such a recognized genius. He was famously called “too stupid to learn anything” by his teachers. Edison was fired from his first two jobs. He did invent a viable light bulb (which led him to found General Electric), but famously failed at that one thousand times first. 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.” Edison achieved so much by celebrating failure along the way.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah is beloved, a media empire in her own right, and a powerful voice for the little person. She got her start at a local TV station, which promptly removed her from the anchor’s chair eight months later. After doing a string of menial jobs at the station, she was ready to quit…when another talk show took her on as the host.

Stephen King

Similar to Norman Vincent Peale, King threw out his first work, “Carrie,” when it was rejected by scores of publishing houses. His wife took it out of the garbage and encouraged him to keep at it. King was addicted to drugs and alcohol at the time, but Carrie launched his career – he has gone on to sell 350 million books and a few movies, too.

Chris Gardener

You might be asking, “Who?” Chris is the guy whose story was made into the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” As depicted in the film, he suffered evictions and homelessness…and today, is worth approximately $60 million. Talk about celebrating failure.

Colonel Harland Sanders

Kentucky Fried Chicken’s fingerlickin’ good recipe of herbs and spices was rejected by more than a thousand potential partners before Colonel Sanders found the backing he needed. Plenty of abuse was poured on his starched white suits along the way. The Colonel was 65 years old when he started out on his chicken restaurant franchising journey, having failed at everything else before that and having only $105 to his name.

Jerry Seinfeld

Seinfeld’s first time doing stand up could not have been a bigger disaster. He forgot his jokes, and was booed off the stage. What’s the deal with that? He didn’t quit, though. He was fired off his first TV role. Later, with Larry David, he created the ultimate show about nothing, and redefined the sitcom ever after.

Key Takeaways

Failure is a part of the road to success. Whatever setback you’re facing, it isn’t the end. And don’t build exploding electronics.