The Success of Failure: Why it’s OK to make mistakes

We take a look at five of the world's most successful people who got it wrong to get ahead

Rejection can feel devastating, which is why many of us tend to play it safe in business and in everyday life. But what if we told you that getting things wrong can often put you on the path to victory?

It feels uncomfortable to make a mistake - our self esteem gets a bashing, and we worry that we're simply not good enough. However, some of the world's most successful people have succeeded because they failed at some point in their careers. 

To help you on your way, we’ve compiled a list of five people who prove it’s OK to make mistakes:

1. James Dyson

James Dyson is undoubtedly the king of failure - 5,126 of them to be exact.

That is the number of prototypes he developed over the course of 15 years before releasing his iconic bag-less vacuum in 1993. The upright domestic model, DC01, used the patented “Dual Cyclone” technology.

Dyson charts his willingness to fail as the reason for his success.

“The failure is the starting point, because when something fails, you understand why it fails. And then you start to think of ideas as to ways you can overcome that failure”.

“The moral of the tale is keep on failing - It works.”

Today Dyson – the company named after the 69-year-old inventor – has more than 1,600 engineers and scientists working in research, design and development labs in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK. They are continuously working to develop new technology by testing, breaking, and tweaking across hundreds of prototypes.

Since the success of the first vacuum, the company has gone on to develop a range of products including the Airblade commercial hand dryer, the Air Multiplier electric fan, an Ultrasonic humidifier, an air purifier, and most recently a Supersonic handheld hair dryer.

According to Forbes, James Dyson has a net worth of $4.1bn (roughly €3.6bn).

2. Oprah Winfrey

It’s hard to believe that media giant Oprah Winfrey was ever demoted from a broadcasting job.

But this happened in her second television job in Baltimore as co-anchor of the ‘Six O’Clock News’ on WJZ-TV.

Following a large promotional campaign - announcing her arrival to the station – Oprah failed to make adequate ratings and was removed from the primetime slot.

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, she said she was moved to a role of “near-invisibility”.

Recalling the meeting with her manager, she remarked: “when you're humiliated that way, you never forget”.

In the same interview she also spoke about being “embarrassed” and “sexually harassed” during her time at that station.

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Oprah is the definition of a success story.

Her list of achievements includes host and supervising producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 25 years. She has her own TV Network, a women’s lifestyle magazine, and an award-winning digital platform

She created a scholarship programme for students, she’s lent her voice to several animated feature films, and the production company she founded co-produces top-rated syndicated television programs including Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and The Dr. Oz Show.

And perhaps one of her greatest achievement was enabling this exchange to happen in 2005:

Oprah is quite philosophical about her past failings:

“You get as much from your losses as you do from your victories. The losses are there to wake you up.”

In a commencement speech to Harvard graduates she said: “There is no such thing as failure really. Failure is just life trying to move you in another direction.”

Forbes estimates Winfrey’s net worth as $3.1bn (€2.75bn).

3. Michael Jordan

Arguably one of the greatest sportsmen of all time was once cut from a basketball team.

At Laney Highschool in Wilmington North Carolina, Michael Jordan failed to make the varsity team in his sophomore year.

Instead of seeing this as a sign to quit playing altogether Jordan continued to practise.

His training paid off as he made the team the following year before securing a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina.

Jordan went on to lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, and is still regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Michael Jordan at 1992 Olympics | Image: Phil O'Brien / EMPICS Sport

In a Nike commercial, the now retired sportsman put his ability to fail down as the reason he succeeded.

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 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.”

4. Steven Spielberg

The list of Steven Spielberg’s cinematic achievements is vast. 

Steven Spielberg | Image: Thibault Camus / AP/Press Association Images

In a career spanning more than four decades, Spielberg has received three Academy Awards, with seven nominations for best director and 10 films up for best picture. 

The producer/director is responsible for a host of iconic films including Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, the Indiana Jones series, ET and Jurassic Park.

He is also co-founder of DreamWorks Studios and is seen as one of the most popular directors and producers in film history.

However, long before he racked up these achievements, Spielberg was rejected from a prestigious film school, not once, but TWICE (some sources say three times).

His obsession with film at a young age had left him with grades that failed to impress the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

The school eventually realised its error in later years, and as a small consolation prize they named a building after him.

Spielberg continues to make movies and Forbes magazine places his personal net worth at $3 billion. 

5. Vera Wang

Bridal designer Vera Wang took an unconventional route to success.

Vera Wang | Image: LOUIS LANZANO / AP/Press Association Images

Wang began figure skating at the age of seven, and by her late teens was among the top 20 skaters in the US.

Regardless of the amount of hours training she put in she never reached the level she had tried so hard to achieve.

In 1986, after failing to make the US Olympic figure-skating team, she quit.

In an interview with The Cut, Wang explained that in her mind quitting was a sign that she had failed.

“I didn't know if I was ever going to be able to find something else in my life that meant quite as much”.

This disappointment eventually pushed her in the direction of fashion, and prompted Wang to take a job as an assistant editor at Vogue in 1971. She was promoted to senior fashion editor within in a year.

After 15 years with the magazine she experienced her second major failure as she was passed over for the editor-in-chief position.

Feeling discouraged, she left the publication and, following a stint as design director as Ralph Lauren, began designing bridal wear.

Since then Wang has built a fashion empire and has made wedding gowns for many well-known public figures. Forbes estimates her personal net worth at $400m.

Her advice? “Don't be afraid of failing. I think not trying is worse than failing. Have the courage to try. Otherwise, what are we here for?”