10 Famous Women on Facing—and Overcoming—Failure
Society pretty much hardwires us to fear failure—practically every piece of content we consume (from movies to TV shows and even some news stories) depicts failure as some kind of all-consuming tragedy that you must consciously avoid. This explains why your heart sank in high school when you flunked a math quiz—or why you freak out now when you make a mistake at work. You screwed up, which obviously means the apocalypse is imminent.
But it's not. (OK, maybe it is, but it's not because you failed.) Failure is a crucial part of the human experience—and, more often that you'd think, some good comes from it. Failure, simply put, is a prerequisite for success for so many people. And these 10 female celebrities prove it.
In 2015, Lively's lifestyle website, Preserve, closed up shop, a move many viewed as a failure—but the actress rightfully saw as just a learning experience. Lively openly admitted to Vogue that Preserve wasn't as "true and impactful" as she knew it could be. Her candor is a shining example of how we all should deal with missteps—as detours and avenues for improvement, not debilitations. "I know what it'll look like, what I'm facing publicly, that people are just going to have a heyday with this," Lively said. "But it's so much worse to continue to put something out there—to ask my team to put something out there—that isn't the best we can do. I'm going to take this hit, and the only way I can prove all the negative reactions wrong is to come back with a plan that will rock people.' " And she's doing just that right now. (No, Preserve isn't back, but Lively is a bonafide lifestyle icon, which is a win in itself.)
Winfrey is the undisputed queen of media, but she didn't get there overnight or without enduring some hardships. In a 2012 interview with The Baltimore Sun,Winfrey opened up about her tough and eye-opening first job at Baltimore's WJZ television station, where she experienced routine humiliation and sexual harassment—and was eventually fired. "Not all my memories of Baltimore are fond ones," she told the newspaper. "But I do have fond memories of Baltimore because it grew me into a real woman. I came in naive, unskilled, not really knowing anything about the business — or about life. And Baltimore grew me up." She grew up to become one of the most successful people in television history—a feat due at least partially to the thick skin she developed from this failure.
It's difficult to imagine someone besides Lisa Kudrow playing Phoebe Buffay on Friends—but had she not been fired from another show beforehand, that's exactly what would've happened. The actress was originally offered the role of Roz on Frasier, but after two rehearsals the showrunners decided she wasn't a good fit and let her go. It was a devastating blow for Kudrow, who said in a 2010 speech that landing Frasier made her "stop worrying" about the future. But things worked out: She booked Friends shortly after—and the world became a better place. Kudrow says all her professional failures leading up to Friends were "guideposts" that "kept [her] on [her] path." (A path that, thankfully, led to Central Perk. And Central Park.)
Wang is one of the world's most visible designers, but fashion wasn't her original dream. No, Wang wanted to be a professional figure skater, but she didn't make the U.S. Olympics team in 1986. It was only then that she snagged a retail job at a Yves Saint Laurent boutique in New York City and found herself at Vogue two years later. A failure is at the root of her fashion empire. "When you fall down—which you have to [do] if you want to learn to be a skater—you pick yourself right up and start again," Wang told Business of Fashion in 2013. "You don't let anything deter you."
Magic didn't make Rowling's Harry Potter novel series one of the most successful in history. It took hard work—and plenty of rejection. The author confessed on Twitter that she received "loads" of no's before finally getting published. She even got one for Harry Potter. Yup, the first agent she pitched the manuscript to gave it a hard pass. If that isn't motivation to keep going after failure, then nothing is. (Rowling's estimated net worth, if you're curious, is $1 billion.)
Mulligan may be an incredible actress, but none of the drama schools she applied to back in the day thought she had any chops. In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Mulligan said that every undergraduate theater program she applied to turned her down. And to add insult to injury, one university employee suggested that she become a "children's TV show presenter." (Not to knock that profession, but this was clearly intended as shade.) Now the only presenting she does is at the Academy Awards (where, don't forget, she scooped up a 2009 nomination for An Education).
Madonna exploded onto the pop scene with the release of her 1982 single "Everybody," but the road to that point was rocky. She originally came to New York City to pursue a career in dance but turned to music when that didn't pan out. Many people slammed the door in Madonna's face before she scored a record deal—most notably Jimmy Ienner from Millenium Records, whose 1981 rejection letter about the singer went viral in 2011. "The only thing missing from this project is the material," Ienner wrote, which was clearly ill-advised. Madonna did have the material—including, four years later, a song called "Material Girl." She clearly turned this failure into fuel.
The legendary Vogue editor-in-chief is one of the most successful people in the fashion industry, but even she has endured failure. In 1975, Wintour was fired from her junior editor position at Harper's Bazaar because her photo shoots were too edgy—an event that she's grateful for to this day. "Everyone should be sacked at least once in their career because perfection doesn't exist," Wintour said to author Alastair Campbell for his 2015 book, "Winners: And How They Succeed." "It's important to have setbacks because that is the reality of life." Do you hear that, friends? Anna Wintour says failure is fine!
During a roundtable discussion with The Hollywood Reporter in 2013, Washington revealed that she had been a part of two pilots before "Scandal"—the shows were picked up but she was replaced. Washington went on to find success as D.C.'s political maestro Olivia Pope, but those two failures caused her a great deal of heartache—and motivation. "But when you look back, don't you feel like there is a logic to how things have fallen into place?" Washington said. "Like, if only I could have known then what I know now, I would have cried a lot less!" (This is the definition of that "doors" metaphor you were fed incessantly growing up.)
Mother Monster is a supremely talented musician, so it's bizarre to think a record label actually dumped her— but it happened. Yes, Gaga was first signed to Island Def Jam Records in September 2006, but she was dropped after only three months—a move L.A Reid, who helmed IDJ at the time, regrets to this day. "I made the foolish mistake of letting [Gaga] go," Reid told Larry King in 2016. Gaga persisted and eventually found earth-shattering success at Interscope Records. That early failure served as her motivation. "I remember when I got dropped from my first record label. I just said, 'Mommy, let's go see Grandma,' " Gaga told MTV in 2011. "And I cried on my grandmother's couch. She looked at me, and she goes, 'I'm going to let you cry for the rest of the day, and then you have to stop crying, and you have to go kick some ass.' " That she did. (In fact, that all these women did.)
More From Glamour:
• There's a Gender Failure Gap—Here's How We Can Close It
• Why You Should Be Upfront About Your Failures in a Job Interview
• I Bombed My First Interview With Microsoft but Here's How I Made Sure They Hired Me
• This Empowering Photo Series Helps Women Flip the Script on Their Insecurities
Photo Credit: Reuters