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17 People Who Had It Tough When They Began Their Careers

The true secret of success is...

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1. J.K. Rowling

Getty Images / Ben Pruchnie

Rowling was famously rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury picked up her first novel, and even then only thanks to the publisher's 8-year-old daughter. Rowling has given an inspirational talk on how her years as a jobless single mother who believed herself a failure allowed her to create a masterpiece, and has said she is “prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life”.

2. Ed Sheeran

Getty Images / Joerg Koch

In this interview, Sheeran said he enjoyed the years he spent gigging around London, but that there were moments that "weren't great", like "having to sell CDs out of my bag to buy train tickets and food". Last year he revealed that he'd slept rough in an arch outside Buckingham Palace that had a heating vent and had also caught up on sleep on Circle line trains – he told the Daily Mail that "drinking helped".

3. Howard Schultz

Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Howard Schultz was a former employee who bought Starbucks having initially failed to persuade the owners to sell the espresso he saw everyone drinking on a trip to Italy. Once he'd opened his first store, he needed to raise $1.25m to open seven more: He approached 242 investors, 217 of whom turned him away. He said the 30 investors who eventually gave him the money "invested in me, not in my idea".

4. Stephen King

Getty Images / Mario Tama

One of many fascinating details in this long piece about Stephen King's early struggles as an author is the fact that 30 publishers rejected Carrie, his hugely successful debut novel. He only finished it because his wife fished it out of the garbage – she also told him not to take a job and to concentrate on his writing despite the fact that the pair were living in poverty.

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5. John Cleese and Connie Booth

BBC / Via en.wikipedia.org

This rejection letter from BBC Light Entertainment executive Ian Main describes the (actually meticulously written) pilot script for Faulty Towers as "dire". The show is now widely recognised as one of the funniest sitcoms of all time and has won three BAFTAs.

6. Ricky Gervais

Getty Images / Rich Schultz

Gervais's new-wave pop duo Seona Dancing managed to reach No. 79 in the charts and, weirdly, became popular in the Philippines. He then went on to work at the University of London Students' Union – and, nearly 20 years after his music failures, brought The Office to an unsuspecting British public.

7. Marilyn Monroe

Getty Images / L. J. Willinger

Monroe signed with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946, but after a year with the studio had only managed two bit parts because production chief Darryl Zanuck thought she was unattractive.

She then joined Columbia Pictures in 1948, but her contract wasn't renewed, and she went on the "party circuit" to look for work – according to author Barbara Leaming, "a brutal, degrading, sometimes dangerous business. At times, the men become violent. On one occasion, Marilyn found herself in a bedroom, with two men holding her down while a third tried to rape her. Somehow, she managed to break free..."

She would go on to become one of the 20th century's most revered cultural icons.

8. Kanye West

Getty Images for Surface Magazine / Frazer Harrison

As a young man, Kanye West took several years to achieve success as a music producer, but still couldn't land a record contract. He was eventually signed in 2002, but the record company was still reluctant to support him because he didn't fit traditional rap stereotypes.

He'd later say that his first album wouldn't have been as successful had it not been for a near-fatal car accident which broke his jaw in three places, telling Ebony that making the album was his "medicine". He recorded his debut single, "Through the Wire", with his jaw wired shut.

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10. Walt Disney

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Yup, the story has it that Disney was turned down by 302 bankers while trying to get funding for Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It eventually opened in 1955 at a cost of $17m. He was also reportedly fired from his local newspaper because, according to his editor, he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas".

11. Oprah Winfrey

Getty Images / David A. Smith

Oprah Winfrey had a tough enough upbringing to begin with, having been sexually abused as a child and having lost a baby aged 14, but her biggest professional failure came just a few months after taking a job as a news anchor in Baltimore – she claims she faced sexism and was mistreated before being fired.

12. Steven Spielberg

Getty Images / Jason Merritt

Spielberg twice applied to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinema Arts, and was turned down on both occasions. He'd later receive an honorary degree from the university.

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13. Sylvester Stallone

Getty Images / Ernesto Ruscio

Stallone was once so short of cash he sold his dog for $50, but a week later he'd sold the script for Rocky, so he bought it back for $3,000 – as the man he'd sold it to didn't want to give it back.

Stallone told Shortlist: "I went to see Little Jimmy [the man he sold the dog to] and begged for the dog back. He lined up his children. 'Oh my kids love the dog.' I said, 'You’ve only had him for a fuckin’ week!' He wanted to fight me and he said he was gonna kill me – he was a crazy little person! I couldn’t fight him – they’d arrest me – so I offered to pay double. Anyway, $3,000 and several threats later…" He went on to add that "Little Jimmy" ended up in the movie, so they clearly patched it up.

14. Jay Z

Getty Images / Chris Weeks

Speaking about selling his first record from the back of a car, Jay Z told the BBC that "We knew we had something the people wanted, so instead of quitting we built it ourselves." As the BBC notes, he and his friends "used the same street entrepreneurial skills they had used to sell drugs in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects".

For a man who'd grown up in the Marcy Projects at the height of the crack epidemic and was shot at three times, perhaps breaking the record industry was one of the least daunting challenges he'd faced.

15. Simon Cowell

Getty Images / Stuart C. Wilson

Back in 2012, Cowell told the Daily Mail: "I’ve had many failures. The biggest were at times when I believed my own hype. I’d had smaller failures, signing bands that didn’t work, but my record company going bust, that was the first big one.

I was a typical '80s cliché. I had the cars, the house, the image and everything was beyond my means. I spent too much time at parties and then everything imploded."

He actually ended up declaring bankruptcy and moving back home with his parents. He's also revealed that he was thrown out of a meeting with an American network while pitching Pop Idol.

16. Larry David

Getty Images for NRDC Bryan Bedder

David was an unsuccessful stand-up comedian, and during his stint on Saturday Night Live he once only managed to get one sketch in an entire season. It was only in his forties that he achieved success with Seinfeld, and even then his mother still worried about his future.

17. Most authors

Via blinkboxbooks.com!/

In this infographic you can see exactly how many years of writing – and failure – it took most authors before they finally published their most famous novels.