5 Famous People Who Were Fired Before Becoming Successful

If you've been fired, you know how emotionally devastating that pink slip can be. Even if you didn't do anything wrong, being let go feels like being judged and found wanting. If you did get fired for cause, well, that sense of failure is likely to be even more intense.

Before you beat yourself up, though, you should know that you're in good company. Some of the world's most successful people – the folks who invented our favorite gadgets, built the world's most successful brands, and make the greatest impact on society – lost their jobs before (and sometimes even after) becoming the household names they are today.

If you lose your job, there's​ plenty of stuff you should be doing, from looking into financial options to stay afloat during unemployment to lining up your next gig. One thing you shouldn't do is be hard on yourself. After all, where would we be, if these famous people had let a blow to their career knock them down for the count? 

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Michael L. Abramson/Getty Images

Together with Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in his garage in 1976. By 1980, Apple was a billion-dollar business and a publicly traded company. In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh; in 1985, amid concerns about competition from cheaper Microsoft products, Apple forced out its famous founder.

In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Jobs described the loss he felt:

"We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating."

Jobs considered leaving Silicon Valley, but stayed, realizing that he still loved his work. He went on to found Pixar Animation Studios, and NeXT, which would later be acquired by Apple. In 1997, he returned as Apple's CEO, developing the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, and revolutionizing the way we work, play, and communicate, as well as bringing the company he founded (and was fired from) to unprecedented heights of profitability.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey
Copyright Alan Light/Flickr

Asked about her religion, the character Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” said, "I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me."

Like all the best comedy, it's funny because it's true. Since Oprah Winfrey's eponymous talk show debuted in 1986, the television host has been a household name, producing and acting in TV shows like “The Women of Brewster Place” and movies like “Beloved,” and starting her own book club, media company, and television channel, The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Winfrey is also a philanthropist. Business Week declared her the "greatest Black philanthropist in American history," per Biography.com, and Forbes listed her as the richest African-American of the 20th century.

It might surprise you, therefore, to learn, that she was also fired very early on in her career. A producer at Baltimore's WJZ-TV told Winfrey, then an evening news reporter, that she was "unfit for television news." He did offer her a consolation prize, however: a place on “People Are Talking,” a daytime TV show that Winfrey initially saw as a demotion ... until it took off and started her career in earnest.

JK Rowling

JK Rowling
Copyright Jonathan Elderfield/Getty Images

The woman who invented Harry Potter was once a secretary – until she lost her job for writing fiction on the company time.

"I had failed on an epic scale," Rowling said. "An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded and I was a jobless alone parent and as poor as it was possible to be in Britain without being homeless."

Rowling survived on welfare, writing in Edinburgh coffeehouses, until her first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,” sold for $4,000 in 1997. By 2000, the first three books in the Potter series had sold 35 million copies in 35 languages and earned $480 million worldwide. 

Walt Disney

Walt Disney
Copyright Orange County Archives/Flickr

Before you accept your recent setback as an accurate assessment of your abilities, keep in mind that we live in a world in which Walt Disney was once fired for not being creative enough.

It's true: the Kansas City Star fired Disney in his early 20s; he subsequently started a business, Laugh-o-gram Studios, which went bankrupt in 1923. Only when Disney moved to Hollywood with his brother Roy and founded The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio did he find success with a new character, Mickey Mouse.

In 1929, Disney debuted “Silly Symphonies,” featuring other characters like Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse, as well as his most popular creation, Mickey. One cartoon in the series, “Flowers and Trees,” won an Oscar. Later, Disney went on to create full-length animated features, starting with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. By the 1950s, Disney's empire included TV series like “The Mickey Mouse Club” and the flagship theme park Disneyland.

Today, The Walt Disney Company is a $59 billion business that includes theme parks, publishing, film, and cable television.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison
Copyright Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Thomas Edison invented or perfected the electric light bulb, the telegraph, and an early motion picture camera. As famous for being a hard-nosed (and occasionally unscrupulous) businessman as he was for being an inventor, Edison held over 1,000 patents in his lifetime.

Not bad for a guy who was once described by a childhood teacher as "too stupid to learn anything." Thereafter educated at home, Edison started his first entrepreneurial venture at 12, selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad. Later, he founded his newspaper and sold it to passengers – until his impromptu lab in a baggage car caught fire, resulting his losing access to trains. (He continued to sell papers at the stations.)

Later, as an employee of Western Union, his multitasking again cost him a job. After requesting the night shift so that he could continue with his experiments, Edison spilled sulfuric acid on the floor. The acid leaked through the floorboards and onto his boss's desk in the room below.

Edison's greatest failures, though, were the seeds of his success: after trying out 1,000 prototypes before landing on a working design for the electric light bulb, Edison was asked by a reporter, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?"

"I didn't fail 1,000 times," Edison replied. "The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."