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From Awful to Awesome
October 5, 2009 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Are there any stories of people notable/talented/successful in their field who started out being completely crap?

Most of the "roads to success" stories I've read involve the person having some form of latent talent at the beginning, or actually having talent but not being appreciated for it. But has there been anyone who was or is currently successful at something that started out being really really bad?

A sportsperson who was a total couch potato and could hardly run, or a painter that couldn't grasp technique, or a dancer that kept stumbling. But through effort and persistence they broke through and became a star.

Any stories along those lines?
posted by divabat to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
The standard one is that Michael Jordan didn't make his JV basketball team in high school.
posted by downing street memo at 3:31 PM on October 5, 2009


Charles Atlas claimed to have been weak and bullied as a young man.
posted by itstheclamsname at 3:34 PM on October 5, 2009


Buckminster Fuller. By age 32, Fuller was bankrupt and jobless.
posted by JohnR at 3:39 PM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Did you ever see Van Gogh's early work? He was born in 1853 and this page which shows his "juvenile work" contains pieces up to the age of 24. Looking at this one (http://www.vggallery.com/juvenilia/jh_jv10.htm) for example, would not lead you to believe that this was the guy who would paint Starry Night or Sunflowers.
posted by b33j at 3:40 PM on October 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Stephen King's memoir "On Writing" includes stories about the artist as a young and foolish writer. Like getting caught satirizing teachers in a homemade newspaper. And the spike of rejection slips hanging on the wall of his bedroom. And the terrible, terrible sports writing he did as punishment for offending his high school's principal. And how he was living in a trailer, too broke to buy medicine for his very sick child, when the news that a story of his would be published reached him.

There's no sense of unrecognized genius, punished by a world that didn't recognize him; heck, he talks about his his babysitter, the enormous Bertha, used to chase him around the house, sit on him, and fart on his head. What the book does is to give a glimpse of how the craft of writing came to mean so much to him, from the days of rejection slips to the years of best-sellerdom.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:45 PM on October 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Van Gogh is always cited for this kind of thing, but I don't get it. While not the immortal masterpieces that he did later, I don't see that they're bad by any measure.

Tony Romo sat on the Cowboys' bench for like six years before, well... looking briefly like he was going to be really good. Either way he's an NFL starting quarterback after being nth string for some time.
posted by cmoj at 3:45 PM on October 5, 2009


Previously, related
posted by phoenixy at 3:53 PM on October 5, 2009


Van Gogh is always cited for this kind of thing, but I don't get it. While not the immortal masterpieces that he did later, I don't see that they're bad by any measure.

They are poor, but the same can be said for most artists. Art is a learning process...like everything else.

I'd say the majority of talented and successful people start out crap.

Most of the "roads to success" stories I've read involve the person having some form of latent talent at the beginning, or actually having talent but not being appreciated for it.

Don't agree at all.
posted by fire&wings at 4:12 PM on October 5, 2009


Tony Robbins was apparently overweight, depressed and out of money before becoming a motivational speaker. Cue Matt Foley.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 4:15 PM on October 5, 2009


Look at any visual artists early or student work. Usually you can see some hint of what they would later go on to do, but it's undeveloped and... not very good.
posted by bradbane at 4:16 PM on October 5, 2009


Thomas Edison?
posted by dilettante at 4:18 PM on October 5, 2009


Ira Glass of this American Life has a video that touches upon this.

Muhamed Ali lost his first fight. There is also a recovering junkie who now runs ultramarathons.
posted by mearls at 4:20 PM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'd say the majority of talented and successful people start out crap.

I was going to say the same thing. The reason a lot of people think others have "natural talent" at something is because they actually started doing whatever it is they're good at when they're very young. For example, I have had people tell me I have a "natural talent" for singing and it makes me inwardly cringe because I've been singing since I could speak. If I hadn't been, I'm pretty sure I would not be as good at singing now. The "natural talent" idea also rubs me the wrong way because people seem to have the impression that it is common for these things to happen without hard work. It might be possible -- and here I'm saying that for the sake of humility only, not because I actually believe it -- but certainly in most cases where someone is very good at something, they were at one point horrible at it. The hard work might have begun before they were cognitively aware of it -- I have only vague recollections of singing lessons from when I was younger -- or it might not have seemed like hard work in the beginning because they were children and it was something they truly enjoyed, but they were putting in time and effort and a lot of it.

In fact, everyone I know who has seemed to have "natural talent" for something has been doing it since they were children. My friends in middle school and high school that were good at drawing, or instruments, or acting, had all been doing it since they were very young. There were two people I knew in high school that were bad at singing but took it up seriously in the years that followed -- hours upon hours of serious dedication every day -- and now they're quite good.

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers gets is in large part about this, in that he discusses the "10,000 hour rule" -- probably what's of most interest to you in this context -- and other things that result in a person's being an "outlier," i.e. extremely talented in one way or another. I like Gladwell's books but some people don't. Either way, if you do a search for the "10,000 hour rule" you will turn up books that get into that in much more depth than Gladwell does. I haven't gotten around to reading any of those in particular yet, otherwise I'd recommend you a specific one.

In the event that you're collecting examples for something wherein it's not important that you know the whys of how these things happen, then off the top of my head one example from Gladwell's book is the Beatles. They were apparently not that great when they started, and became famous because they were put in a situation where they had to play eight hours a night every night or something along those lines. It forced them to get good quickly.
posted by Nattie at 4:28 PM on October 5, 2009 [9 favorites]


The details are not what you call well documented, but much of the narrative surrounding Robert Johnson (regarded as one of the best blues musicians ever) was that although he could play guitar and harmonica at a young age, he was pretty bad at it.

His rapid mastery and innovative technique on the guitar was attributed to, you know, selling his soul to the devil while playing the guitar in the cemetery at midnight. Another theory is that, like many other successful people, he loved what he did more than anything else in the world and practiced like hell his every waking moment.
posted by jeremias at 4:29 PM on October 5, 2009


Not-so-much runner and comedian Eddie Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:30 PM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


In the world of music alone, you can probably find 8 million anecdotes related to this. Here's another one from a transcribed interview with Charlie Parker who recounts how on one of his first gigs he gets laughed off the stage because he could only play two songs.

And then to Nattie's point, is it any great surprise that he later talked about how he would practice 12 to 14 hours a day after that?
posted by jeremias at 4:41 PM on October 5, 2009


Going back to the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli flamed out completely when he delivered his first speech in Parliament. Took sound advice from an more experienced politico, practiced rhetorical techniques, became a famous Parliamentary orator--and, of course, Prime Minister.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:03 PM on October 5, 2009


Thomas Edison?

Edison had his first patent at 19, and was creating major improvements in the very important telegraph system at the age of 21. There's quite a bit about him in The Victorian Internet, a history of the telegraph.

So, he was pretty much always awesome.
posted by smackfu at 5:13 PM on October 5, 2009


Lloyd Alexander, author of my favorite Young Adult fantasy novel, The Black Cauldron, started his writing career with a comic novel that wasn't very funny about a guy who works at a bank.

It seems like there are many examples of writers like that who took a while to figure out what they were good for. For example, before John Steinbeck wrote all those great novels about working class Dust Bowl Californians, he wrote his "immature experiment," Cup Of Gold, some kind of mystical book about pirates or something that nobody has read.
posted by Kirklander at 5:28 PM on October 5, 2009


Tupac Shakur started out as a dancer for Digital Underground. His first appearance rapping was on 'Same Song' (verse starts around 4:33)--he doesn't even have the best verse in the song, and it's a Digital Underground song. Now, lots of people think he's the best emcee that ever lived.
posted by box at 5:37 PM on October 5, 2009


(Just for comparison, here are Jay-Z and Nas' first recorded appearances.)
posted by box at 5:39 PM on October 5, 2009


One more hip-hop guy: Lil Wayne's first appearance was on Juvenile's 'Back That Thang Up' (around 3:18) These days, lots of people think he's the best rapper working.
posted by box at 5:45 PM on October 5, 2009


When Ghandi stood up to give his first speech before an audience, he stood up, couldn't get a word out, then sat down again. (From his autobiography)
posted by metaseeker at 9:10 PM on October 5, 2009


Kurt Warner.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:10 PM on October 5, 2009


Joseph Conrad.

Conrad is widely considered to be, if not the best, one of the top 5 greatest novelists in the English language.

He didn't learn English until he was almost 30.

Please re-read those last two sentences. Again, and again, and again.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:15 PM on October 5, 2009 [13 favorites]


Rasmus Lerdorf was complete shit when he started out developing PHP as a programming language.

Jethro Tull were complete shit when they started out as a band.

I'm tempted to say Linus Torvalds was complete shit when he started developing an operating system, but I'm afraid of being flamed. But seriously, wasn't 1.0 of the kernel rather crap if you've looked at the source code?
posted by Oso Mocoso at 9:19 PM on October 5, 2009


The "natural talent" idea also rubs me the wrong way because people seem to have the impression that it is common for these things to happen without hard work.

Hard work? I guess. I prefer to view it as an uncommon passion to master a certain craft or skill that makes for ultimate success, whether it be in sport, art, whatever. Maybe Wayne Gretsky was a raw natural. Maybe. It also helped that his dad had him on skates at age 2, and that young Wayne loved it, and worked at it with uncommon passion ... for 10,000 hours (give or take) before the world ever heard his name.
posted by philip-random at 9:47 PM on October 5, 2009


U2 apparently sucked when they were starting out, by their own admission. In fact, they started out as a Rolling Stones cover band for a while, but nothing they played sounded REMOTELY like the Rolling Stones, and so that's one reason why they started writing their own stuff because then they could say, "uh, yeah, it's SUPPOSED to sound like that."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:13 PM on October 5, 2009


The standard one is that Michael Jordan didn't make his JV basketball team in high school.

That's basically completely false.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:19 AM on October 6, 2009


Previously discussed here and here, regarding Chris Ware.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:45 AM on October 6, 2009


Chrysostom: What?! There was even a comic about that! I'm highly disappointed in your journalistic standards, Boys' Life magazine.
posted by ignignokt at 8:51 AM on October 6, 2009


Beardsley's early work is so terrible it's lead to some speculation that he didn't do the bulk of his mature work.

Which is bollocks, of course, he just spent years trying to master a single style.
posted by The Whelk at 8:35 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


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