Failed School, Succeeded Life
November 15, 2007 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Who in history (or in your life) has flunked/failed in school or university, but has gone on to great success?

They don't always have to be dropouts, just those that failed in school assessments (so not people like Bill Gates who dropped out because of a clash with his fledgling business). Bonus points if their failure is the same thing that led to their success - for instance, yesterday I read about an Australian music photographer whose photo won a music magazine competition and earned him a job as staff photographer, but the same photo got him a fail at TAFE. Or a graphic designer who failed in Arts at school.

By "success" it doesn't have to be "million dollars" - any definition (respect, happiness, sustainability) will do.
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (43 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The classic example is Albert Einstein in elementary (primary), but I'm not sure if that's just apocryphal.
posted by dondiego87 at 3:23 PM on November 15, 2007

Elementary (primary) school, that is.
posted by dondiego87 at 3:24 PM on November 15, 2007

richard branson, my hero
posted by Salvatorparadise at 3:27 PM on November 15, 2007

six more for you
posted by Salvatorparadise at 3:27 PM on November 15, 2007

Best answer: Damien Hirst. Even did poorly in Art, the only subject that scraped him into college. Of course, now he's one of the richest artists alive.
posted by wackybrit at 3:28 PM on November 15, 2007

By "success" it doesn't have to be "million dollars" - any definition (respect, happiness, sustainability) will do.

Me. I left college about two days before I would have been kicked out for having a stupidly low GPA, and I have all three of the traits you mentioned - granted, I'm not rich, or famous, but I've carved out a really good niche for myself in this world; by your "any definition" definition, I'm your dude.
posted by pdb at 3:32 PM on November 15, 2007

They Did Not Give Up (A largish list)
posted by desjardins at 3:35 PM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine in college dropped out (in the US this can refer to voluntarily leaving school or leaving due to doing poorly academically), and always seemed to prefer programming to doing anything else. Last seen living a happy life as a programmer. I doubt this is unique.
posted by yohko at 3:38 PM on November 15, 2007

My brother dropped out of high school and is now making just under six figures as a successful computer programmer. When he's not working, he's living in a community of like-minded people, spending time with his significant other, and creating interesting art.

My mom dropped out of college and raised five reasonably successful children, traveled the world, became a world leader in advocacy of a cause she believes in, got her BA the same week she turned 50 and now gets paid over $100 an hour for her consulting work (though she doesn't work anywhere close to 40 hours a week in that job).
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:48 PM on November 15, 2007

Best answer: Ursula Le Guin, springs to mind. Her first book, "The Left Hand of Darkness", was rejected by the publisher she sent it to.

It was the first book to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, I think, and in addition, hasn't been out of print in all the decades since it was published.

I believe the rejection letter is still on her website.
posted by ysabet at 3:48 PM on November 15, 2007

Bit esoteric, maybe, but former New Zealand Prime Ministers: from that list Savage (first Labour PM, pretty much invented the NZ welfare state), Fraser (active in founding of the UN), Holyoake, and Kirk all left school without any qualifications - some at the age of 12.
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:50 PM on November 15, 2007

Steve Jobs.
posted by The Deej at 3:50 PM on November 15, 2007

The classic example is Albert Einstein in elementary (primary), but I'm not sure if that's just apocryphal.

Just FYI, according to Wikipedia, Albert Einstein excelled in elementary school, although he supposedly clashed with authorities while attending gymnasium. He quit high school early to apply to university (ETH Zurich), not because of academic difficulties.
posted by pravit at 3:52 PM on November 15, 2007

Winston Churchill
posted by A189Nut at 4:20 PM on November 15, 2007

My husband dropped out of college (though he may very well have been kicked out had he not been proactive about leaving) and has since formed a very successful company. His younger brother dropped out of college due to an inability to deal with required computer programming classes as a dyslexic, and at 22, makes about $90K US as a systems engineer.

Methinks convincing our son to go to college may be more challenging than I'd hope.
posted by justonegirl at 4:44 PM on November 15, 2007

Best answer: My boyfriend did badly in high school - he was threatened with expulsion several times for both grades and non-conformist behavior. He spent far too much time playing video games and messing around with graphics on his computer...

Now he is a lead designer on a high-profile game project, at a rather young age. He makes good money and is eminently employable.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 4:47 PM on November 15, 2007

Ken Hendricks -- Forbes 400, #91. (He's on that long list above.) Though it's a little bit closer to the Bill Gates situation, I think.
posted by dhartung at 5:00 PM on November 15, 2007

Hooray for disclaimers about me talking out of my butt!

posted by dondiego87 at 5:10 PM on November 15, 2007

Well, I had a 1.1 GPA my freshman year in college, which was, for all practical purposes, flunking--I couldn't go back. 10 years later, I had a PhD.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:22 PM on November 15, 2007

I'm pretty close to 6 figures at 27 and I have a note from my high school guidance counselor asking me if I ever considered dropping out. The best part is that it is written on the "credit check" report we got the last couple months before graduation. I guess she took a look at it and thought that I shouldn't bother and that I should get right to my life of being a total loser.

I did leave that school and went to a "continuation school" where I busted my ass and I graduated from there 2 weeks before my peers at the "real" high school.
posted by sideshow at 5:54 PM on November 15, 2007

Paul Keating, Australian PM from 91-96, dropped out of school at age 15 and found work in a trade union; his path from there led to the Labor party.
posted by bunyip at 6:06 PM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I used to date a girl whose father dropped out of college w/ horrible grades but went on to start a company selling replacement body parts...joints and such. He now owns a ginormous company and is the exclusive seller to lots and lots of hospitals and private practices up and down the east coast, Caribbean, and western Europe. He's got the private jet and the whole works. Pretty saucy.
posted by TomMelee at 6:53 PM on November 15, 2007

Einstein did very well throughout school. Walter Isaacson dispelled the myth of him receiving poor grades in his recent biography.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:02 PM on November 15, 2007

BB King, when asked what he'd do differently, could he live his life over: "I would have finished high school."

I've read that he has provided an education for each of his 15 children (by 15 different women).
posted by klanawa at 7:15 PM on November 15, 2007

I completely neglected my college studies when I was young, pretty much skipping out of every class, but I taught myself a technical skill and now work at a great job for a global company and own a home, car, etc. I am going back to college, though; this time, for my own enjoyment rather than for career building.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:59 PM on November 15, 2007

Best answer: Physicist Robert Oppenheimer left Cambridge University after attempting to poison his graduate tutor. He enrolled at a German university and went on to great professional success.
posted by Jahaza at 11:17 PM on November 15, 2007

I left school at 15, and now have two Master's degrees and a great job/ career that's resulted in promotions every couple of years. My academic record is pretty funny - I failed one semester of undergrad (they let me back in on probation) and also got onto the Dean's list for high achievement for a few semesters. No employer has ever asked to see my academic record, fwiw.

My boyfriend was expelled from high school, started uni at a few different schools then dropped out. He says he never actually failed anything but withdrew without academic penalty just in time. He then went on to earn AU$100k at 21 as a Symbian programmer and is now (mid-twenties) a Senior Software Engineer for a Massive Global Software Company working in London.

I don't regret leaving school at all, for me the only consequences have been positive. The boy frets a little whenever he applies for a new position but there haven't been any negative consequences for him either.
posted by goo at 12:48 AM on November 16, 2007

Best answer: Winston Churchill A189Nut's example is spot on. Churchill did so badly at school that he was forced to study extra English, rather than Latin and Greek. It took him several goes to get into the military, requiring special tuition from a "crammer" school to do so.

Given he went on to be both Britain's greatest wartime leader, and to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, both of these are quite ironic. Churchill, in My Early Life is particularly grateful for the forced extra English, if I wasn't at work I'd look up the quote...
posted by prentiz at 2:26 AM on November 16, 2007

Best answer: Ursula K. Leguin rejection letter
posted by SageLeVoid at 4:50 AM on November 16, 2007

I started college studying Mechanical Engingeering, but after failing Physics, and getting D's in both Chemistry and Calculus, I was left with a fairly pathetic (seemingly insurmountable) GPA...or lack thereof.

I took a deep breath, took a number of classes that I knew I would do well in. And I ended up graduating a year early and now I'm a law school graduate.

I'm not rich and famous, but I have a job that I enjoy that commands a certain amount of respect, and a life that I thought would be nearly impossible to come by back when I was young and floundering in school.
posted by greekphilosophy at 5:54 AM on November 16, 2007


I went to college/Uni for 6 years, getting an AS and BS in Engineering (Systems, to be specific). I was accepted into the PhD program with a full scholarship plus a $20K/year stipend for 5 years. They would have paid me to get a PhD. Thanks to some timely (although from my parents' point of view, horrible) intervention and rethinking, I quit the program the day I was scheduled to start, and deferred it for 1 year (I'm not going back at this point). I also moved out, got a $50K/year job from the very first company I applied to, and have two of my own small businesses that are amazingly successful, which I'm just a few weeks from working on full time, instead of just part time.

Aside from my day job, I'm wonderfully happy, and soon I'll be working for myself completely and I'll be even happier. Do I ever regret not going to school? Sometimes, but I know that it's not the right time right now. I'll go back one day and get an MS, but I'm not sure about a PhD. I always wanted one from when I was 10 through 20, but I realized that it's not as important as everyone claims it is.
posted by omnipotentq at 6:18 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

(Yes, I realize I didn't *fail* school, but I did decline the most lucrative offer I've ever heard of. Can it please count?)
posted by omnipotentq at 6:19 AM on November 16, 2007

I got kicked out of school at sixteen for being a lesbian. I'm now a much older, pretty successful lesbian.
I'm also a happy, well adjusted lawyer, but that has no bearing on having been thrown out of school when I was sixteen, so it's probably not relevant to your question.
posted by lassie at 7:02 AM on November 16, 2007

Thomas Edison was a really poor student, and he's the most successful inventor of all time.

Good in school doesn't necessarily mean good in life.
posted by jeffxl at 7:14 AM on November 16, 2007

R. Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller was expelled from Harvard... twice. "First, for entertaining an entire dance troupe; and second, for his "irresponsibility and lack of interest." Wiki. He eventually would receive around 47 honorary degrees.
posted by yeti at 7:26 AM on November 16, 2007

John Major, British Prime minister 90-97, left school with only 3 O levels (he got three more by correspondence course later on)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:54 AM on November 16, 2007

Well ... I flunked out of/left high school at 16 with my parents, teachers, and fellow students assuring me that I would be a failure and spend the rest of my life working at McDonalds or in manufacturing.

Was earning in the top national tax bracket (in Australia) 5 years later.

2 more years later had a law degree.

3 more years later had a masters degree (graduated with 1st class hounour)

Currently working happily as a successful lawyer ... and trying to work out what I want to concentrate on with my PHD in a few years.

Single though!
posted by jannw at 11:18 AM on November 16, 2007

BILL GATES dropped out of harvard
posted by kowboy at 11:51 AM on November 16, 2007

May I also mention that he was the richest person in the world from 1995 to 2007?
posted by kowboy at 11:52 AM on November 16, 2007

Hate to disagree, but Le Guin was not the first to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards: that distinction belongs to Frank Herbert (Dune, 1966).
posted by Wristle at 1:29 PM on November 16, 2007

I know two brothers who left school when they were in about grade 9 (they're aged a couple of years apart). They went to work for their family company that painted and installed kitchens. They used to spray paint the doors one at a time. Basically, one day one of them said "there has to be a better way to do this." He looked overseas for inspiration and found the German markets which had automated door pressing/painting and invested in a similar machine in Australia, and founded Polytech doors. These guys now own the biggest kitchen door company in Australia, and do business around the world. Naturally, they're both multi-millionaires.
posted by cholly at 9:47 PM on November 16, 2007

John Major, British Prime minister 90-97, left school with only 3 O levels (he got three more by correspondence course later on)

He's also the only man in history to run away from the circus to become an accountant.
posted by vbfg at 3:03 AM on November 20, 2007

Best answer: I failed classes repeatedly due to poor study skills and ADD, switched universities 4 times, took 10 years to graduate, finally got my BA and teaching credential . Since working as a teacher I have received enormous job satisfaction, as well as numerous grants and accolades from my administration and fellow teachers. General consensus is that I'm a pretty good teacher. I start my year off telling students that I was a bad student, and that I know how it feels. I tend to focus on the struggling students, and I believe my college experience made me a better teacher. I also believe that it was the only way that I could have made it through college. It took me that long to mature and find my way in the world. It was a painful ten years, but I emerged as an adult, very comfortable with myself. Each person choses their own path, even if that path is difficult and convoluted.
posted by lisaici at 9:52 PM on November 20, 2007 [7 favorites]

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