Failures and Rejections make us strong, if we let them


“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” -Michael Jordan

There is a difference between being a genius and being a person who knows how to thrive. There is a difference between being a person with impressive potential, knowledge, ideas, or skill and being a person who has mastered the ability to successfully create the results they want.

Comparing himself to his rival Charles Barkley, basketball legend Michael Jordan once commented, “Charles knew how to compete. I knew how to win. There’s a difference.”

According to Jordan’s own words, winning is a separate kind of skill from competing, and the ability to be brilliant at the latter is no guarantee of success in the former.

Being a good athlete is a separate kind of skill from knowing how to lead one’s team to a national title. Being a good actor is a separate kind of skill from knowing how to effectively audition for a role. Being a good singer is a separate kind of skill from knowing how to land a recording contract. Being a good writer is a separate kind of skill from knowing how to publish and sell books. Being a good worker is a separate kind of skill from knowing how to find a job. Being a good employee is a separate kind of skill from from knowing how to win a promotion or negotiate a raise. Being a creative thinker is a separate kind of skill from knowing how to execute ideas in the physical world.

Such observations may seem self-evident, yet they are frequently overlooked in discussions involving celebrities and great achievers who were rejected before accomplishing their goals.

Valuable lessons about the relationship between success and professional development are often lost in oversimplified narratives about how some high school coach, Hollywood agent, venture capitalist, or book publisher was just too stupid to realize excellence even when it was staring them in the face.

Even Jordan himself seemed to be guilty of this fallacy when, during his Hall of Fame induction speech, he criticized his high school basketball coach with the words, “You made a mistake, dude.”

But did Jordan’s coach really make a mistake? Was it actually the case that the Michael Jordan, who is now celebrated as the greatest basketball player of all time, was the same athlete in high school as he was when winning six championships with the Chicago Bulls? Did his high school coach make a crucial oversight that the rest of us would have avoided, or did he accurately judge Jordan based on his actual level of development and mastery at the time?

According to Clifton Herring, the man who cut him (well, sort of “cut him”),

“There was no doubt that Mike Jordan could handle the ball, but his shooting was merely good and his defense mediocre. Mike Jordan was seven or eight inches shorter than Michael Jordan would be, only 5’10″ at age 15, and at least one assistant coach had never heard of him before that day.”

In a thought-provoking blog post called “Some Lies I Believe,” Isaac Morehouse argues that Jordan chose to take things like this personally (even if he knew it wasn’t personal) as a psychological strategy for inspiring himself. I also delved into Jordan’s tendency to use “me versus them” narratives as tools for personal development in a blog post I wrote called “I Disagree with the Second Agreement and I Hope you Take it Personally.

The really interesting aspect behind Michael Jordan’s rejection story is not the supposed stupidity of his high-school coach, nor is it Jordan’s allegedly overlooked genius. It is 1) the way in which rejection and failure forced Jordan to develop virtues and abilities that he previously did not possess and 2) the way Jordan used his personal experience of failure to motivate himself to pursue further mastery.

Since the initial heartbreak of not making the varsity team, Jordan has commented frequently on how much that incident forced him to build character and refine his skills. In one interview, Jordan declared it a good thing:

“It’s OK, though,” Jordan said. “It’s probably good that it happened.”
“I think so,” he said. “It was good because it made me know what disappointment felt like,” he said. “And I knew that I didn’t want to have that feeling ever again.”

In other words, Jordan’s early failures were part of his process of learning how to win.

Michael Jordan didn’t succeed in spite of being rejected; he succeeded, in many ways, precisely because he was rejected.

Hall of Fame Michael Jordan doesn’t exist without high school reject Michael Jordan.

If we seek to inspire ourselves through stories of successful people who, just like us, are sometimes rejected, it would probably be more beneficial if we do away with the idea that we’re mostly rejected because the world is too dumb to see how good we are.

Articles like this can easily give the impression that successful people are a bunch of overlooked geniuses who just had to find their place or simply run into a powerful person who was capable of recognizing their intrinsic “it” factor.

The real-life versions of success stories are typically far more nuanced.


J.K. Rowling, whose best-selling Harry Potter novel was rejected 12 times, had this to say about her failures:

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

People with great ideas and valuable skills often have a lot to learn about refining their ideas and skills, selling their ideas and skills, and fighting for their ideas and skills.

The actor/comedian Steve Martin affirmed this perspective in an interview with Charlie Rose:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice] because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is: ‘Here’s how you get an agent’ and ‘Here’s how you write a script.’ But I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

By the time people become award-winning, money-making, critically-acclaimed achievers, they’ve usually gone through a tedious process of learning from rejection and using failure as feedback on how they can more effectively position themselves for success.

Great achievers become great achievers because, through discipline, self-honesty, and continual development, they choose to get better not only at what they do, but at their ability to get others to see the value in what they do.

Are you being overlooked, or are you learning how to be seen? Are you being ignored, or are you learning how to be heard? Are you being underappreciated, or are you learning how to command respect? Are you being undervalued, or are you learning how to sell yourself? Are you being misunderstood, or are you learning how to communicate? Are you being rejected, or are you learning how to create value that can’t be overlooked? Are you being “hated on” on, or are you learning how to master important details? Are you losing, or are you learning how to win?

T.K. Coleman is the co-founder and Education Director for Praxis, a 10-month apprenticeship program that combines a traditional liberal arts education with practical skills training, one-on-one coaching, academic mentoring, group discussions, professional development workshops, and real-world business experience. T.K. is an avid lover of ideas and blogs regularly on personal development, education, and philosophy at and the Praxis blog.

This piece was originally published as “Failure, Rejection, & The Myth of Overlooked Genius” at on February 24, 2014.