From zero to hero: five down-and-out jobseeker success stories – Guardian Professional

I wrote this for Guardian Professional with the #Pyjarmy in mind. Some of the most successful people started out worse off than you or I. If they made it, why shouldn’t we?Mr Walt Disney sits at his drawing board in his studio, drawing a sketch of Mickey Mouse

Disney’s pitch for the much-loved character of Mickey Mouse was rejected, some sources say, 300 times. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the million jobseekers out there, I’m imagining you’re on your sofa, lying on your face, lifting your head for the occasional perusal of a still-empty inbox – an understandable reaction to the crushing despair of unemployment.

It doesn’t help to see dismal employment figures, commentary on why the younger generation is doomed, and absolutely nothing to make you feel better about it.

So I’d like to attempt a short-term remedy, a mixture of inspiration and schadenfreude – five down-and-out jobseekers who clawed their way to the top.

5. Ricky Gervais

Gervais was a failed pop star and an unsuccessful manager long before he was a super successful writer, director and actor. At university he couldn’t afford two types of soap – he had to choose between washing his clothes or himself (in the end he did both; Daz, he informs us, is “quite a good exfoliate”).

In his 30s he landed a job at the radio station XFM, where he realised he didn’t understand radio and hired Stephen Merchant to “do all the boring stuff”. In 1998, they were both made redundant.

Luckily, Merchant cast Gervais in a short film about a “seedy boss” for a BBC production course, which we now know as The Office. It became the most successful British sitcom ever.

4. Jim Carrey 

The Canadian funnyman was a high school dropout, working as a janitor and security guard to help pay the family bills. They lost their home and were forced to live in a van. He then moved to LA to struggle on the stand-up comedy scene before going into the out-of-work-actor business.

While, yes, it sucks to get rejected with the robotic line, “Due to the high volume of applications…”, at least most of us don’t have to spend weeks watching the guy who got the job beam at you from the side of a hundred buses. Before Carrey got his big break on the TV sketch comedy show In Living Color, he was rejected from leading roles in Saturday Night Live, Sixteen Candles, Bachelor Party, Legend, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School and Edward Scissorhands.

But it was worth the wait. Now, aged 52, he’s estimated to be worth$20mn.

3. Walt Disney

The man behind children’s stories had a rough time on his way to billionaire status. When he dropped out of high school at 16 to enlist in the army during the first world war, he was rejected for being too young. At 18, he started drawing political caricatures, but they didn’t catch on and he was fired by his editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”.

Disney started a business with a cartoonist, and it failed, as did his second business. In fact, he went bankrupt five times before he found success with Disneyland, which was also rejected by the city of Anaheim, Orange County, because it would “only attract riffraff”. At one point Disney was so skint he survived on dog food.

He also faced a lot of ridicule. His project of turning Snow White into a feature-length animation, was called “Disney’s folly“. He even ran out of funding during production, and had to show loan officers a rough cut to secure enough cash to finish it.

His pitch for the much-loved character of Mickey Mouse was rejected too – he was told it would never work because a giant mouse on the screen would “terrify women”. Despite enduring rejection and ridicule, between 1932 and 1969 Disney won 22 Academy Awards and was nominated 59 times – more than anyone else in history.

2. JK Rowling

Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel at rock bottom: “I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” She survived on benefits, sometimes going without dinner so she could feed her children.

The first manuscript was rejected by 12 publishers. The 13th publisher accepted it at the behest of the only person it seems had actually bothered to read it – the chief executive’s eight-year-old daughter.

The books did rather well, and Rowling was the first female novelist to become a billionaire – although now, after a spate of charitable giving,she’s back to being a humble millionaire.

1. Abraham Lincoln

In his book, Emotional Equations, Chip Conley notes how Abraham Lincoln had a rough time too, almost drowning, losing his mother when aged nine, his fiancée and sister when he was 26 – not to mention getting malaria, syphilis, smallpox, and kicked in the head by a horse.

Lincoln failed in business aged 21. Two years later he ran for state legislature, lost his job and was rejected from law school. He bounced back and started a business on borrowed money, but was bankrupt within a year.

At 28, he was defeated as a speaker of the state legislature. He ran for the US House of Representatives and lost at age 33. He tried again at age 39, and lost. Not to worry – at age 45 he ran for the US Senate and lost again. He also lost when he ran for his party’s vice presidential nomination at age 47. And again at the US Senate at age 49. But at the age of 51, he became the president of the US.

So, how’s your job hunt going?

It may seem like these superhumans, these titans in their field, these “absolute legends” are nothing like the young people of today, who seem to be educated to the eyeballs but lack opportunities. But if we can learn anything from their stories, it’s not that success comes from sending as many CVs and cover letters as you can in a day. It’s identify what you love, then bang away at it like a relentless idiot until something brilliant happens.

A reader comment:

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