Beating the Odds

How persistence — and a little luck — helped extraordinary creations survive rejection and go on to become world-class hits. 

By Christopher Kent

Everyone experiences rejection at one time or another. When it happens, it’s hard not to take it personally, especially if it happens over and over again. But rejection isn’t always a reflection of the quality of our work — or us. The proof of that is that some of the biggest hits that have shaped our culture — whether a book, a song, a toy, an idea or a work of art — were ignored or rejected over and over, sometimes for decades.

When something does become a huge hit, it’s usually easy for us to pick out what seem to be the reasons for its success. Then, it’s tempting to conclude that those things are the reason it became a hit. But being extraordinary isn’t enough to make something a hit; in fact, standing out from the crowd is often seen as a disadvantage at the outset.

That raises the question: If something that becomes a huge hit is so extraordinary, why is it that people often fail to see it at first?


Swimming Against the Tide

Here are just a few of the things that can cause a major hit to be initially ignored or rejected:

• It gets lost in the competition. For example, The New Yorker magazine is known for its cartoons. Given that there aren’t a huge number of outlets that publish standalone cartoons, the competition to earn a place in The New Yorker is fierce, and breaking through can take years.

Bob Mankoff was the cartoon editor for the New Yorker for two decades, but that only happened after his cartoons had appeared in the New Yorker for several years. How hard was it for him to get his first cartoon into The New Yorker? It took him three years and 2,000 submissions before one of his cartoons was accepted! Once in the magazine, his work was so consistently good that he was eventually offered the job of cartoon editor. As the editor he had to look through more than a thousand submissions every week to select the fifteen or so that appeared in the magazine. So the sheer volume of competition sometimes explains a long uphill battle to become a success.

• The public is distracted. For example, many people don’t know that the Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, was considered a flop for almost 30 years. Directed by the great Frank Capra, it was initially released in 1946. Although it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it received mixed reviews and failed to make back the cost of creating the movie in its initial release. There was simply too much competition for it to be noticed, and with World War II having ended the previous year, the public had a lot on its mind. So the movie faded from view.

What caused that to change? In 1974 the copyright on the film lapsed, putting it into the public domain. That allowed TV stations to broadcast it without having to pay any royalties. As a result, it was suddenly broadcast a lot at Christmas time, and as more and more people got to see it, its popularity soared. Today the American Film Institute lists it as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and it’s No. 1 on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time. (It was also Frank Capra’s favorite of all the films he directed.)

• No one promotes it. If you think anything rises to classic status simply because it’s awesome, you’re in for a rude awakening. A great example is the work of painter Vincent Van Gogh. Many people don’t realize it, but Van Gogh sold only a single painting during his lifetime — and that was to his brother Theo! In essence, his paintings had minimal value while he was alive.

The reason? No one was promoting them, including Van Gogh himself. (Few artists in any field spend their time trying to get ahead in the world; most just want to create their art.) But that changed after Van Gogh died; Theo’s wife promoted the heck out of Vincent’s body of work, guided by advice Theo offered her before his own death. Once the paintings were promoted and brought to people’s attention, their popularity and value soared. Today, of course, many of his paintings are priceless and Van Gogh is considered one of the greatest painters of all time.

• It’s promoted, but in the wrong way. For example, the movie Galaxy Quest — a very sophisticated science fiction comedy based on the premise that an alien civilization might pick up episodes of Star Trek and think it was real — has become a massive cult hit and fan favorite. (The legendary screenwriter David Mamet has said that there are four perfect films: The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth, and Galaxy Quest.) But the movie studio didn’t know what to make of it when they first saw it, so they promoted it as a kid’s movie, and it was a box-office flop. Over time, however, it found its audience and is now considered a classic. Likewise, the incredibly popular toy Silly Putty was initially marketed in a clear box under a different name as a kind of fidget object for adults. It wasn’t until it was sold in plastic eggs, renamed Silly Putty and marketed on kids’ TV shows that sales went through the roof.

• It flies in the face of popular (or industry) beliefs about what the public wants. When a field is already awash in new and existing items, the “gatekeepers” — industry people who decide which new things are worth putting time, money and effort into promoting — play a pivotal role in deciding what gets seen and heard by the public. If they have strong beliefs about what will or won’t be a “hit,” something wonderful may be rejected over and over again. Such beliefs arise for many reasons, most often because existing successful items stay within certain parameters. In a nutshell, the usual formula for a hit is this: The item in question combines a familiar idea with something new and different…but not TOO new and different.

From the perspective of the person who decides what to promote, an item that doesn’t follow the existing parameters is a very risky bet. Maybe book publishers think no one wants to read about that subject. Maybe a new product seems too unfamiliar and experimental. Maybe a song is longer than most. Such “rules” often seem perfectly reasonable … right up until someone breaks one of the “rules” and has a huge hit. In fact, the successes that become cultural touchstones often do so because they broke with tradition; they do something that’s truly new and different, and the public loves it. The gatekeepers simply don’t see that the item in question will resonate with people; they just see the risk of making an investment in something that violates their rules.

Another factor that figures into this situation is the process that gatekeepers use to sort through the enormous pile of submissions on their desk. When I taught songwriting in New York City I would often point out to my students that trying to decide which of a hundred songs is the best every week is an almost impossible job — and yet that’s what gatekeepers in the music business are expected to do.

So: How do gatekeepers make such an impossible decision? From a practical point of view, the person’s job isn’t really to find the most wonderful new thing; his or her job is to eliminate 99 percent of the submissions piled on their desk that seem inferioror too risky.Framing the job in that way gives the gatekeeper a practical solution to the dilemma: Instead of individually judging every new entry clamoring to be noticed, they can come up with a list of rules that make something a safe bet, and then simply eliminate everything that breaks any of those rules. Some of those rules are likely to be very practical, such as a book publisher eliminating stories that feature cliched characters. But other “rules,” such as eliminating books that tell a story in a nonstandard way, are inevitably going to eliminate some wonderful books.

Using a process like this allows the gatekeepers to eliminate the ”risky bets” and keep their jobs. But the things that go on to be huge hits often do so because they break one or more “rules. “So, they may be rejected, over and over again.


Overcoming the Obstacles: A Few Case Histories

Here are six true stories of great successes that almost didn’t happen.

1. The Beatles

What the gatekeepers said: “You guys are nothing special, and the name of your band is stupid. Besides, groups featuring guitars are on the way out.”

How the authors prevailed: Several twists of fate, plus gaming the system!

In the early 1960s, before the Beatles rose to fame, they first played in small clubs in their home town, Liverpool. For a while, they were managed by a Liverpudlian named Allan Williams, and Williams managed to get them a gig playing in Hamburg, Germany. There, they were joined by a drummer named Pete Best. It was in Hamburg that they learned to put on a terrific stage show, playing ferociously and coherently. They also got to hear another band that was sharing the bill, featuring a drummer who went by the name of Ringo Starr.

Later, after lining up some gigs without Williams’ help, which cut him out of his share of the profits, Williams finally dropped the Beatles in disgust. But now, playing in Liverpool again, their newfound professionalism and energy caused their following to mushroom. Meanwhile, a young Liverpool man name Brian Epstein was working in his family’s chain of furniture and record shops. When a customer asked for an unfamiliar recording on which the Beatles sang backup, he ended up learning about the band. It turned out they were playing in a club that was down the street from his store, so he went to hear them. He became fascinated by the band and eventually offered to manage them. Having no other options, they said yes.

 Brian Epstein thought it would be easy to get the Beatles a record deal. However, their strongest point — the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney — was not yet in evidence, and popular bands didn’t write their own material at that point, so no one even asked about their original material. One of Epstein’s friends, however, got them a London audition at Decca, one of the major record labels in Britain. (The fact that Epstein’s chain of record stores bought tons of records made it hard for them to say no.)

The band’s audition didn’t go well, but the Decca executive who heard them was impressed. Unfortunately, he had also been impressed by another band that was based in London, not Liverpool. The company told him that he could only sign one of the bands. The other band’s audition had gone better, and he reasoned that it would be easier to work with a London-based group, so he turned down the Beatles. The official reason given was that they “sounded too much like other bands,” and that guitar-based bands were “on the way out.” In fact, the popular groups at that moment were solo singers backed by bands. Furthermore, no hit band had ever emerged from Liverpool.

Epstein tried to get Decca to reverse their decision. He even made an offer that no record company could refuse: He said he would personally buy 3,000 copies of the record to jumpstart the sales. That would have gotten them signed, but the person who needed to know about that offer didn’t find out until the band had officially been rejected.

After that, Epstein approached label after label without success. Finally, he took a train to London again, planning to set up an audition with the only remaining label he knew of, Embassy. He’d hoped to avoid that, because Embassy records were only stocked by Woolworths, so being signed by them would be an embarrassment.

But in the meantime, someone had suggested to Epstein that his presentations were hurt by the fact that he was presenting the Beatles’ work on tape, instead of on an acetate disc, which was considered more professional. So, he decided to get a proper acetate disc of their work made. To accomplish this, he went to a store on Oxford Street in London that would convert his tape to a disc for a small fee.

At this point, fate finally intervened. The engineer doing the transfer onto disc liked what he heard, and insisted on playing it for his boss, a publisher who worked in the same building. His boss immediately asked to publish the songs that were originals, and when he found out that the Beatles weren’t signed to a label, he set up a meeting with a subsidiary of the major record label EMI.

The subsidiary label was called Parlophone, and its A&R man was a young fellow named George Martin. Parlophone was known only for a few novelty recordings at that point, but it was nonetheless considered a legitimate record label. When the band finally came in to audition, it turned out that George Martin and the boys liked each other, and Martin was impressed by their energy, harmonies and guitar playing. The only thing he wasn’t impressed by was Pete Best’s drumming, eventually leading to his replacement by Ringo Starr, whose solid playing had impressed John, Paul and George in Hamburg. Finally, the Beatles’ first record, featuring the song Love Me Do, was released.

Unfortunately, as Brian Epstein realized, getting a contract and having a record released still wouldn’t be enough to get the band onto the charts. So, to “prime the pump,” he personally bought 10,000 copies of the single, which was enough to ensure it would get into the Top 40 and receive airplay.

It did. And though the record didn’t do that well, it got the Beatles into the game, and their follow-up single, Please Please Me went to number one.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the most popular band of the 20th Century might never have been heard if the right person hadn’t made that tape transfer, and Brian Epstein hadn’t owned a record shop that could order 10,000 copies of their first single.


2. Spiderman.

What the gatekeepers said: “Teenage heroes can only be sidekicks! And no one wants to read about a hero who has problems like ordinary people. Plus, everyone hates spiders!”

How Stan Lee prevailed: A lucky twist of fate.

When Stan Lee (real name, Stanley Lieber) thought up the idea of the character Spider-Man in 1962, he’d already established himself as a writer at Marvel comics. He adopted a pen name — something he later regretted — because people thought comics were kid stuff, and writing them wasn’t a job an adult should admit to having.

After the success of Superman and Batman at competitor DC Comics, Stan was invited to create some superheroes for Marvel. He tried twisting the format by creating a family of heroes instead of a loner character (the Fantastic Four), and then by creating a character who would traditionally have been a villain and making him a hero (the Hulk).

A key factor for a new hero was having a unique power. When Lee saw a fly on the wall, he thought the ability to scale walls would be fun and different. After trying many names, he decided “Spider-Man” sounded dramatic. (He used a hyphen to avoid people accidentally reading the name as Superman.)

To make Spider-Man different, he decided the character would be a teenager, not especially strong, motivated by regret (over not stopping the crook who later killed his uncle) rather than revenge or a desire to save the world. This hero would also have all of the problems many regular people have — paying the rent, etc.

His boss vetoed the idea, on multiple grounds: Teenagers could only be sidekicks; the name was unpleasant; and no one wanted their heroes to have ordinary problems. Lee, of course, was shooting for the premise of making the hero a lot like the readers, so they could identify with him. But that violated the existing stereotypes of a superhero.

Lee’s character got published anyway, thanks to a bit of good fortune: One of the comics the company had tried — an attempt to do a “Twilight Zone-esque” monthly — was bombing and so was cancelled. Once a monthly comic was cancelled, no one cared what went in the final issue. So Lee, working with illustrators Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, used that issue to premiere Spider-Man.

A few months later, the sales figures came in, and the character was clearly a hit. So the publisher green-lighted a new series based on him.

Now, 60 years later, Spiderman, the first teenage hero who wasn’t a sidekick, is one of the great success stories of the comics industry. He’s known around the world and consistently ranked as one of the top five superheroes ever created. Not only has he been featured in an endless series of monthly comics bearing his name, selling millions of copies, he’s been featured on countless pieces of merchandise and appeared in more than a dozen TV shows. And, he’s been portrayed in 11 movies that have collectively grossed more than 30 billion dollars.


3. The Barbie doll.

What the gatekeepers said: “No parent will buy their daughter a doll with breasts!”

How Barbie prevailed: The woman behind Barbie figured out how to sell to the girls directly, bypassing parents’ objections.

After World War II ended, the economic boom that followed made the Great Depression a thing of the past. One major result was the so-called Baby Boom; countless optimistic American parents decided to have children because the future ahead looked rosy. Now that the world seemed safe and money was plentiful — for many, at least — parents wanted to give their children the luxuries their families hadn’t been able to afford when they were kids. As a result, sales of toys exploded, and many classic toys that are still popular today were developed (including Silly Putty, Slinky, Hot Wheels and many others).

In Los Angeles, a young woman named Ruth Handler partnered with her husband Elliot and their friend Harold Matson to form a company that initially manufactured furniture. They came up with the name Mattel by combining the first syllable of Matson with the first syllable of Elliot. Matson, however, soon left the company. Meanwhile, in contrast to the stereotypes of the day, Ruth Handler handled most of the business involved in running the company.

Their furniture sales were not doing that well, so Elliot decided to take the wood pieces left over from manufacturing picture frames and use them to build dollhouses to sell. The dollhouses soon outsold the furniture, causing Ruth to realize that children had now become a real market for new products.

Their first attempt to market to kids was a pretend ukulele, followed by a set of toy guns that she advertised on a new TV program aimed at children, called The Mickey Mouse Club. Both toys sold well for a short period but then lost popularity. Ruth realized that the company’s viability depended on finding a product that would remain popular indefinitely.

In the winter of 1956, during a trip to Switzerland, Ruth and her young daughter happened to see a unique doll in a store window. While most dolls intended for young girls were baby dolls, this was a small doll of an adult woman in a sexy outfit. The doll was being sold as a bachelor party gag gift. But Ruth noticed that her daughter was fascinated by the doll, and it dawned on her that it could be refashioned into a hit toy.

After returning home, she began developing a less-risqué version of the doll, and commissioned manufacturers to design and produce elaborate clothing for it. However, everyone she worked with thought she was crazy; everyone “knew” that no mother would buy her daughter a doll with breasts. Nevertheless, she invested all of the company’s money in the project; she even paid to have focus groups play with the doll to see their reactions. The mothers said what everyone expected: “I wouldn’t buy this for my daughter.” And when Ruth presented the doll at the New York Toy Fair — where the industry buyers made their choices for the coming year — she heard the same reaction. “No one will buy this.” But it didn’t escape Ruth’s notice that the little girls in the focus groups were thrilled to play with the dolls.

Given how much they’d invested, and certain that she had a big hit on her hands, she came up with a last-ditch idea: Advertise the doll directly to the children, just as they had done with the ukulele and toy guns. She ran TV ads showing several of the dolls in gorgeous grown-up dresses and stated the obvious: You can pretend to be me.

While mothers might not have wanted to buy a doll with breasts for their daughters, the daughters made it clear: We want a Barbie! Three hundred thousand Barbies were sold the first year — more than any other toy in history.

After that, she kept the sales coming by designing alternate dolls with different clothes and accessories, and she added the Ken doll in 1961. She also followed a traditional repeat sales premise: Don’t charge much for the dolls, but charge plenty for the clothing and accessories! She had successfully gotten the most legendary toy franchise in history up and running. Today, Barbie sales routinely bring in more than a billion dollars in gross sales every year.

(A related story: Mattel’s chief competitor, Hasbro, wanted to get in on the action. Their creative team decided to tap into a different market by creating a soldier doll that boys would want to play with. Their obstacle? Boys won’t play with dolls. Their solution? Don’t call it a doll — call it an “action figure.” GI Joe became a huge hit as well.)


4. Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah

What the gatekeepers said: “No one will buy a record that sounds this different from the current mainstream hits!”

How Leonard Cohen prevailed: Patience!

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was generally not a generator of mainstream hits; his lyrics were very thoughtful (like Bob Dylan, who admired Cohen and sang at least one of his songs). Cohen sang quietly, with a low-pitched voice that sometimes veered into just being a gruff whisper. Yet one song he wrote has become a standard, performed by more than 300 artists in multiple languages, estimated to have sold more than five million copies in different physical formats. Today, numerous polls of artists and critics list it as one of the greatest songs ever written. It’s been sung at major events around the world, including at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, which was seen by an audience of three billion viewers. The song has been the subject of a book and a documentary and has appeared in multiple movie soundtracks.

But it was the opposite of successful when first recorded.

As a songwriter, Cohen would spend weeks or years working on songs, but the one that bedeviled him the most was his song Hallelujah. Over the course of at least five years, he wrote somewhere between 80 and 180 verses for the song, filling multiple notebooks. By the mid-1980s, he finally decided that it was finished. He had signed with Columbia records in the 70s, and after a not-so-great album produced by Phil Spector (famous for his “wall of sound” productions), he returned to his previous producer, John Lissauer, to cut a new album that would include his song Hallelujah.

Columbia Records had recently been taken over by a new CEO, Walter Yetnikoff, after Clive Davis’s departure. Yetnikoff asked them to create an album that would “put Leonard Cohen on the map.” Producer John Lissauer saw commercial potential in the song Hallelujah, in particular, and thought Columbia would love the record they created. Instead, Yetnikoff hated it, going so far as to refuse to release it. (Clive Davis later commented that this was quite unusual, considering that the album had already been paid for.)

Cohen said that Columbia told him, “We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” John Lissauer, the producer, took the blame, more or less putting an end to his career in the music business. (Years later, he became a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame for producing this record!) Eventually, they managed to get the record released on a small American private record label, but it was largely ignored by the public.

In the following years, Cohen toured with his backup band and sang the song. During this time, his friend, Rolling Stone journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, noticed that Cohen had changed the lyrics. Cohen explained that he thought his original choice of verses — and he had plenty to choose from(!) — was too religious-sounding. (Although many listeners don’t realize it, several of the stories in the lyrics are actually taken from the Bible and the Talmud.) So he deiced to include more secular (and sexier) verses he’d written.

When someone decided to produce a Leonard Cohen tribute album (he definitely had a following), one of the artists invited to participate was singer-songwriter John Cale, perhaps best known as the founder of the band The Velvet Underground. Cale decided to record Hallelujah, but Larry Sloman (the journalist) pointed out to him that Cohen was singing new verses. So John asked Cohen to send him some verse options; he then picked out “the cheeky verses,” combining religious and secular verses into a new version that straddled both worlds.

This version was heard by more people, including a young singer-songwriter named Jeff Buckley, son of the well-known folk artist Tim Buckley. Jeff Buckley decided to record his own version, and — as many have observed — his higher and more emotional voice gave it a much more listener-friendly quality that appealed to a wider audience.

This more appealing rendition was heard by one of the creators of a new animated film called Shrek; she thought it would be perfect for a scene in the movie in which the title character realizes he’s made a mess of his life. So, she edited out the sexy verses and it became part of the film and soundtrack album. (Ironically, a different recording of the song, this one by Rufus Wainwright, was featured on the movie’s soundtrack album.) The movie became a huge hit, grossing almost half a billion dollars at the box office, and the soundtrack album sold 2.5 million copies.

After this exposure, more and more artists recorded the song, and its popularity soared. In addition, contestants on talent competition shows on TV frequently chose Hallelujah as their song. When the winner of the X Factor program in the U.K. recorded the song, it went to #1 on the charts, with Jeff Buckley’s version simultaneously sitting at #2 and Leonard Cohen’s original recording at #36, an extraordinary feat that’s never been duplicated. (Sadly, by the time Buckley’s version became a hit, he’d been dead for 10 years.)

So: What made this song have such an extraordinary impact? First of all, it’s a beautifully constructed song with a soaring melody and a dramatic pause before each chorus that adds to its emotional power. It features a unique rhyming pattern that I don’t recall hearing anywhere else, using phrases ending with words that rhyme with “Hallelujah.” But the thing that probably made it resonate so well with people is its unique lyrics. The most popular version, with the set of verses assembled by John Cale, combines the pain and pleasure of daily life with a sense that life is spiritual and holy, captured by the word Hallelujah. The slow tempo adds to the sense that this song is saying something powerful. It’s down-to-earth, clever, sexy and yet spiritual. That’s a unique and emotionally potent combination.

As often happens, Leonard Cohen’s creation was initially rejected because it was so different from what was popular at the time. And that’s exactly what eventually made it stand out and have a worldwide impact.


5. The Chicken Soup for the Soul book series.

What the gatekeepers said: “People don’t buy collections of short stories. And the title is stupid!”

How the authors prevailed: Perseverance!

Although not everyone is familiar with the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, each of which combines very short, uplifting true stories, the series holds a special place in book publishing history: It’s the best-selling trade paperback series ever published. The first book in the series became one of the most successful books ever published, selling 11 million copies worldwide. Today there are more than 275 books in the series, which all-told have sold more than 500 million copies. But at the outset, the idea was rejected by publishers, over and over again.

Thirty years ago, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen were motivational speakers. During their appearances, they often told inspiring stories from their own lives, or the lives of others. After a presentation, members of the audience would often ask whether the stories had been published in a book so they could reference them and repeat them to their employees or friends. Eventually it became obvious that they should create such a book, and it was clear that there would be an audience for it. So they compiled more than 100 of their best stories, and called the collection Chicken Soup for the Soul, because the stories were meant to provide comfort, just like the chicken soup they remembered being served when they were growing up.

They decided to shop the book to publishers in New York City, and got themselves an agent. To their dismay, every major publisher turned them down. The publishers all noted that collections of short stories didn’t sell, and not one of them liked the title. After 14 months their agent returned the book to them and said he couldn’t sell it.

Their next idea was to attend the National Booksellers Convention in Anaheim, California, attended by 4,000 publishers. For two days they went from booth to booth showing the manuscript, but they continued to get rejected. Finally, on the third day at the convention, a small Florida-based publisher agreed to read a sample and then agreed to publish it, but said he only expected it to sell 20,000 copies at most. When they told him their goal was to sell a million and a half copies in the first year, he laughed out loud!

Needless to say, the idea that this premise for a book was far-fetched soon turned out to be wrong. After the huge success of the first book, readers requested more, so Canfield and Hansen compiled a sequel, followed by another and another. Today it’s the best-selling trade paperback book series in history. As Jack Canfield himself has noted, “Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by 144 publishers. If we had given up after 100 publishers, I likely would not be where I am now.”


6. Dr. Suess’s children’s books

What the gatekeepers said: “This hasn’t been done before, so it might not sell.”

How the author prevailed: A remarkable stroke of luck.

Although Dr. Seuss (real name: Theodore Seuss Geisel) has recently fallen from grace because a few of his children’s books contain Asian stereotypes (which is ironic, as his family, of German descent, experienced anti-German prejudice after World War I), the fact remains that he is one of the most renowned and successful creators of children’s books in history. He wrote at least 60 books, 48 under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss. His books have sold more than 600 million copies, been translated into 20 languages and spawned countless adaptations, including television specials, feature films, a Broadway musical and four television series.

Four of those books — The Cat in the Hat (written when a publisher asked for a children’s book that wouldn’t be as boring as the Dick and Jane children’s books), Green Eggs and Ham (written when Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House Publishing, bet Geisel $50 that he couldn’t create a book using only 50 words), Hop on Pop, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish — are among the bestselling hardcover children’s books ever published. In 1984 Geisel won the Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to children’s literature.

Yet his career as a children’s author almost didn’t happen because of widespread rejection of his first effort: And To Think That It Happened on Mulberry Street.

Prior to creating any of his children’s books, Geisel had already had plenty of success as an artist and illustrator. (Little known fact: He published anti-Japanese cartoons during World War II.) He’d created a number of successful advertising campaigns for multiple companies, which had made him enough money that he and his wife were able to travel around the world. On a long, stormy boat trip across the Atlantic in 1937, when the passengers couldn’t go on deck because of the weather, the repetitive thumping of the boat’s engine got Geisel creating rhymes in sync with the engine’s rhythm to pass the time. The result was his first children’s book.

It turned out that the mix of inventive drawings and amusing rhymes we now associate with Dr. Seuss had never been tried before, so publishers saw backing the book as a very risky investment. According to different accounts from the author, the book was rejected by between 20 and 43 New York City publishers. After the last rejection, Geisel gave up hope and decided to take the manuscript home to burn it in his apartment building’s incinerator.

At that point, fate intervened. On that fateful walk down Madison Avenue, heading home to burn the manuscript, he ran into an old friend from his alma mater, Dartmouth College, who had just become an editor in the children’s division of Vanguard Press. After hearing Geisel’s story, his friend asked to see the manuscript and was blown away. He immediately showed it to his boss, who offered Geisel a contract the same day.

Geisel later noted, “If I had been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.”


A Final Thought

Obviously, not every new creation is going to be a huge success, and the odds of achieving success are stacked against even the most brilliant creations. But as you can see, persistence (and sometimes luck) can play a big part in beating the odds. As inventor Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

It’s worth asking one final question: What causes some creative people to keep going even when they’re faced with huge obstacles and rejection? The answer is simple: They love what they’re doing. That keeps them in the game even when they’re swimming against the tide, because they’re still enjoying the journey. And then, if fate does provide them with a lucky break, they’re right there, ready to take advantage of it.

Copyright 2023 by  Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.