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Is it Failure, or Lack of Success?

There is a universal appeal to underdog stories, and I like them so much I’ve practically made a second career out of collecting them! Late bloomers are another particular interest and fall into the same category. When I’m feeling low, or needing inspiration – like at the beginning of a new year – I can always haul out my impressive list and take solace!

Harry Truman failed as a haberdasher, a farmer, and – in his mother-in-law’s opinion – as a husband, before finding traction as a low-level political functionary in Kansas City. It is hard to reconcile his role in the notoriously corrupt Pendergast Machine given what we now know about Truman’s deep integrity, but it did get him to Washington, where he was ready when fate intervened. Like Teddy Roosevelt before him, he was catapulted onto the national stage after being relegated to what John Adams famously complained was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”: the vice-presidency.

Truman made his mark in the Senate in a relatively brief time, ferreting out inflated wartime supply contracts. But I have my doubts that he was tapped for VP to get rid of him (as Theodore Roosevelt was). FDR surely knew that he would most likely not survive his unprecedented fourth term and hand-picked Truman over many other candidates. (In fact he was pretty hard on vice-presidents. He had three of them!) He has been criticized for keeping his new Vice President totally in the dark regarding the business of the nation (especially the development of the atomic bomb) but the nation was nevertheless extremely fortunate that the humble “failure” from Missouri was our Commander in Chief during those critical post-war years.

US Grant was another President who fits my criteria. (He is also on my list of Presidents who made very good generals and pretty rotten Chief Executives, but that’s a different list). Grant wasn’t even much of a success in the army, and had resigned his commission after serving in the Mexican-American War to become a hard-scrabble farmer and lackluster store clerk. He wasn’t too popular with his in-laws either. In fact his entire adult life, from West Point to the late eighteen-fifties, was remarkable only for his mutually respectful and loving marriage and family life. Though raised in a privileged and doting Southern family, Julia never gave up on her “Sam” and supported him every step of the way. As we all know, his “reward” for saving the Union was the Presidency where his judgement of human character failed him, and he limped through two of the most corrupt administrations in the 19th century. In the end he saved his reputation and his family’s financial future by penning – literally on his deathbed – what may be our best presidential autobiography. Can you spell “character”?

Thomas Edison is another of my top “failures” and author of one of my favorite quotes: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Unfortunately, this quote has turned into something of an urban legend. He undoubtedly said something akin to this in reference to his epic search to find a viable filament for the lightbulb, but the amount has turned into a slippery set of digits and seems to grow with each telling. The number was probably more like 600, but you get the point. Another of his quotes that I identify with is “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Interesting that so many of his quotes (and you can find massive lists of them online) are concerned with failure and/or the dangers of giving up.

Hollywood in particular (and show business in general) is rife with stories of starving actors toiling in the netherworld of spear-carriers and chorus lines before being “discovered”. Less frequent are the happy events of just being in the right place at the right time. Shirley MacLaine (like Ruby Keeler decades before her) was tapped from the chorus to take over the lead in a Broadway show when the star was sidelined by an accident. Both became overnight sensations, and in Shirley MacLaine’s case, immediately signed to a Hollywood contract, subsequently earning stardom and an Oscar. Oh yes, she also writes books – dozens of them.

So that’s my list of failures who made a pretty good account of themselves in the end. Maybe there’s hope for me yet!

I’ve saved my favorite quote for last. Here’s hoping it gives you the same strength to face the new year that it has provided for me in the past:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

– Albert Einstein

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Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.


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