10 Incredibly Successful Men Who Were Total Failures in Their 20s

History is littered with late bloomers who achieved little in their early years

It is a peculiar curse of the modern age that we expect everything good to happen to us in our 20s.

Celebrity culture and consumer capitalism have conspired to make us think if we're not rock stars or movie gods or millionaires when we're young, we've failed at the game of life.

Here are just 11 men and women who realized their talents and fulfilled their promise in their 30s, 40s and older. Because the truth is, success doesn't only often occur later in life, it should occur later in life—as Justin Bieber and the rest will one day agree.

Jon Hamm

When watching Mad Men, it's worth remembering the coolest man on TV was waiting tables until he was 29. Jon Hamm looked destined to join the bottomless pit of failed actors in Hollywood until a break on Providence led to the role of Don Draper some years later (by which time he was 36). Now he's ending a celebrated run as TV's biggest anti-hero, and will no doubt have his pick of movie scripts for ever more.


Ricky Gervais

Discounting a brief stint as a pop star in his 20s, the comedian didn't write and star in The Office until he was almost 40. We won't list his achievements since then – Gervais does that often enough himself—but suffice to say Britain's most successful comedian has never regretted coming to fame and fortune later in life.

Vincent van Gogh

The Dutchman wasn't an unknown painter in his early life – he wasn't a painter at all. The famously troubled post-Impressionist didn't pick up a brush until he was 28, at which time he wrote to his brother to say 'my real career begins now'. He went on to produce over 2000 artworks, many of the most celebrated of which were completed in the final years of his life.

Sylvester Stallone

Sly's career in his twenties was such a disaster, he was doing soft-core porn to pay the rent – that's when he wasn't homeless altogether. Then he turned 30, locked himself in a darkened house and wrote a script about a boxer you've probably heard of a few times since.


Alan Rickman

Ever wondered why you can't picture a young Alan Rickman? That's because a young Alan Rickman was an unknown theatre actor. He was 42 when he landed the role of German terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Film work followed, but he didn't really hit the big time until he was 55 after being cast in some film about a boy wizard.

Leonard Cohen

The Canadian didn't make the transition from small fry poet to internationally lauded singer-songwriter until he was 30, disproving the theory that you're teenager rock band is your one and only shot as musical stardom. Cohen's Songs Of Leonard Cohen became a cult classic and the rest is history.

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Colonel Sanders

Harland Sanders, the man behind KFC was struggling to run a service station in his 40s when he took a punt of serving food. The rest of the story is the American Dream incarnate: his fried chicken proved so popular that, after some bumps in the road, he started his franchise in his sixties and sold it for a fortune in his mid-70s.

Don Dellilo

On the surface of it, the famed American author was a success in his 20s and early 30s, earning big money at a top advertising firm. The problem was he wanted to be doing something else. So he quit, moved in to a $60-a-month apartment and starting writing, not publishing his first novel until he was 35.

James Dyson

The British inventor couldn't get anyone interested in his vacuum cleaner until he was 39, when someone finally picked up the patent. Until then he was relying heavily on his wife. Today, of course, he runs his own manufacturing company.


Stan Lee

The creator of some of the biggest characters in comic book history, including Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, didn't hit his stride until he was 43. Now, every other blockbuster movie released has his fingerprints on it and he's adored by readers around the world.

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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