They Didn’t Surrender And It Paid Off: 15 Celebrities Who Almost Quit Before Breaking Big

“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” “Your last easy day was yesterday.” “Success happens because of past failures.” We could keep slinging cheesy motivational phrases at you, but everyone knows success boils down to either pursuing one’s goals or giving up on them. When considering this sink-or-swim reality, it’s also important to know that when things look their darkest, success could be just around the corner. Don’t believe us? Here are 15 celebrities who were ready to throw in the towel right before their big break.

Stephen King

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Stephen King spent the better part of the 1970s trying to publish a novel. After his first manuscript was rejected, King decided to put his experiences as a high school English teacher to good use. He began work on Carrie, the story of a high school pariah whose gift of telekinesis is used to strike terrible vengeance on her small town. Unfortunately, King felt out of his depth attempting to write teenage girls and scrapped the project entirely. His wife, Tabitha, found the pages in his trash can, read them, and saw great potential. She gave them back to her husband and encouraged him to keep writing the book. He did and Carrie emerged as his first published work, not to mention a best seller and the basis of four movies to date.

Micah Sloat

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After years of trying to make it as an actor, Micah Sloat was prepared to throw in the towel and go back to music school. One night he came upon an audition that just so happened to be right down his street. Despite his discouragement, Sloat forced himself to attend. The film that was casting just so happened to be Paranormal Activity, an indie horror film that took the box office by storm in 2009. The actor earned the part and reprised his role for the sequel, Paranormal Activity 2, in 2010.

Naya Rivera

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Glee star Naya Rivera nearly threw in the towel on her acting career, citing her racial mix (“Half Puerto Rican, a quarter German and a quarter black”) as a hurtle when auditioning. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” Rivera reported in 2012, “I would never fit in any markets. I almost quit acting altogether.” Fortunately, the actress stuck it out long enough to win the role of the insult slinging cheerleader Santana on the hit Fox show.

Gabby Douglas

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In 2012 Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas became the first African American to dominate the women’s gymnast individual events at the age of 16. Though the athlete captured the gold, she almost gave up her chance to compete. The Virginia native moved to Iowa to train and nearly left due to being homesick for her family and prior job at Chik-fil-A. Fortunately, her family and coach encouraged her to keep going. She details the full story in her memoir Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith.

Ewan McGregor

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An up-and-coming Scottish actor named Ewan McGregor was almost dissuaded from his profession in 1993. The reason? Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. McGregor was so incensed by the sheer perfection of Day-Lewis’ performance in the film that he burned his Actor’s Equity Card. The feeling wasn’t permanent, but the Trainspotting star has admitted that Day-Lewis’ performances often have that effect on him: “Whenever I watch him, I think, ‘What’s the point? There’s no point in carrying on. That’s it.’”

Jon Stewart

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Jon Stewart took over Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in 1999 from Craig Kilborn. After a period of frustration, he nearly left his post entirely thanks to the show’s staff, which he described as “a—holes.” When Stewart wanted to change the direction of the show he was met with stiff opposition from the writers and producers, who discouraged him from improvising and reiterated “This isn’t some MTV bulls—t.” Stewart apparently had to have his agent talk him off a “moderately high cliff” to keep from quitting. Eventually, after two-and-a-half years, Stewart had reshaped the writing staff into a group more supportive of his vision.

Gemma Arterton

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Actress Gemma Arterton almost quit her first big break of a role. Quantum of Solace had her cast as agent Strawberry Fields opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond, though she almost declined the role when an American film producer took umbrage with her “commoner” accent.  She later admitted “I was so annoyed I nearly walked out… I went through this whole thing of, ‘I’m common compared to all these Oxford graduates. I don’t know anything.'” After further hectoring from the producers of Prince of Persia and director Stephen Frears, the actress began taking voice lessons to master her mannerisms.

Bradley Cooper

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Academy Award nominated actor Bradley Cooper almost quit acting altogether thanks to a particularly difficult Broadway play. The actor gave himself an ultimatum that, if he could not succeed in the play Three Days of Rain opposite actors Paul Rudd and Julia Roberts he would pursue a new profession. The actor described the “do or die” moment as “the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, by far.” Fortunately, he proved himself in the role and would get his first big movie break in 2008 with The hang0ver.

Paul McCartney

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Paul McCartney nearly quit The Beatles when they were on cusp of success. The singer/songwriter suffered from debilitating stage fright that kept going as Beatlemania grew. Finally McCartney decided he needed to give his spot in the band up. Before a show in Wembley Town Hall, the guitarist figured rock stardom was too nerve wracking a career path to take. McCartney persevered, of course, and the longer his tenure grew in The Beatles the more his stage fright subsided. However, McCartney has admitted to having continuous difficulty performing certain songs for crowds, especially those he considers very personal.

Jane Lynch

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At the age of 38, actress and comedian Jane Lynch was ready to throw in the towel on her acting ambitions. Lynch said in a Huffington Post interview: “Don’t get me wrong. I had a pretty nice career going. I was making a good living doing a lot of voiceover work for radio… But I just wasn’t able to break through to the next level.” The actress had decided she was done and would instead opt to pursue a career teaching theater. Thankfully she confided this news to a friend who promptly talked her out of it. Soon after Lynch had gained her big break by taking a part in Christopher Guest’s comedy hit Best In Show.


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In 2012, rapper Eminem revealed he almost quit music altogether after being booed at his disastrous first show. Like the opening scene from 8 Mile, the MC described the event as “so f—ing traumatic.” However, just like in his semi-autobiographical film, Eminem found himself seized by an uncontrollable desire to get back up on the stage roughly a week later. He steadily worked to build a name for himself thereafter and was eventually signed by Dr. Dre.

Nicki Minaj

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Nicki Minaj had some moments of self-doubt when she first began pursuing her music career. The budding rap/pop star struck out on her own as a teenager and was forced to take a string of low-paying jobs to support herself. Minaj described working these jobs as “torture” and considered turning her back on them altogether. A mixture of pride and a lack of safety net made Minaj decide failure wasn’t an option. After years of juggling jobs with performing and promoting, she earned her first commercial breakthrough with the multi-platinum Pink Friday in 2010.

Lana Del Rey

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Lana Del Rey almost quit music altogether in 2009. After years of struggling to produce a breakout hit, the Born To Die singer considered finding a new profession. Del Rey told Elle: ”I definitely thought, ‘If it’s gonna be this hard I’m not gonna be a singer and have nothing’… In my mind I was always thinking about [quitting singing]. I stopped playing shows. I definitely didn’t want to be a singer any more.” Del Rey was later discovered on YouTube and signed by Stranger Records, who later released her hit single “Video Games.”

Megan Hilty

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After gaining a spot on the series Smash, star Megan Hilty almost cut and run before shooting began. Prior to the filming of her first big dance number, the actress flew into a blind panic. She told Emmy Magazine “’I called my manager and said, I’m not the right person for this– save me the humiliation.” The actress was apparently succumbing to previous struggles of auditioning, which had her met with reactions like “We need a star for this part.” Fortunately, Hilty soldiered on, overcoming her self-doubt to succeed in her role on the successful series.

Norah Jones

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After moving to New York to pursue her musical career, smoky voiced singer Norah Jones found the hardship of supporting herself almost too much to bare. The singer worked six months waiting tables and became hooked on inexpensive food like corn muffins, unaware they were filled with butter. At her lowest point, Jones felt “fat” and “gross” with a musical career seemingly way out of her reach. After calling her Texas home wanting permission to return, Jones mother encouraged her to try to make it in New York a full year. She did and her hit jazz record, Come Away With Me, soon followed.

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